Written by The Business Journal Staff
(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 the next morning, 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 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 security lapse 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 crewmember” badge, according to an FBI affidavit 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.
LAX police soon found 11 packages of cocaine wrapped in green cellophane and labeled “BIG Ranch” inside one of the bags Reynolds left behind, the affidavit said. Authorities said the cocaine could have a street value of up to $3 million.
No bulletin for her arrest was immediately issued. The TSA would not have flagged Reynolds’ 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 declined to comment on when the DEA began its investigation but said in a statement that the TSA “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 “known crewmember” 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 crewmember program, citing the investigation.
Jeff Price, an aviation safety expert who has written a textbook on the subject and trains airport workers across the country, 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.
Price said he thinks the TSA will probably take a renewed look at the crewmember program, including reviewing access to the database and the requirements to join the program.
Reynolds, who is still in custody, was ordered returned to California. She is a former Jamaican beauty queen and New York University track athlete.