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Detective work yields a suspect in LAX bomb threats

FBI agents look for patterns, even when no explosives are found. The search for details led agents back to the airport and ultimately to an arrest.

December 20, 2009|By Scott Glover

The husky-voiced caller warned police that LAX travelers were in grave danger: "There's a bomb. . . . You need to find it or people will die."

It was the second such threat directed at Los Angeles International Airport that day -- June 22 -- and the fourth in less than two weeks.

Each time, cops, federal agents and bomb-sniffing dogs scoured the terminal. Each time, they came up empty-handed: no suspects, no explosives.

In fact, the vast majority of bomb threat cases go unsolved, according to local and federal officials.

John Karle, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department's Criminal Conspiracy Section, said his detectives receive about 200 cases a year but make arrests in only about 30%. The Justice Department prosecutes about 150 explosives-related cases a year but does not separate threat cases from those in which a device was planted or detonated.

Karle said investigations in threat case are "complicated, time consuming and labor intensive," often requiring multiple search warrants to pierce the veil of secrecy many callers have constructed to mask their identities.

Motives he's seen -- or suspected -- over the years include business disputes, extortion, relationships gone awry and "psychological issues."

"Somebody's late for a flight so they call in a bomb threat. Some kid doesn't want to take a test so he threatens to blow up the school. You get a senior citizen who's 'had enough' and he's [ticked] off. It runs the gamut," Karle said.

Even though there is no bomb, threats can wreak havoc, particularly if they are aimed at a busy public place like LAX, where scares have shut down terminals and caused chain-reaction delays backing up travelers from L.A. to New York to Tokyo, officials said. And then there's the draw on police manpower, sometimes resulting in overtime if the threat is made during a shift change or at off hours.

All threats are taken seriously, Karle said, both before police know whether there is really a bomb and after.

One case that illustrates the need for vigilance, he said, is that of Richard Andrew Broker. He said Broker, known at the time as Richard Lee Daggett, called in a bomb threat to LAX in November 2008. Though Broker did not use his name during the call, detectives were able to identify him and launched a broader investigation into his activities.

Broker was subsequently arrested by federal authorities in Nevada and charged with possessing Molotov cocktails. Karle said he suspects Broker intended to use the devices to make good on his threat to LAX. Broker has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in federal court in Las Vegas.

Steve Gomez, who heads the counter-terrorism division for the FBI in Los Angeles, said there are several factors involved in scrutinizing a threat.

"Is this a diversion or a dry run? Is somebody watching to see how we respond?" Gomez said. "In addition to addressing the immediate threat, these are things we have to consider."

Gomez said the circumstances of threats nationwide are fed into a computer at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where analysts look for patterns that might identify those responsible.

"We're always looking for lessons to be learned," he said.

In the rash of LAX bomb scares over the summer, investigators had become convinced that the calls were all made by the same person, almost certainly an airport employee.

In July they called a meeting with airport management and support staff to discuss the problem and ask for help in identifying the culprit. Among those present were Marco Ortiz and his son, Carlos, supervisors for a janitorial crew at the airport.

The elder Ortiz listened as FBI agent Michael Hess played recordings of the four 911 calls in which the threats were made, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The caller sounded like his son, who was sitting a few feet away.

The father took his son into the parking lot and confronted him. The young Ortiz confessed, telling his father he was "sick," according to the complaint.

The father called agent Hess and told him his son made the calls and wanted to confess, the complaint states.

Carlos Orlando Ortiz has since been charged with four counts of making false threats to kill or injure someone or destroy a building by means of an explosive. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

He told Hess he was "crazy in the head" and that his mind was "blank" while making the threats, according to the criminal complaint. But he acknowledged driving to Artesia to make the final threat from a pay phone there, in part to throw investigators off his tracks, the complaint states.

Ortiz's attorney, deputy federal public defender John Littrell, said he would be pursuing an insanity defense on behalf of his client.

Littrell said Ortiz had been struggling to come to grips with an undisclosed childhood trauma and was deeply depressed. He said he was taken into custody earlier this year after he threatened to kill himself in a sheriff's station parking lot.

"It's sort of a classic cry for help in his case," Littrell said. "I don't believe he knew what he was doing because he was so upset."

The case is expected to go to trial earl next year.

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