OAKLAND (KPIX) — At Oakland International Airport, travelers see Zorro, a German Shepherd working with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to sniff out drugs. The dog can also help the screeners at the TSA security checkpoint figure out what they’re looking at on their X-ray screens.
“When you go through security at the airport and you put your bag into the X-ray machine, if they see a substance, its not going to show marijuana or cocaine, its gonna show something maybe organic”, explains Captain Christopher Lucia.
“If they think it’s suspicious and they want to open that bag, they will call and have Zorro come over and take a sniff. Without the screeners, we won’t get alerted to send Zorro over. So, if bags just went through and TSA wasn’t looking for what they needed to be looking for, a lot more stuff would be getting through.”
Alameda County sheriff’s deputies got a tip about a screener who was turning a blind eye to drugs, which led the FBI to make a case against TSA screener Kiana Scott Clark. She was convicted last year of allowing smugglers to take luggage full of vacuum-sealed marijuana in carry-on to Georgia and elsewhere, 59 times, for a little over two years.
At San Francisco International Airport, the FBI uncovered a much larger conspiracy to smuggle drugs across the country.
FBI special agent Katherine Ablett put together a case that led to the arrest and conviction of six screeners who accepted bribes to let drug smugglers sail past security undetected. She gave her first press interview about the conspiracy this week to KPIX.
Screeners at SFO are employees of Covenant Aviation Security, a private company that contracts with the Transportation Security Administration.
“These screeners would turn a blind eye toward the image that was on the X-ray machine,” says special agent Ablett.
Organic matter including marijuana, heroin, and cocaine glows orange under the TSA scanner X-ray but so do some explosives.
Alameda County Sheriff Sgt. Ray Kelly is an experienced bomb technician. He says the explosive C-4 “does resemble, it’s malleable, it does resemble cocaine if it was pressed into a kilo it could look like … the idea being that a block of C-4 wrapped up would look vaguely similar to a block of cocaine. It could but it could be disguised in many different ways, all dependent on the mind of the smuggler.”
The FBI’s investigation showed that the screeners took the smugglers’ word for what was in the luggage.
“They didn’t know what was in these bags. They are in a position of public trust and their responsibility is to keep the public safe,” says Ablett.
In one of her cases, which began in 2013 in a San Francisco barber shop, a police informant overheard smuggler Anibal Giovanni Ramirez bragging that he was smuggling drugs through SFO. The FBI later listened in as he told an informant about flying to Hawaii with 20 pounds of crystal meth in a carry-on, marching right through airport security.
The plan to get drugs past a checkpoint was elaborate, involving a carefully-timed dance around other screeners and security agents.
“The smugglers and the screeners at the airport would make contact and decide on a date of when and where they would meet at the airport,” says FBI Special Agent Ablett.
“On that decided date, the smuggler would bring the narcotics that was in regular luggage to the airport and the screener would acknowledge that luggage and pass it through security without any detection. The smuggler would make his or her way through security, pick up their luggage and continue to their gate without any detection.”
The annual starting pay for a screener at Covenant Aviation Security, the contractor for TSA at SFO, is $45,000. The bribes, according to court documents, were shockingly small, sometimes just $250.
Screener supervisor Joseph Clark, who ran from our camera outside the federal courthouse, got thousands. His then-wife Jessica Scott, also a screener at SFO, got nothing.
And in other cases, it wasn’t just cash, but invitations to parties that lured the screeners outside the law.
Screener Jeremy Beckham told the court “I was doing pills as well as drinking and partying while I was at Covenant”. That led him to turn his eyes away from luggage filled with cocaine for a $1,000 bribe.
“What I don’t think they realized is that by accepting these bribes and letting potentially dangerous items through security, not only did they face losing their career and jail time but they also put the members of the public at risk,” says special agent Ablett.
For Captain Christopher Lucia, in charge of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office airport security office at Oakland International Airport, the TSA screeners play an extremely important role.
“When they find stuff like drugs people who carry drugs also carry weapons. There’s other stuff that we don’t want to get through checkpoints that TSA is looking through. So their role here is paramount to the security of this facility,” he says.
All the screeners eventually entered guilty pleas and were sentenced to between one and four years, most recently last month, in Judge Charles Breyer’s courtroom in San Francisco.