An investigation into a baggage theft operation at Los Angeles International Airport has grown rapidly, and authorities now say as many as 25 baggage handler may ultimately be detained in the case.
Police said the theft operation -- probably one of the biggest in LAX history -- preyed on travelers and resulted in the theft of "thousands upon thousands of dollars" in electronics, jewelry and other items from luggage as it moved through the airport.
So far, six baggage handlers have been arrested and eight others detained in the case. Authorities said they expect those numbers to increase in the coming days.
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, they said.
The total loss and the identities of the victims are still unknown.
Armed with search warrants, police searched homes and airport lockers Wednesday as part of a months-long probe into baggage thefts at Terminal 4 and Tom Bradley International Terminal. In all, 25 search warrants were obtained.
"At any airport there are always thefts of baggage, but we knew this was prevalent at Bradley and Terminal 4," said Los Angeles International Airports Police Chief Pat Gannon. "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."
Some of 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.
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 that the contractors all must pass a vetting system established by the Transportation Security Administration and that 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.
The thefts were not carried out by a complex gang working for someone but rather "crimes of opportunity to enrich individuals," Gannon said.
Gannon said the thievery was widespread.
"Basically everything of value, be it electronics, jewelry and items that could be stolen, in seconds would be removed from bags," Gannon said. "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 thieves would search them for items they could quickly sell.
"I think there was a lot collusion but not an organized ring," Gannon said.
[For the record, 4:37 p.m. March 27: An earlier version of this post said that those arrested and detained were employed by Menzies Aviation. In fact, some of those arrested and detained worked for Menzies Aviation.]