Long delay in identifying the flight attendant who fled LAX raises security concerns

After a flight attendant allegedly tried to smuggle 70 pounds of cocaine through Los Angeles International Airport, authorities were unable to identify her until the next day even though her airline crew member’s badge had been scanned at a security checkpoint moments before she fled, federal officials said.

The information from Marsha Gay Reynolds’ scanned badge was accessible only through a national Transportation Security Administration passenger database and could not be retrieved by investigators in Los Angeles after she ran Friday, authorities said.

It took until Saturday for authorities in Washington, D.C., to identify Reynolds from the database, according to a source with knowledge of the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to discuss the case with the media. An FBI spokeswoman said investigators learned Reynolds’ identity hours after the 31-year-old boarded a flight Saturday from LAX to New York, where she resides.

The difficulty in identifying Reynolds — and the ease with which she managed to escape the terminal Friday — highlighted serious security flaws at the nation’s second-largest airport, said Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Assn. Like many airports around the country, LAX does not routinely screen airline crew members. McClain said Reynolds easily would have been able to shepherd the cocaine through security had she not been selected for a random screening.

“The fact that flight attendants can be in their plain clothes, not even actually working, and have the ability to bypass screening with their luggage, that’s a serious problem,” he said. “That’s a luxury I don’t believe we can afford right now.”

McClain said that TSA officers checked Reynolds' identification Friday night when she scanned her badge but that the information for one passenger vanishes from the screen once other passengers are scanned next.

“There was a pretty big delay. Friday night, all law enforcement knew is that it was a flight attendant,” McClain said.

A TSA spokesman referred all questions to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which in turn referred a reporter to the FBI. Both agencies are investigating Reynolds' case.

Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles, said that Reynolds flew from LAX to New York on a JetBlue flight Saturday morning and that afterward investigators learned of her identity from an airline. She said she was unable to comment on TSA procedures aside from what was spelled out in the criminal complaint.

Reynolds appeared in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Thursday afternoon to answer charges of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. A judge ordered her held in lieu of $500,000 bail, which was immediately posted by her parents and a local church pastor, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn.

But a federal judge in Los Angeles called for a review of the bail, requiring that Reynolds remain in custody until she is transported to Southern California for an April 7 bail hearing.

Reynolds, who worked for JetBlue Airways, kicked off her heels and fled Terminal 4 around 7 p.m. Friday, just minutes after she was randomly selected for additional screening, according to a criminal complaint filed this week. Barreling the wrong way down an escalator, Reynolds sprinted out of the terminal and disappeared outside.

TSA officials did not pursue her because they were concerned her abandoned luggage might have contained explosives, the complaint said.

When police found the luggage loaded with cocaine, the TSA officer who had scanned her badge told airport police he remembered her last name, according to the source with knowledge of the case. That information should have been enough to stop Reynolds from boarding a second flight, the source said.

LAX Police Chief Pat Gannon said the TSA called his department to notify it of an unattended bag, but the federal agency did not mention that Reynolds had run from the area.

“We get these calls regularly, and obviously, we didn’t know the extent of it until we got there,” he said.

Ultimately, federal investigators confirmed Reynolds' identity, Gannon said.

McClain called for changes to the LAX policy that allows airline staff to breeze through security. Anyone with Reynolds’ level of clearance could try to exploit that advantage, he said.

“She wasn’t on duty,” he said. “She wasn’t even working a flight.”

Reynolds surrendered to DEA agents in New York on Wednesday afternoon.

Her attorney, Dennis J. Ring, said the 31-year-old holds an undergraduate degree from New York University, where she is still pursuing nursing courses. Born in Jamaica, Reynolds competed in several beauty pageants before moving to the U.S. as a teenager, according to Ring, who said he was floored by the drug charges against his client.

“The allegations are completely out of character,” Ring said. “She is a very accomplished young lady.”

Follow @lacrimes and @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in Southern California.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:11 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

This article was first published at 3:56 p.m.

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