While airline passengers are busy stuffing slightly oversized carry-ons into slightly undersized overhead compartments, their checked bags are bouncing down rollers from the terminals to large platforms. It’s where the suitcases are sorted for flights across the country. It’s also a sweet spot — where baggage handlers at Los Angeles International Airport, it turns out, rifle through the luggage and pocket the good stuff, according to prosecutors.
And it’s where as many as 25 may have helped pull off one of the largest property heists in airport history, according to authorities, who have arrested six people and detained others.
For months, these baggage handlers allegedly ransacked suitcases searching for valuables to steal — a $15,000 camera and some assorted electronics here, some Gucci bags and expensive jewelry there. Police said Thursday they stole thousands of dollars in valuables and resold them, sometimes on sites like Craigslist.
The key? They targeted baggage bound for long-distance or multiple-transfer destinations, police said. That way, passengers wouldn’t see their stuff for many hours and maybe through multiple airports.
Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Raymond Maltez told The Associated Press that there’s a culture of acceptance of theft among baggage handlers:
“They all knew about each other, although they weren’t working in concert.”
A joint task of the Los Angeles Airport Police and the LAPD served more than two dozen search warrants, detained 14 and arrested six Wednesday night after a months-long investigation.
The handlers were all current or former employees of companies contracted by the airlines, mainly to manage baggage handling, according to an official statement. Officials said 15 companies provide that service on a contract basis for LAX airlines. And Maltez said the suspects worked for three of them, including Menzies Aviation.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice do criminal background checks and security assessments on all badged employees. Those background checks are supposed to disqualify anyone with felony or serious misdemeanor convictions, LAX officials told The Los Angeles Times.
So what gives? Maltez said all the employees had minimal or no arrest records.
LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon said:
“It’s a disappointment, but a fact of life, that sometimes a few people will succumb to the temptations at LAX.”
And the temptation is large. Every year nearly 55 million pieces of luggage roll through LAX, which served almost 67 million passengers last year. Police said most of the thefts occurred at the Tom Bradley International Terminal and at Terminal 4, which handles American Airlines, American Eagle and Qantas.
Detectives were still working to determine how much had been recovered. Maltez said:
“It’s still not over. There’s a good possibility there will be more search warrants and more arrests to follow.”