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Former TSA worker held in threats against LAX

Nna Alpha Onuoha, a U.S. veteran, is arrested after he quit the TSA and allegedly sent suspicious packages and made threatening phone calls.

September 11, 2013|By Ruben Vives, Richard Winton and Kate Mather
  • Investigators examine the van of former TSA worker Nna Alpha Onuoha, who allegedly sent suspicious packages and made threatening phone calls on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary
Investigators examine the van of former TSA worker Nna Alpha Onuoha, who… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

A former Transportation Security Administration employee was charged Wednesday after he allegedly made a series of threats against Los Angeles International Airport, leading multiple law enforcement agencies on a daylong search across Southern California.

The search for Nna Alpha Onuoha, 29, unfolded Tuesday, hours after the disgruntled employee resigned his position as a TSA screener, officials said.

Throughout the day and into Wednesday, authorities tracked several threatening phone calls, suspicious packages and rambling letters, including one ominous, handwritten message found in his Inglewood closet: "09/11/2013 THERE WILL BE FIRE! FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!"

As the FBI was tracking him to Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside on Tuesday night, a church security guard found Onuoha sleeping in a van. Onuoha had dropped off several red crosses and a letter addressed to the church's famous pastor, the Rev. Greg Laurie. He was arrested by a Riverside Police SWAT team without incident, "oblivious" to the search, Lt. Guy Toussaint said.

The Nigerian-born naturalized U.S. citizen lived a quiet life at an Inglewood apartment complex for military veterans. Those who knew him didn't spot any signs of trouble from the former National Guard infantryman, who was deployed to Kosovo from 2005 to 2006 and spent eight years in the service.

"Every morning he had his TSA uniform on and he went to work, he came home at night," said Judy Biggs, the vice president for development at U.S. Veterans Initiative, the agency that helped Onuoha find his job and housing. "There was absolutely no sign at all that there was anything wrong."

"People are all different, and something happened that changed this guy," added Stephen Peck, the organization's president and CEO. "We just don't know."

TSA officials said his six-year tenure at the agency had also been unremarkable — until this summer.

In June, Onuoha had a highly publicized encounter with a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of BoingBoing blog founder Mark Frauenfelder.

Onuoha criticized the girl's choice in clothes, telling her to "cover up," according to a federal court filing.

The TSA issued a public apology and suspended Onuoha for a week in July.

That incident appeared to trigger some of Onuoha's bizarre ramblings, which came to light after his resignation. In online letters posted to satanhasfallen.org and signed by Onuoha, he defends his behavior and refuses to apologize.

The letters include anti-American rants and threats to deliver a "real message" on Wednesday's 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"On the day that I release the message...even the once mighty American government that gloats with arrogance will be reduced to nothing just like the nothing that she is," the letter reads. "Do not expect another 9/11. What will unfold on this day and on the days ahead will be greater than 9/11."

The letters and photos posted on the website appeared to be updated last week.

As the investigation progressed Tuesday, authorities noticed unsettling similarities to the high-profile case of former LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner, who killed four people before shooting himself amid a fiery standoff with police near Big Bear.

Like Dorner, Onuoha was military-trained, left rambling letters and could not be located. Authorities were so worried that they considered a public appeal on the nightly news.

"Obviously, the concern was about the potential for another Dorner," said one law enforcement official. "We had the threats, the writings and the training."

With the 9/11 anniversary near, FBI Special Agent in Charge David Bowdich said it was "vital" to find him immediately.

"We all slept a lot better knowing he was in custody last night before midnight," Bowdich said.

According to the federal affidavit, Onuoha resigned about 9 a.m. Tuesday.

About four hours later, he left a package containing an eight-page letter of his complaints over the June incident and made three calls to airport officials, warning that the "TSA was running out of time." The "entire airport" should be evacuated immediately, he reportedly said.

Authorities raced to his Inglewood apartment, hoping to find him. But he was gone — along with all his belongings. The only thing left was the handwritten 9/11 threat in his closet.

When Onuoha was eventually arrested, he told authorities that his intentions weren't a call to violence, according to the affidavit. Instead, he said, he planned to start "preaching in the streets."

Authorities said they didn't find weapons or explosives at the properties they searched. But they did remove a 4-foot-long red cross that Onuoha left at the church, with a painted message: "Rejoice King Jesus Is Near. His Army Are Coming."

On Wednesday, Onuoha was in federal custody on two felony charges. He faces a 15-year prison sentence if he is convicted. But even behind bars, the chaos continued.

At least two more packages were received Wednesday — one at Onuoha's Inglewood apartment building and the other at the TSA office at LAX. Both prompted evacuations and repeat appearances by the bomb squad.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

Times staff writers Samantha Schaefer and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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