By JOSH POLTILOVE
The Tampa Tribune
Published: April 1, 2008
TAMPA - A fourth baggage handler initially suspected of being part of a ring that pilfered luggage at Tampa International Airport was questioned by airport police Monday, but was released without being charged, authorities said.
Three fellow baggage handlers for Continental Airlines were arrested Friday and charged with multiple theft counts. The arrests capped a six-month investigation that began when Continental passengers complained that personal items had been stolen from their baggage. The investigation included high-tech software that allowed law enforcement officers to track, in real time, the whereabouts of a laptop computer.
Tampa International Airport police Chief Paul Sireci on Monday morning said authorities were looking for a fourth baggage handler. That man was questioned Monday afternoon, but ended up being releasing with no charges being filed, airport officials said Monday night. The name of the 29-year-old man will not be published because he was not charged.
Airport police arrested three other baggage handlers on charges of dealing in stolen property pilfered from Continental luggage checked at Tampa International. The key to the investigation was a specially rigged computer used as bait for the suspected thieves.
Investigators have no way to gauge how many items were stolen, Sireci said.
Many recovered items have been returned to their owners. At a news conference today, several unclaimed laptop computers, digital cameras, iPods, sunglasses and headphones sat on a table near Sireci.
"If anyone has received property from these individuals, we would like to recover that property," Sireci said.
He said travelers should be comforted by Friday's arrests and know that when theft issues arise, investigators react quickly.
An investigation is ongoing, Sireci said, but it has been determined that this was not part of a massive crime ring and the case had no ringleader.
The men took the items for personal use or to sell, Sireci said.
"This isn't that sophisticated of an operation," he said. "It's like when we were kids and we leave the bicycle unchained."
Continental contacted law enforcement after customers said items were missing from their luggage. The suspects work for Delta Global Services, a company contracted to handle baggage for Continental, arrest reports state. Officials with Delta Global Services did not wish to comment Monday night.
The suspects were traced through a rigged laptop computer supplied by Continental Airlines security and loaded into luggage March 12 on a Continental flight to Houston.
The computer never made it to Houston, reports state.
On Tuesday, someone turned on the computer and accessed a MySpace account to deal with vacation pictures. The software gave investigators images of what the user viewed while logged on.
The computer was turned on again Wednesday and Thursday. Police were able to trace the computer to a woman who said she got it from one of the baggage handlers.
Airport police are still working out how the handlers smuggled away the items.
Airport surveillance is secure information and will not be available to the public even as part of a records request, Sireci said.
Arrested on Friday were Efrain Malave-Bermudez Jr., 34, 6720 S. Lois Ave., on seven counts of dealing in stolen property; Juan Ayende-Nieves, 52, 2004 E. Lake Ave., on four counts of dealing in stolen property; and Ernie Azucey, 23, 8510 Hyaleah Road, on 33 counts of dealing in stolen property.
Azucey is being held in Orient Road Jail, with bail set at $247,500. Malave-Bermudez's bail is $52,500, jail records show.
Ayende-Nieves was released after posting $30,000 bail.
Azucey and Malave-Bermudez declined to comment Monday. A message left at Ayende-Nieves' home was not immediately returned.
Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman with the Transportation Security Administration, said TSA works with airports to make sure employees receive criminal background checks and are not part of any terrorist watch list.
Continental spokeswoman Julie King said there are many security measures the airline takes in airports and in the air.
"To elaborate on what those security measures are wouldn't be beneficial to any of us," she said.
Tom Van Horn, 34, of St. Petersburg said he's not sure whether his missing GPS device is tied to the ring but that it was stolen during a trip on Continental late last year.
His Continental flight flew from Tampa International to Houston and then on to Hawaii, where he went Nov. 6 to visit his grandmother. When he landed in Honolulu, he said, the lock on the luggage was ripped off and the GPS was gone.
Continental told him it was possible that the Transportation Security Administration was responsible, he said.
In the end, Van Horn said, the airline paid for a new suitcase and gave him $200 in travel vouchers but did not pay for the GPS device.
"I was just really mad at the whole experience," he said.
This wasn't the first time contractors working through Continental at TIA have been accused of stealing.
In August 1994, the FBI arrested three men - two of them workers at the airport - after the heist of $2 million in cash from the airport. The FBI said a bag containing the cash, being transferred between Federal Reserve banks in Jacksonville and New Orleans, was stolen from a regularly scheduled Continental flight.
TBO.com reporter-producer Daniela Velazquez and researcher Michael Messano contributed to this report. Reporter Josh Poltilove can be reached at (813) 259-7691 or jp[email protected]