TSA: Little Danger on Plane With Guns

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 8, 2007; 1:54 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Passengers on a commercial flight from Florida to Puerto Rico were in little danger despite more than a dozen guns being on board, because at least two federal air marshals were also on the plane, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman said Thursday.

TSA spokesman Christopher White declined to address the security breach or whether the marshals knew that guns were there.

"I cannot comment on the operational details of this ongoing, long-term federal law enforcement investigation," White said.

Two baggage handlers used their employee uniforms and airport identification cards to enter restricted areas, bypass screeners with a bag containing the guns and drugs and board the commercial Delta Air Lines flight Monday, according to court documents.

An anonymous tip led to the investigation, said Carlos Baixauli of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Thomas Anthony Munoz, 22, was arrested in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when he got off the plane. Inside a duffel bag he was carrying, authorities found 13 handguns, an assault rifle and eight bags of marijuana, Baixauli said.

Zabdiel J. Santiago Balaguer, 22, who had been questioned by security screeners on Monday but released after no guns or drugs were found, was arrested late Tuesday. Both were charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and possessing firearms during a drug trafficking offense, court documents said.

The court documents say Balaguer was a middle man who had delivered guns and drugs to Puerto Rico and offered to pay Munoz as much as $5,000 to make that delivery, court documents assert.

A contact in Puerto Rico had wired more than $1,800 to Balaguer last week, which was used to buy the guns and drugs, according to a federal agent's affidavit.

Balaguer remained in custody Thursday in Orange County. Public defender Stephen Langs said he planned to plead not guilty.

"We'll see what the government thinks it has," said Langs, who declined to further discuss the case.

It wasn't clear when Munoz would be moved to Florida or if the connection in Puerto Rico was in custody. It also wasn't immediately clear if Munoz had an attorney.

Munoz and Balaguer worked for Comair, an Erlanger, Ky.-based subsidiary of Delta. Both passed federal background checks before employment, Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said.

Screening at airports nationwide, including in Orlando, follow the process outlined by the Transportation Security Administration, said Carolyn Fennell, an Orlando airport spokeswoman. She wouldn't say if the TSA would increase security after the Orlando breach.

© 2007 The Associated Press