A TSA officer keeps an eye on the lines at Los Angeles International Airport's… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
The man with eight pounds of methamphetamine in his carry-on bag stood in the snaking security line at Los Angeles International Airport's Terminal 4, inching toward the checkpoint, when a TSA screener approached.
But it wasn't to stop the contraband, according to prosecutors. It was to make sure it got through.
The screener, John Whitfield, allegedly told the man to get to the back of the line so he and his luggage would get to the X-ray machines when Whitfield's shift started. That way, he would be the one watching the meth show up on screen; and in exchange for $1,200, Whitfield allowed it through, according to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Authorities filed trafficking and bribery charges against Whitfield and three other current and former Transportation Security Administration screeners, alleging that they received thousands of dollars in cash bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye on drugs packed in suitcases.
The case represents a "significant breakdown of the screening system," U.S. Atty Andre Birotte Jr. said in a statement, adding that the accused screeners "placed greed above the nation's security needs."
David Herzog, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said the scheme had implications beyond drug trafficking.
"In this case it was narcotics; we want to make sure the next time it's not other dangerous materials," he said. Herzog added that all the drugs were seized before they left the airport.
The 40-page indictment details half a dozen incidents between January and July of 2011 in which the screeners allowed drug couriers or sources working with federal authorities to smuggle cocaine, methamphetamine or marijuana into airport terminals to be taken onto outbound flights. Also charged in the indictment are three suspected drug couriers who are accused of bribing the screeners.
The alleged orchestrator was Naral Richardson, a 30-year-old former TSA employee, authorities said. Richardson, according to prosecutors, would arrange for the courier and the screener to meet ahead of time and give the screener a cellphone to be used to coordinate the "pass-through."
It was Richardson who prosecutors allege set up Whitfield's June 2011 plot. Whitfield allegedly asked Richardson if it would be "white girls" or "Green Bay Packers" he would be helping through security. Neither, he was told — it wasn't cocaine or marijuana, but "crystal," or methamphetamine.
The 23-year-old screener allegedly instructed the drug courier to say he had a pacemaker so that he would get a hand pat-down and eliminate the possibility of a random bag search. Once the eight pounds of methamphetamine had safely passed through, Whitfield allegedly met the drug courier in a bathroom and received his payment, the indictment states.
Another alleged pass-through ended as a foiled attempt. Screener Joy White allegedly gave a courier carrying about 11 pounds of cocaine instructions to come through her X-ray machine in Terminal 6, then walk through a secure tunnel to Terminal 5, where his flight was to depart, court documents show. The alleged courier, Duane Eleby, instead went through security at Terminal 5, and was promptly arrested when another TSA screener spotted the cocaine in his suitcase, authorities said. Eleby was later released.
At the time of their next job two weeks later, Richardson and White told a courier secretly working with the Drug Enforcement Administration that the last drug runner was "sitting in a jail cell because he had not only gone to the wrong lane, he had gone to the wrong terminal," the indictment alleged.
In a separate instance, screener Capeline McKinney, who wasn't operating an X-ray machine when a drug courier arrived at the checkpoint, opened up a new security lane for the courier and allowed through two bags with about 44 pounds of cocaine, prosecutors alleged.
An attorney for McKinney, Ellen Barry, said they were waiting to see what evidence the government turns over. Her client appeared in court Wednesday still in her TSA uniform, Barry said.
Although Whitfield and McKinney are currently employed as screeners, Richardson and White were previously terminated by the TSA for reasons unrelated to the trafficking and bribery case, according to authorities. All four have been taken into custody and face up to life in prison if convicted.
Eleby is expected to surrender to authorities Thursday. Of the other alleged drug couriers, Terry Cunningham remains at large and Stephen Bayliss is in state custody.
The TSA's security director at LAX said the agency was assisting with the investigation.
"While these arrests are a disappointment, TSA is committed to holding our employees to the highest standards," Randy Parsons said in a statement.