LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Authorities said a Pico-Union man and airport employee has been arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle heroin through LAX wrapped in Christmas packaging.
James Mitchell, 25, was arrested Wednesday by special agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration after prosecutors on Tuesday filed a criminal complaint in United States District Court.
The complaint alleges that Mitchell attempted to smuggle approximately 2.15 pounds of heroin through a security checkpoint at LAX on Dec. 10.
Mitchell reportedly had checked in for a Frontier Airlines flight to Cincinnati only two days after purchasing a one-way ticket. Mitchell checked one article of luggage that “alerted to an unknown dense material” during an image scan by the Transportation Security Administration.
A closer inspection of the bag reportedly revealed “six packages of a suspicious gray brittle concrete-like substance,” one of which later tested positive for heroin, officials said.
The packages were wrapped in Christmas-themed paper.
TSA officials noted a”“vinegar odor” emanating from one of the packages, which prompted airport police officers to seek assistance from a hazardous-materials unit.
A portion of Terminal 3 was closed while personnel worked to detect and alleviate any potential chemical threat.
Airport police responding to the scene worked with Frontier Airlines in an attempt to locate Mitchell. When he answered a phone call from Frontier personnel, Mitchell allegedly told the gate agent he was in the restroom and not feeling well. At about this same time, airport surveillance cameras reportedly captured Mitchell exiting the terminal while speaking on a cell phone. Once outside, Mitchell removed a beanie cap from his head and changed his sweater, disappearing on foot in the lower terminal arrival area.
Investigators ultimately tracked Mitchell to his Pico-Union residence, obtained an arrest warrant and took him into custody without incident Wednesday morning.
After his arrest, investigators confirmed Mitchell is an employee of Aero Port Services at LAX and has direct access to secure areas of the airport.
“At a time when airlines are carrying loved ones across the country and the world, this defendant jeopardized passenger safety by attempting to use the system to traffic in dangerous drugs,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “Interdicting drug shipments is part of the mission to protect our critical infrastructure, and criminals seeking to abuse that infrastructure will be punished.”
At this point, Mitchell is charged in relation to only one of the six packages recovered from his luggage. Authorities are in the process of testing the other five packages to confirm the possible presence of heroin. The total weight of all six packages was approximately 6.5 kilograms, which is more than 14 pounds.
The complaint charges Mitchell with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute heroin, and possession with the intent to distribute heroin. If convicted on hose two counts, the suspect would face a mandatory minimum term of five years in federal prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of 40 years.