14 Guns And 8 Bags Of Pot On A Plane

In this photo provided by the Puerto Rico police show seized weapons, Tuesday, March 6, 2007, in Puerto Rico. AP/Puerto Rico police

From the CBS Evening News Investigative Unit's Armen Keteyian, Pia Malbran and Phil Hirschkorn.

The federal agency in charge of airport security says there was no danger to 168 people on a commercial airline flight this week even when one of the passengers had smuggled a small arsenal of 14 guns – including an assault rifle – onto the plane.

An anonymous crime hotline tip led to the arrest of two Orlando International Airport workers who successfully brought guns and marijuana on a Delta Airlines flight from Florida to Puerto Rico.

Thomas Munoz, 22, was the alleged courier – carrying thirteen handguns and one Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, plus eight pounds of marijuana sealed in Ziploc bags inside a black duffel bag on the trip to San Juan, according to two affidavits filed by federal agents in support of the men's arrest. The cache also included .45 caliber Glocks and 9mm Taurus semiautomatic pistols.

Wearing his airline uniform and security ID – or SIDA – badge, Munoz, like most airport workers but not pilots and flight crews, was able to bypass Transportation Security Administration screening areas. He told a federal agent that he had stowed the duffel near his departure gate ramp hours before his Monday morning flight, according to one affidavit.

"With that badge, you can have access to an airplane, you have access to baggage and cargo," airline security analyst Charlie Slepian tells CBS News. "You can commit a criminal act on the airport."

Munoz later boarded Delta Flight 933, operated by its Comair subsidiary, with the contraband-filled duffel as his carry-on baggage. There were 162 other passengers, four flight attendants, and two pilots on board.

When the flight landed in San Juan – because of that anonymous tip to Orlando police – all passengers and baggage were inspected coming off the plane. Upon seeing the TSA screeners in San Juan, Munoz was heard to say: "I'm busted."

"At no time were passengers in any danger," says TSA spokesman Christopher White.

Still, one law enforcement source tells CBS News that federal air marshals have been placed on all flights leaving the U.S. to Puerto Rico.

Munoz's alleged accomplice – Zabdiel Balaguer, also 22 and known as "Zab" – was taken into custody in Orlando on Tuesday.

Earl Morris, Deputy Assistant Administrator of TSA Security Operations, said TSA worked as a team with other agencies to apprehend the rogue airport workers.

Munoz remains locked up and charged in Puerto Rico. "For strategic reasons, he'll stay there," Assistant U.S. Attorney Vincent Citro tells CBS News.

Comair says both suspects were employed in Orlando as "customer service agents," who typically work either within gate areas where passengers check-in or on ramps directing planes and loading baggage.

Munoz worked for Comair for three years, and Balaguer for one. Both are U.S. citizens, and Comair says they passed criminal background checks.

They now each face two federal felony charges – conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm that traveled in interstate commerce during a drug trafficking offense.

It was Balaguer who allegedly obtained the weapons at a Tampa gun show and received $1,800 in cash wire transfers from a conspirator in Puerto Rico, according to the criminal complaint, which alleges that Munoz expected to be paid between $4-5,000.

Comair told CBS News it "takes this situation very seriously" and is "continuing to assist the authorities in their investigation." Further arrests are possible.

Orlando airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said, "We use the guidelines and requirements for screening of employees set by Homeland Security. It is the same as other airports."

As CBS News reported last month, those policies are precisely what worry security experts. The TSA does not currently require any of the estimated 700,000 airport workers across the country with SIDA badges to be screened at the 452 airports where it runs security checkpoints. In the wake of our report the nation's largest airport, Hartsfield in Atlanta, began randomly screening all 55,000 of its airport workers, a move some other major airports had already implemented according to the TSA.

"This is really a problem. We need to be able to physically screen people going into the airport, the airplane and into any area that is a security area," said pilot Mark Weiss of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association.

CBS News has found that only one U.S. airport voluntarily screens all airport workers: Miami International Airport. It has four separate employee checkpoints where workers who have access to restricted areas are physically screened every day at the start of every shift – even though TSA does not require it.

"This is an additional layer of security that will help workers feel safe as well as passengers," said Miami airport spokesman Marc Henderson.

Among the items that Miami Airport prohibits employees from bringing in are: wads of cash, knives, and guns.
  • James Klatell

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