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Airport Security : Crime: Police arrest man suspected in thefts of baggage and cash from travelers at LAX. He had eluded several stakeouts.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plainclothes police officers at Los Angeles International Airport keeping an eye out for thieves attracted to the wealth of unwatched wallets, purses, and luggage Wednesday found the suspect at the top of their “most wanted” list.

Los Angeles Airport Police arrested Claudio Gutierrez as he dropped off his girlfriend, and held him on suspicion of committing four thefts that had been captured on videotape. Police suspect he has stolen from many more victims, possibly hundreds.

“He is at the top of the list of anyone that has operated at this airport,” said Sgt. Vince Garcia of the airport police.

Gutierrez, who police believe is from South America, is allegedly one of many sophisticated thieves who move between LAX and airports worldwide. Many are from South America--Peru, Colombia and Chile in particular, authorities said.

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“They float around all over the damned place,” said Los Angeles Airport Police Officer Henry Acosta. Acosta and his partner, Bruno Pabon, handle the investigations of all thefts at LAX--an average of four to five a day, 1,707 so far this year. Acosta said at least that many go unreported.

The airport screening stations, where luggage is scanned, are one popular spot for thefts. The uniformed workers provide many travelers with a false sense of security because their attention is focused on luggage and people passing through the metal detector, not potential thieves, Acosta said.

In August, newly installed surveillance cameras recorded a thief whom police allege is Gutierrez scoping out travelers passing through the security screening stations in Terminal 4. As one family heading for vacation put their luggage on the conveyor belt of the X-ray machine, the thief, neatly attired in a white shirt and tie, cut through the line at the metal detector. As the family stood in line, the thief walked off with a bag containing $4,900 in cash and $10,000 in travelers checks, Acosta said.

“He really studies his victims,” said Los Angeles Airport Police Officer Joaquin Mendez. “He chooses his victims well.”

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Another theft in October netted the same thief another $4,500 in cash, police allege.

Foreign travelers, Asians in particular, are favorite targets for two reasons, police say. Tourists are apt to carry large amounts of cash and prosecutors are often unwilling to spend the thousands of dollars to fly the victim back to the United States to testify in court. Such cases are thrown out.

This year, police have made only about 15 arrests, but each thief is busy enough that a single arrest causes a noticeable, if temporary, drop in the airport crime rate, Pabon said.

Gutierrez had been in the area for a while. Last year, the day before Christmas, Glendale police arrested him on charges of picking pockets at the Galleria mall. In July, airport police briefly detained Gutierrez and an alleged partner but released them because of a lack of evidence.

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Gutierrez had eluded several stakeouts by the airport police and the LAPD. With only four plainclothes officers normally patrolling the entire airport, catching suspects requires as much luck as skill.

On Wednesday morning, though, more than 30 plainclothes officers--the usual airport detail supplemented by LAPD officers--were working at the airport. Acosta was sitting on a bench near a ticket counter, keeping watch behind a newspaper. Gutierrez walked over to his girlfriend and her mother.

“Even as he was kissing her, he was nervous, looking around,” Acosta said. Acosta called for additional officers, who arrested Gutierrez upstairs at the “I Love L.A.” gift shop. After questioning the girlfriend, police allowed her and her mother to board their flight.

If convicted, Gutierrez will likely get six months to two years of jail time and face possible deportation, Acosta said.

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