In Bags at JFK, Handlers Found Niche for Crime

When federal investigators announced they had broken up a cocaine-trafficking ring, the crime boss was not a member of a Mexican cartel or the Mafia.

The ringleader was Victor Bourne, a low-wage baggage handler for American Airlines at Kennedy International Airport. And his associates in the enterprise were other airline employees: baggage handlers and crew chiefs who delivered contraband while they delivered luggage to the baggage-claim area.

Their cunning provided luxury watches, cars, tuition for their children and expensive vacations. Now they face prison.

For passengers, dealing with luggage issues has long been an annoyance of air travel. Bags can get lost or damaged, heightened security has made carry-ons less convenient and most airlines now charge travelers to check luggage.

But all of that may pale to what happens outside the view of the flying public.

Testimony at Mr. Bourne’s trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn during September and October revealed a culture of corruption among some baggage handlers at Kennedy. They stowed drugs in secret panels inside planes; stole laptops, lobsters and fine clothing flown as freight; and rifled through passengers’ belongings for perfume, liquor and electronics.

“ ‘Everybody did it.’ That’s a line that a lot of the witnesses said,” recalled Rebecca Grefski, a juror at Mr. Bourne’s trial, part of a case in which 12 American Airlines employees either pleaded guilty or were convicted. “Everybody was doing it.”

In September, five former Delta Air Lines employees were indicted in Michigan for smuggling marijuana from Jamaica to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. In a related case, five other Delta workers were indicted in Michigan in June.

In November 2010, four part-time baggage handlers for American Airlines were arrested on charges of stealing valuables from luggage at Philadelphia International Airport. Detectives working with airline security officials set up surveillance cameras and said they caught the workers taking electronics, cameras and jewelry from passengers’ bags. Three of them pleaded guilty, and the fourth is awaiting trial.

In 2009, the last year for which there is complete data, the Transportation Security Administration received about 6,750 reports of property missing from checked baggage. Passengers reported the total value of their losses as nearly $5.3 million. Clothing was reported most often as missing. Digital cameras also disappeared with some frequency.

From 2002 to 2010, American Airlines generated more such reports than any other airline.

In a statement, American noted its cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help in prosecuting the case at Kennedy. “The overwhelming majority of American Airlines employees at our J.F.K. terminal and throughout our system are honest, law-abiding individuals who work hard every day to take care of our customers,” the airline said.

Yet the testimony in Mr. Bourne’s trial suggested that a serious problem seemed to exist at American Airlines.

“What percent of American Airlines employees would you say engaged in this conduct?” a federal prosecutor, Patricia E. Notopoulos, asked Matthew James, a defendant in the case who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution.

“About 80 percent,” Mr. James answered.

American Airlines, in its statement, said that “any claim of 80 percent employee involvement in such illegal activities is absurd.” Much of the action at Kennedy was centered on American Airlines flights from some warm-weather location, and the primary drug-ferrying route was Flight 1384, a daily flight from Barbados, which for much of the year arrives after dark.

Mr. Bourne, who is in custody, was found guilty of importing and distributing narcotics, as well as of conspiring to do so. He was also convicted of offenses involving financial transactions. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

His lawyer, Ephraim Savitt, recently filed a motion to dismiss the counts on which Mr. Bourne was convicted and requested a new trial. “The witnesses on whose testimony the counts were founded could not be trusted,” Mr. Savitt said.

Jo Craven McGinty contributed reporting.

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