As the sea of luggage twists and turns down rollers from terminals at
It is there, police said, that a group of baggage handlers pulled off one of the largest property heists in airport history.
For months, detectives said, workers rifled through bags looking for items to steal.
"Basically everything of value -- be it electronics, jewelry and items -- that could be stolen in seconds would be removed from bags," LAX Police Chief Pat Gannon said. "They'd just open up the suitcases and rifle through them and pocket valuables."
A joint task force of LAX and
Police said the workers allegedly took the stolen items home and resold them, sometimes using
Luggage thefts are a persistent airports across the country. In 2007, 11 workers at LAX were accused of lifting items from passengers’ bags, including a $100,000 watch stolen from
Gannon said his department reported a 37% increase in thefts in 2013. A good chunk involved unattended items, but he said the thefts by baggage handlers were partly to blame.
The case is focusing attention on how the airport oversees workers. Last month, two ground service workers were convicted of planting dry-ice bombs in an employee bathroom and secured tarmac area months earlier. The men were employed by one of the many private companies contracted by the airport.
So were those suspected in the luggage theft case, Gannon said. He said the focus of the investigation was on employees at Menzies Aviation, which provides services to airports internationally.
Investigators homed in on the company after noticing a "surge" in thefts at two terminals it services: Tom Bradley International and Terminal 4.
"At any airport there are always thefts of baggage," Gannon said. "But we knew where this was prevalent."
In a statement, Menzies Aviation said it believed the alleged thefts were “limited to a handful of employees, acting independently.” Menzies said its workers go through background checks by the company, LAX and
"Menzies supports this enforcement action and pledges its complete cooperation with the police investigation," the statement said.
Those background checks are supposed to disqualify anyone with felony or serious misdemeanor convictions, LAX officials said. Nearly 45,000 people are employed by the companies contracted by the airport.
Federal officials said approximately 23 million checked bags are screened at LAX each year.
Brian Jenkins, a senior researcher and aviation security expert at Rand Corp., a Santa Monica think tank, said luggage theft is a recurring problem.
It can involve individuals as well as organized rings of airport workers or airline service company employees who work as baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and low-level security personnel with access to aircraft.
The greatest concern, Jenkins said, is that if the screening system can be circumvented or isn't effective, airport workers could be enlisted by others, such as criminal organizations or terrorist groups.
"Clearly this is a problem and a vulnerability," Jenkins said.
Gannon said investigators did not believe the suspects were part of an organized ring, describing them as a "group who took advantage of the opportunities." The chief said the airport had also increased the number of cameras in response to security concerns.
[For the record, 8:17 p.m. March 27: An earlier version of this story said police suspect thousands of items were stolen. In fact, police suspect that multiple thousands of dollars' worth of items were stolen, but they are still tallying the losses and have not released a final figure.]