In what officials believe is one of the biggest baggage theft operations in Los Angeles International Airport history, authorities on Thursday said they suspect at least 14 baggage handlers of stealing thousands of dollars in electronics, jewelry and other high-priced items.
Police allege that the thieves worked in tandem for at least several months, stealing from bags and other property in a secured area of the airport. Some of the items were then sold on Craigslist.
Detectives are still trying to tally the total losses and identify the victims.
LAX police arrested six workers and detained an additional eight they suspect stole thousands of dollars in small but pricey items from baggage moving through the airport.
In all, 25 search warrants of homes and lockers attached to individuals were searched Wednesday as LAX police concluded a several-months-long investigation into baggage thefts at Terminal 4 and Tom Bradley International Terminal. The investigation remains ongoing with more arrests expected, police said.
"We have multiple companies that deal with baggage at the airport for airlines. But one company had more reported thefts in their terminals than the others and so we began investigating their baggage workers," said Los Angeles International Airports Police Chief Pat Gannon. "At any airport there are always theft of baggage, but we knew this was prevalent at Bradley and Terminal 4."
Those arrested and detained worked for Menzies Aviation. The company is contracted by airline consortiums to handle luggage at each terminal. The Bradley consortium is known as TBITTech and it used Menzies.
[Updated at 2:05 p.m. PDT, March 27: In a statement, Menzies Aviation said it believed the alleged thefts were "limited to a handful of employees, acting independently."
Menzies said its employees go through background checks by the company, LAX and U.S. Customs and Border Protection prior to employment, and undergo extensive training to "perform their jobs safely, efficiently and with integrity."
"Menzies supports this enforcement action and pledges its complete cooperation with the police investigation," the statement said.]
Gannon said the thefts were not the work of a complex gang working for someone but rather “crimes of opportunity to enrich individuals.”
Just how much was stolen is still being determined. "We are talking thousands upon thousands of dollars," Gannon said. "Basically everything of value be it electronics, jewelry and items that could be stolen in seconds would be removed from bags. ... They'd just open up the suitcases and rifle through them and pocket valuables."
Gannon said most of the thefts occurred at the end of a complex system of conveyor belts that deliver luggage. As the suitcases are loaded into carts on a platform, the suspects would search them for items they could quickly sell.
"I think there was a lot collusion but not an organized ring. The investigators believe there was a group who took advantage of the opportunities," Gannon added.
Some of the thefts sold of stolen items on websites including Craigslist, Gannon confirmed.
Gannon said the contractors all must pass a vetting system established by TSA and criminal background checks are done on employees and they cannot have had any felonies or serious misdemeanors. That level of screening is set by the TSA. "It applies to any on the airfield," he said.