LOS ANGELES (AP) — Within hours of ditching 70 pounds of cocaine at a security checkpoint and bolting barefoot out of the main Los Angeles airport, an off-duty flight attendant was flying across the country after clearing security at the same airport, law enforcement officials said Friday.
Marsha Gay Reynolds, 31, did not do anything out of the ordinary to get back on a plane, officials said, describing how she used an airline badge with her real name to board another flight the next morning at one of the nation’s busiest airports.
Communication lapses, bureaucratic protocols and special security privileges afforded airline workers all contributed to Reynolds’ remaining out of the grasp of law enforcement until she surrendered four days later at Kennedy Airport in New York.
“This is a security breakdown. That could have easily been an explosive device and a terrorist running from the checkpoint. And we wouldn’t have known until it went boom,” said Marshall McClain, president of the union representing LAX airport police officers.
Reynolds’ escape was another embarrassing error for the airport, which sought to enhance security after a gunman opened fire in a terminal in 2013 and killed a Transportation Security Administration agent.
Reynolds was off duty when she arrived March 18 at an LAX checkpoint, wearing jeans and a black suit jacket and carrying her “known crew member” badge, according to an FBI affidavit filed in support of the charge against Reynolds.
When Reynolds was chosen for a random security screening, TSA officers reported that she became nervous and made a phone call in a foreign language before she dropped her bags, kicked off her heels, ran down an upward-moving escalator and out of the airport, the affidavit said.
Airport police soon found 11 packages of cocaine wrapped in green cellophane inside one of the bags Reynolds left behind, the affidavit said. The drugs had an estimated street value of up to $3 million.
The badges allow airline workers to get through security faster to reduce lines and allow the TSA to focus on travelers they know less about. To obtain the badges, airline workers must submit to a background check that includes fingerprinting.
Crew members do not have to be wearing uniforms or have a boarding pass when using the badges. But they are still subject to random screenings.
The fact that Reynolds was able to fly so soon after her mad dash through the airport did not particularly surprise aviation expert Jeff Price because the system is designed to catch terrorists, not criminals.
The involvement of the crew member badge “might cause the TSA to look at this program a little more closely, to see if this is going to be a problem from a terrorist perspective,” Price said.
McClain agreed that the case raises long-held fears about the “insider” threat of a terrorist gaining special access to airports and planes using the crew member program or becoming radicalized after obtaining such access.
“It’s like giving someone the keys to your house, and you just made their job really easy,” said Price, who has written a textbook on airport security and trains airport workers across the country.
The TSA has said that full screening of all employees would cost too much. Instead, the agency has urged airports to increase random screenings of workers and to keep background checks up to date.
No bulletin for Reynolds’ arrest was immediately issued. The TSA would not have flagged her name because she did not pose a terrorist threat, according to an airport security official with knowledge of the investigation.
The Drug Enforcement Agency did not learn about the drugs until at least five hours after Reynolds fled and did not know her name until well after she had boarded a flight to New York, according to a federal law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about details of the case.
TSA spokesman Mike England said in a statement that the agency “immediately notified and began working with local law enforcement to identify the individual.”
“Following events such as this, we conduct a full review of our procedures to determine how best to improve upon an already strong security foundation,” he said.
The TSA did not verify Reynolds’ name until at least Saturday because no one at the airport is allowed to access the database that had scanned her crew member badge at the airport, both the airport security and federal officials said.
As a result, the Los Angeles leadership of the TSA is recommending that someone with access to the database be required to be at airports across the country, the airport security official said.
The TSA declined to provide details about the crew member program, citing the investigation.
Price confirmed that no one at airports can access the database. Rather, he said, the information goes to a remote location where the database is stored.
He doubts that anybody is staffing that location on a 24-hour basis, simply because it’s rare for anyone to need regular access to the database. If a crew member is turned away after a badge is scanned, that person could just go through a regular security screening, he added.
Reynolds, a former Jamaican beauty queen and New York University track athlete, faces at least 10 years in prison if convicted of the federal drug charge against her.
Her spokesman, Allan Jennings, representing her family and her defense lawyer, said she “may not have been fully aware of what was in the bags.”
On Friday, a judge ordered that she be returned to Los Angeles and remain in custody at least until an April 7 hearing.
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