The CBS News Investigative Unit obtained an internal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) incident report that shows a firearm was found at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on December 4, 2006.
According to the report, a Delta airlines employee noticed a teddy bear on the floor near the oversized screening area adjacent to Delta's international ticketing counter on the public side of the airport. The teddy bear – with the words "I love you" embroidered on its feet – was wrapped in a plastic bag and had no identifying tags or information on it.
The bear was "unusually heavy", according to investigators, so it was put through an x-ray machine. An image of a gun tucked inside was then revealed. When the bear was cut open, police pulled out a .45 caliber Springfield Armory gun along with a box containing 50 rounds of ammunition – each round had been individually wrapped in aluminum foil.
"A lot of work went into it," someone familiar with the incident told CBS News anonymously. "It could have been a terrorist attempt, we didn't know." Luckily, it wasn't.
Using the serial number, investigators say they traced the gun to a woman named Patricia Diane Lopez – a US citizen living in LaGrange, Georgia – some 67 miles outside Atlanta. According to a report filed by Special Agent Wade Torp with the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Lopez told investigators she obtained the firearm, which ranges in price from $600 to $1000, for Pedro Escalante-Perez.
Escalante, who also lives in Georgia, is from Guatemala and has overstayed his visa in the US by about 4 months. Investigators say he told them he had instructed Lopez to get the gun under her name while he paid with his credit card. (The law does not allow illegal immigrants to buy guns.) He then allegedly gave an "associate" $135 to transport the gun to Guatemala. The plan, apparently, was to have the teddy bear, stuffed with the gun, in checked luggage on a commercial passenger flight to Guatemala. Only problem: the TSA routinely checks passenger luggage.
So, according to investigators, when the "associate", Alberto Gomez-Lopez, arrived to Atlanta's airport he was told his suitcase was too heavy and then "removed the teddy bear from his luggage and discarded it."
Aviation consultant Mike Boyd calls this a dumb smuggling attempt. "I won't quit my day job and become a criminal if I were them." Boyd says wrapping ammunition with aluminum foil would do little to fool an x-ray machine. Furthermore, a gun can easily be detected. He says this looks like "an idiot trying to ship a gun the wrong way."
Lopez was arrested and charged with buying a gun under false pretenses. She's now out on bond. Escalante is behind bars charged with obtaining a gun as an illegal immigrant. He faces 15 years of jail time and up to $500,000 in fines. A court date is set for him next week. As for the "associate", investigators believe he got on the plane to Guatemala and has not returned to the US.
The whole incident, luckily, did not pose a direct threat to passengers or the airport.