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July 23, 2014

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Police probe baggage thefts at Los Angeles airport

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Nick Ut / AP

Passengers are shown getting checked in before a flight Thursday March 27, 2014 at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles. Police say six people were arrested Wednesday March 26, after officers served more than two dozen search warrants after a months-long investigation into baggage theft at Los Angeles International Airport. Officials say those arrested were primarily employees or ex-employees of contracting companies hired to handle luggage and do not work for the airport itself.

Updated Thursday, March 27, 2014 | 11:41 p.m.

A $15,000 camera, Gucci bags, name-brand clothing, electronics and jewelry are among the thousands of dollars in valuables stolen by baggage handlers at Los Angeles International Airport, police said Thursday.

Police served more than two dozen search warrants and made six arrests Wednesday night after a months-long investigation in what was the largest baggage-theft operation in the airport's history, Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Raymond Maltez said.

The joint operation with LAPD and airport police came in response to a string of theft reports from planes, terminals and runways. Police noticed lost and theft reports occurring at the airport more frequently when certain crews handled luggage.

Officers seized the stolen goods from 25 locations in the region, including the airport, authorities said. Officials will attempt to return the seized items to owners.

Those arrested were primarily employees or ex-employees of companies contracted to handle luggage and did not work directly for the airport, airport police Assistant Chief Michael Hyams said.

Maltez said the suspects worked for three contracting companies, including Menzies Aviation.

The alleged crimes "were limited to a handful of employees, acting independently," the company, which has an office at the airport, said in a statement. "Menzies supports this enforcement action and pledges its complete cooperation with the police investigation," the statement said.

Four suspects were taken into custody on suspicion of receiving stolen property and two for outstanding warrants. A total of 14 people were detained for questioning. More arrests were expected.

"It's still not over. There's a good possibility there will be more search warrants and more arrests to follow," Maltez said.

Police said that while some thieves worked together, most acted on their own seizing opportunities to pocket items from luggage in transit.

Maltez said there was a general culture of acceptance of theft among the baggage handlers.

"They all knew about each other, although they weren't working in concert," Maltez said. "We're looking at people who are opportunists, who have taken opportunities to steal."

The thieves were also selling items on multiple sites, including Craigslist.

Detectives were still working to determine how much had been recovered, but many expensive items, including a $15,000 camera, were seized during the raids. The camera belonged to a photographer who was on his way to Africa and reported it stolen in San Francisco. "But truly, it was stolen in LAX," Maltez said.

The thieves targeted bags that were traveling longer distances or had multiple transfers. Long-haul passengers, especially, often don't see their bags for many hours and through multiple airports if they're transferring.

"What happens is if they steal it here at LAX, by the time you get home you don't know where these things were stolen," Maltez said. "They know who to target."

The suspects had undergone employment and criminal-background checks before they were authorized to work at the airport. But those checks are limited, and all the employees had minimal or non-existent arrest records, Maltez said.

Most of the police activity was at the Tom Bradley International Terminal and at Terminal 4, which handles American Airlines, American Eagle and some Qantas flights.

Every year about 55 million pieces of luggage are checked at LAX, which served nearly 67 million passengers last year.

Maltez said that while the airport is relatively safe, and theft isn't rampant, "my advice to travelers is to be careful what you pack in your bags."

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