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LAX : Criminal Proceedings

November 19, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Tuesday, 10:20 a.m. Victim sits in lounge at Gate 68B in Terminal 6, baggage near feet. Unknown suspect or suspects removes property, vanishes. Grand theft, no witnesses.

Twenty-five minutes later, a passenger enters Terminal 3 with a blue steel BB gun in carry-on bag. Authorities explain that BB guns must be checked as baggage, not carried on.

Six hours after that, on World Way outside Terminal 1, a bus strikes a vehicle driven by a private citizen. No injuries.

Two hours later, another property theft, this time in Terminal 7. Victim estimates that $9,650 cash was in missing briefcase.

Now it's Wednesday, 1:30 p.m., Terminal 6. A 28-year-old female draws security guard curiosity with a heavy and mysterious piece of baggage. Further investigation reveals 51 pounds of marijuana. Instead of ascending to the friendly skies, suspect travels overland to Van Nuys for booking.

So reads the LAX police blotter for Aug. 29 and 30, two unremarkable days of crime at Los Angeles International Airport. Last year, while acting as temporary home to 51,050,275 arriving and departing passengers and an estimated 8 million vehicles, LAX also served as the scene of 4,077 reported crimes--about a dozen a day. (LAX police made 978 arrests over the same time--not good odds for those whose baggage was lifted.)

Theft, usually of baggage and wallets, is the most common crime on airport property. Of 288 crimes reported to LAX police in May, 198 were thefts. Of 284 reported crimes in June, 191 were thefts. And of 264 crimes reported in July, 183 were thefts.

"Passengers are so involved in travel that they forget to keep an eye on their possessions. And they become victims," said Capt. John W. Bangs of the LAX Police Department.

But like law enforcement officials everywhere, LAX police are torn between urging vigilance and offering reassurance about the safety of their territory. A moment after reminding travelers that it's easy to be victimized at LAX, Bangs recalls something that his colleague Capt. Bernie Wilson came up with a few years ago:

"Taken a gallon jar of rice. Paint one kernel red. That's your chance of being a victim at this airport. It's got to be one of the safest places in Southern California."

Along with July's thefts, police counted 34 reported burglaries from vehicles, five burglaries from businesses, 12 assault/battery cases, four cases of vandalism and two stolen automobiles. No robberies, no rapes, no homicides. Since January, 1994, LAX records show two rapes and one homicide, a robbery-related shooting that took place off Pershing Drive on a lonely street in the no-man's-land between the airport property and the ocean--within the airport's 3,586-acre territory, but about four miles west of the terminal area.

The LAX Police Department, a city-controlled entity run separately from the Los Angeles Police Department, includes about 230 sworn officers and about 75 security personnel. In monitoring the airport, they are joined by representatives of the FBI, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the National Transportation Safety Board and, on days of certain VIP visits, the Secret Service. Together, the agencies find all sorts of things.

*

While police were racking up their July theft stats, for instance, DEA agents were seizing a total of $443,000 in cash in eight cases of suspected drug-trafficking--an average month, an agency spokesman said. (Over the year that ended June 30, the DEA seized about $5.1 million in cash at the airport.) In July the DEA also made three cocaine seizures totaling 2,600 grams; 10 marijuana seizures totaling 175,000 grams, and a single one-gram methamphetamine seizure. The DEA made no heroin seizures that month (in fact, between June, 1994, and July, 1995, DEA officials made just one heroin seizure at LAX), but there was one suspect arrested with a gallon of a suspicious substance. Not rice. PCP. Estimated value: $7,000-$10,000.

LAX's law-enforcement authorities serve in uniform, in plain clothes, in front of double doors, behind desks, in partnership with drug-sniffing dogs, and also, since late last year, on bicycles.

The bicycles were apparently a good idea. Over the first seven months of this year, with six LAX police patrolling on two wheels each, the airport's parking areas averaged just four auto thefts per month, down from about 18 per month last year. (Another bit of good news for those who park at the airport: On Aug. 20, authorities arrested a burglar believed to be responsible for at least 40 LAX auto burglaries, mostly Jeeps and Volkswagens, over many months.)

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