As the sea of luggage twists and turns down rollers from terminals at Los Angeles International Airport, the bags stop briefly at large platforms where workers separate them for flights across the world.
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 Los Angeles Police Department detectives swarmed the airport and the homes of some suspects late Wednesday night, detaining 14 people as they collected evidence. Six people were arrested, and Gannon said as many as 25 were thought to be involved in the scheme.
Police said that the workers took the stolen items home and sold them, sometimes using Craigslist. LAX is still trying to determine how long the ring was operating and the exact value of all the stolen property. They suspect thousands of items were taken.
Luggage thefts are persistent at 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 socialite Paris Hilton.
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 under contract to the airport.
So were those suspected in the luggage theft case, Gannon said. He said the focus of the current 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 U.S. Customs and Border Protection prior to employment. They also 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.
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 under contract to 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 that the thieves were part of an organized crime group, 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.
At LAX, travelers said they were troubled by the thefts.
Richard Phelps, 62, who flew in from Washington, D.C., said he’d had a suit and a GPS device swiped from a checked bag at Washington National Airport about two years ago. The Ontario resident said he thought airports would have become better at preventing such incidents since then.
“Especially with all the cameras and closed-circuit TVs they have now,” he said. “It also makes you wonder what kind of background checks they do.”
Chris Askins, 35, who was waiting to catch a flight back to New York, said he’s had three cameras stolen from his checked suitcases in the last 15 years. He now keeps valuables in his carry-on bags instead.
Brian Cushing, 38, said he tries not to check luggage — and when he does, he doesn’t bother locking it. Would-be thieves would just use lock cutters, he said. And securing a bag might tip them off that something important was inside.
“Surprising? No,” he said of the LAX arrests. “Disturbing? Yes.”
Times staff writer Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.