Using little but a badge, a backpack and cellphones, two men with ties to Delta Air Lines repeatedly thwarted security at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to transport guns from Atlanta to New York, federal authorities charged in court documents released Tuesday.
Authorities say one of the men, a baggage handler, bypassed security with carry-on bags full of guns and handed them to another man who was a former Delta worker traveling on flights.
The men allegedly transported 129 handguns and two assault rifles from Georgia to New York between May 1 and Dec. 10. They now face firearms trafficking and other charges in an ongoing investigation by the the New York Police Department, the FBI and other federal authorities.
It’s the latest incident in which airport employees around the country have been implicated in weapons trafficking. It’s the second time in two years it’s happened at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Delta said it fired the baggage handler after his arrest.
In a statement released Tuesday, J. Britt Johnson, special agent in charge of the FBI Atlanta Field Office, called the case “a serious security breach at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.”
In a statement, Delta said it is “cooperating with authorities in this investigation. We take seriously any activity that fails to uphold our strict commitment to the safety and security of our customers and employees.”
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport issued a statement saying employees are “subjected to continuous vetting and random inspections,” but, “In light of these recent events, we are reviewing the security plan and will make the appropriate changes to prevent future incidents of this nature.”
According to an FBI’s agent’s affidavit filed Dec. 19 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, NYPD investigators arrested Mark Quentin Henry on Dec. 10 after he flew from Atlanta to New York. Henry had 18 handguns in a carry-on bag, seven of them loaded.
Henry allegedly supplied handguns and assault rifles to an unnamed co-conspirator, who sold them to a New York undercover officer, according to the affidavit.
Henry worked for Delta from 2007 to 2010. Court records say he was fired for abusing his Delta “Buddy Pass,” which allows employees to share flight privileges with friends and family.
On Saturday authorities here arrested Eugene Harvey, 31, of College Park, who worked as a Delta ramp agent and baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson. He allegedly took the weapons past security and handed them off to Henry.
Investigators used airport security video, cell phone records and employee security records to track the men’s movements at Hartsfield-Jackson on Dec. 10, according to the affidavit.
Henry arrived at the airport to catch a flight to New York. He carried a backpack through security, but no weapons were found.
The FBI agent said Harvey entered the airport that day through an employee parking lot. Though airline employees must pass background checks before they are employed, they do not all pass through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, as do passengers. Harvey was able to use his security badge to access restricted areas.
According to the affidavit, the two men texted each other repeatedly within the airport and later visited the same men’s room at the same time. Investigators believe Henry emerged from the bathroom with the weapons Harvey had brought into the airport.
The affidavit describes several other occasions when the men allegedly transported firearms through the airport. Shortly after each trip, a New York undercover officer bought firearms from Henry, according to the affidavit. Henry was charged with third-degree criminal possession of weapons and first-degree criminal sale of firearms.
Harvey was charged with trafficking firearms and entering secure airport areas in violation of security requirements. Court records indicate he was released on bond and has a preliminary hearing Jan. 6.
At a press conference in New York Tuesday, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said a total of five people have been charged in the investigation.
It’s not the first time an employee working at an airport has been indicted for trafficking weapons or other items.
Earlier this year, an AirTran baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson was sentenced to ten years in prison for bypassing TSA security with a machine gun. The baggage handler would help people bring contraband onto airplanes, for a fee, by using his security clearance to bypass TSA security, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In September of this year in Boston, four JetBlue employees and one Delta employee were charged with smuggling cash and evading airport security checkpoints.
And earlier this year a California man was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for his role as a marijuana supplier to a drug trafficking network stretching across the country to Charlotte, N.C., after 46 others were sentenced in connection with the investigation. An airport employee had helped the drug trafficking couriers to pass the marijuana in baggage through airport security.
In 2010, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer based at Hartsfield-Jackson was one of 14 arrested and charged for alleged drug trafficking. The indictment charged the Customs and Border Protection agent with taking payoffs to smuggle guns and drug money from undercover agents.
Orlando International Airport beefed up its security after a 2007 incident where two employees of Comair, a now-defunct subsidiary of Delta, smuggled 14 firearms and 8 pounds of marijuana on a Delta flight bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Today, the Orlando airport says 100 percent of employees that work in its secure areas are screened, a change that required a $5 million initial investment and currently costs about $3 million annually.
A 2008 Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report said the Orlando incident and subsequent media coverage “renewed longstanding concerns about airports and the vulnerabilities associated with the insider threat.”
However, screening 100 percent of airport employees “raises feasibility issues,” according to the report, due to the need for substantial increases in staffing, infrastructure changes and other issues. And, there would still be vulnerabilities, such as tossing a bag over a perimeter fence or smuggling one in on revolving baggage belts, through airline catering deliveries or cargo facilities.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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