The man authorities allege opened fire inside Los Angeles International Airport on Friday “made the conscious decision” to try to kill multiple TSA employees, according to a federal criminal complaint.
In a handwritten letter found in a bag recovered from the scene, authorities say suspect Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, stated he would attempt to kill several Transportation Security Administration agents and wanted to “instill fear in your traitorous minds.”
“His intent was very clear in his note,” David Bowdich, special agent in charge of the Counterterrorism Division at the FBI’s Los Angeles office said Saturday. “In that note he indicated his anger and his malice toward the TSA officers.”
One TSA agent, Gerardo Hernandez, 39, was killed and two more agents and at least one civilian were wounded during the shooting rampage. Hernandez was the first TSA agent to be killed in the line of duty since the agency’s formation in the aftermath of 9/11.
Ciancia, who was shot in the head and a leg, remains in critical condition at a local hospital. Authorities have been unable to interview him. Federal authorities have charged Ciancia with murder and with committing violence at an international airport. If convicted, the suspect could face life in prison or the death penalty.
A law enforcement official told The Times that the letter resembled a “suicide note.” The gunman said he didn’t want to hurt anyone “innocent” — only TSA agents. The note also mentioned “NWO,” a possible reference to the New World Order, a conspiracy theory that holds that forces are trying to create a totalitarian one-world government.
The shooter was apparently dropped off at LAX just after 9 a.m. Friday, authorities said, though they gave no details about the driver. The triggerman wore dark clothes and a bulletproof vest and had not purchased a ticket. He carried a Smith & Wesson .223-caliber M&P-15 assault rifle, five loaded magazines and a trove of ammunition, Bowdich said.
Hernandez was shot at point-blank range and crumpled to the floor, authorities said. The gunman rode up an escalator, turned around and noticed the bleeding man squirming.
He went back and fired again, authorities said, killing Hernandez.
After shooting Hernandez, authorities and witnesses said, the gunman calmly fired his way through the screening area, all the while cursing TSA agents. He asked terrified bystanders: “Are you TSA?” If they answered no, he moved on.
Some travelers ducked behind planters and advertising kiosks to avoid gunfire; others fled to taxiing planes. Airport police, who were “60 seconds behind the suspect,” according to airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon, shot the gunman in the leg and head near a food court.
The rampage temporarily halted traffic at the nation’s third-busiest airport, stranding thousands of passengers. Terminal 3, which houses Virgin America, JetBlue and other airlines, reopened Saturday afternoon.
Investigators said they were combing Ciancia’s background for a possible motive. The unemployed motorcycle mechanic grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Pennsville Township, N.J., where his father runs an auto body shop.
The success of Salem County Collision afforded the family beach vacations, private school tuition for their children and renovations to their stately home, said longtime family friend Alan Levitsky. Some of the work on the house — ramps and an elevator — was done to accommodate a wheelchair for Ciancia’s mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, Levitsky said. She died in 2009.
“It was tough on the kids,” he said.
In recent years, Ciancia’s father had been training his son to take over the body shop, Levitsky said. In 2011, Ciancia graduated from the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Fla., where he learned to fix Harley-Davidsons.
Ciancia moved to Los Angeles about 18 months ago, said Allen J. Cummings, the Pennsville police chief, who is friends with Ciancia’s father. They had no indication Ciancia was struggling, Cummings said, or that he may have harbored anti-government sentiments.
“We don’t really know what happened out West,” Cummings said. “We don’t know where he got his ideas or where that came from.”
By Friday, Cummings said, Ciancia had sent text messages to his brother and sister, indicating that he wanted to harm himself. His sister alerted the Los Angeles Police Department, Cummings said, but officers visited his apartment and said they found nothing amiss.
Later that day, with news crews swarming LAX, Ciancia’s father called Cummings. “I’m watching TV,” he told the chief, “and I think this is my son at the airport.”