Digital Version of January/February 2015 Print Edition
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LAX TSA agents arrested for alleged drug smuggling
Two former and two current TSA screeners working at Los Angeles International Airport were arrested on drug smuggling and bribery charges on April 24, in what investigators called a “significant breakdown of the airport screening system.”
The agents, authorities allege, took cash payments from drug couriers to allow shipments of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana to pass through security checkpoint X-ray machines at the airport.
A 22-count grand jury indictment unsealed on April 25 alleges five specific incidents in which current and former TSA employees took as much as $2,400 to allow suitcases filled with drugs to pass through X-ray machines while TSA screeners looked the other way.
In addition to the current and former TSA officials, law enforcement officers took one drug courier into custody, said Drug Enforcement Administration on April 25, It said authorities expected another courier named in the indictment to surrender on April 26, while a third is on the run.
“This case underscores the unique nature of 21st century drug smuggling,” according to Briane Grey, acting special agent in charge of the DEA in Los Angeles said in an April 25 statement. “Here, the defendants traded on their positions at one the world’s most crucial airport security checkpoints, used their special access for criminal ends, and compromised the safety and security of their fellow citizens for their own profit.”
“Airport screeners act as a vital checkpoint for homeland security, and air travelers should believe in the fundamental integrity of security systems at our nation’s airports,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. “The allegations in this case describe a significant breakdown of the screening system through the conduct of individuals who placed greed above the nation’s security needs.”
“TSA has assured the investigating agencies we will do everything we can to assist in their investigation,” said Randy Parsons, TSA federal security director at LAX in the DEA statement. “While these arrests are a disappointment, TSA is committed to holding our employees to the highest standards.”
Naral Richardson, 30, of Los Angeles, arrested on April 25, was fired by by TSA in 2010, is accused of orchestrating five incidents in which TSA screeners agreed to waive narcotics through security checkpoints.
TSA screener John Whitfield, 23, of Los Angeles, also arrested on April 25, allegedly worked with Richardson to allow nearly four kilograms of methamphetamine to pass through LAX security. He is also accused of personally allowing more than 20 kilograms of cocaine to pass through security at the airport.
Joy White, 27, of Compton, terminated by TSA last year, according to the DEA, allegedly was stationed at LAX screening checkpoints when she allowed drugs to pass through, including a shipment of more than 20 kilograms of cocaine. She was arrested on April 25, according to the DEA.
TSA screener Capeline McKinney, 25, of Los Angeles, arrested on April 25, allegedly allowed more than 20 kilograms of cocaine to pass through her security checkpoint.
Duane Eleby, 28, of Downey, CA who was expected to surrender to authorities on April 26, allegedly tried to bring almost five kilograms of cocaine through a security checkpoint, but the drugs were seized by law enforcement when he went through the wrong security checkpoint, said DEA.
The DEA said law enforcement is currently looking for alleged drug courier Terry Cunningham, 28, of Los Angeles.
Stephen Bayliss, 28, of Los Angeles, an alleged drug courier, is currently in state custody, said the DEA.
If they are convicted of the charges in the indictment, the current and former TSA officials each face stiff mandatory minimum penalties, and each would face a potential sentence of life imprisonment, according to the DEA.
The trafficking incidents allegedly occurred between early February 2011 and continued into early July 2011, according to the indictment. In one incident, it said Richardson and White allegedly agreed Eleby would bring about five kilograms of cocaine through a security checkpoint staffed by White. Eleby failed to follow White’s instructions and went to the wrong security checkpoint, however, and TSA officials uninvolved in the scheme seized Eleby’s cocaine-filled bag, according to the indictment.
In a final incident described in the indictment, Richardson and Whitfield allegedly conspired with a DEA’s informant to allow about eight pounds of methamphetamine to pass through a security checkpoint staffed by Whitfield. After the methamphetamine went through security, Whitfield met the informant in an LAX restroom to receive $600 in cash, which was the second half of the agreed-upon $1,200 fee for that pass through.
According to the DEA, Richardson is charged in five narcotics conspiracies, five substantive counts of possession with the intent to distribute narcotics, and two counts of offering bribes to public officials. If convicted, Richardson faces mandatory minimum sentences of at least 10 years, and potentially faces life without parole in federal prison, according to the DEA. Each bribery count also carries a statutory maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, it said.
Whitfield is charged in a conspiracy involving about four kilograms of methamphetamine, as well as substantive drug possession charges involving marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. Whitfield is also named as the recipient of six bribes. If convicted, the DEA said he faces a mandatory minimum prison term of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison, said the administration.