Thieves Hit Bags at LAX

Luggage Carousel

“They’d just open up the suitcases and rifle through them and pocket valuables,” LAX Police Chief Pat Gannon told The Los Angeles Times. “Basically everything of value — be it electronics, jewelry and items — that could be stolen in seconds would be removed from bags.”

Last week, a swarm of LAX and LAPD cops stormed the airport and the homes of suspected thieves, collecting evidence, questioning, serving warrants at 25 locations and arresting six.

Police suspect a few dozen people might have repeatedly used quick hands to spin cycle through luggage while transporting bags.

Police say the group might be responsible for one of the largest property heists in airport history, though they haven’t put a value on the stolen goods. Thousands of items were stolen.

Los Angeles TV stations broadcast police officers storming LAX last Wednesday night, with suspected baggage thieves led out in handcuffs. The search activity at LAX centered on the Tom Bradley International Terminal and at Terminal 4, home to American Airlines, American Eagle and a few Qantas flights.

The airport workers took the stolen items home and sold them, sometimes posting them on Craigslist, the police said.

LAX has a history of thefts. In 2007, 11 baggage handlers were accused of stealing from passengers’ bags, including a $100,000 watch lifted from socialite Paris Hilton. About 23 million checked bags are screened at LAX each year.

Last year, LAX reported a 37% increase in thefts, mostly unattended items, but inside jobs are also on the rise.

The focus of the current month-long investigation, where police went undercover as baggage handlers, are mostly employees of Menzies Aviation, an international contractor providing services to airports. Its employees serve both the Tom Bradley International and Terminal 4, where the “surge” in thefts happened.

Menzies said if there were thefts by employees, it had nothing to do with the company. He said “workers go through background checks by the company, LAX and U.S. Customs and Border Protection prior to employment.”

There are about 45,000 employees working for 350 contractors at LAX. Background checks are supposed to “disqualify anyone with felony or serious misdemeanor convictions.”

Airport police say that “items are currently being identified in an attempt to return them to their owners and to assist them in the prosecution of identified suspects.”

LAX has increased the number of security cameras.

The Tarmac’s View: It’s difficult to get hard data on items stolen from luggage. Airlines don’t like to acknowledge the problem, preferring to write it off as lost luggage. And, a lot of missing strings of pearls go unreported. Other news reports have suggested JFK is like a “like a flea market for airport employees,” with more than 200 items stolen every day from checked baggage.

Even at a huge facility like LAX, there can’t be that many designated corridors for luggage to pass. Criminologists tell us most crimes are crimes of opportunity. Can airports not design baggage handling so that it’s never out of sight of a close-in security camera?

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