When Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) TSA Officer Marcos Owens looked at the checked bag X-ray image on the monitor, he thought it might be a test.
“I didn’t think a person would seriously carve out soap to hide bullets,” said Owens. “I was scratching my head, thinking, ‘Does this individual not have any idea how an X-ray machine actually functions?’”
A bag check on the checked bag was initiated when the [X-ray] officer working in the remote station of the in-line baggage system viewed the X-ray image and observed what she thought may be a loose firearm. She marked the bag as a threat, sent it to the checked baggage search station and communicated her suspicions up the chain of command to Supervisory TSA Officers Jeffery Jones and Murgette Jean-Pierre.
Unloaded firearms and ammunition are allowed in checked bags when they’re properly packaged and declared to the air carrier at check-in. Firearms must be in a locked, hard-sided case, and ammunition can be secured within that case or in a separate secure box.
“You could clearly see the [improperly packaged] gun at the bottom of the bag and the bullets that were hidden inside of the bars of soap,” recalled Owens. “They really went through the trouble of hollowing them out and then gluing the boxes shut, almost as if it would be enough to deter us from actually checking it.”
By the time Jones and Jean-Pierre arrived in the bag room, Owens was engaged in the bag search.
“Not only did he find a handgun wrapped up in an Ace® bandage, but there were also several bars of soap hollowed out,” said Jones. “The bars of soap were scooped out in the center and four or five bullets placed inside and then covered back up with the soap shavings. It was the most blatant case of artful concealment I’ve seen in my 19 years with TSA.”
Jones stayed behind to help Owens with the bag check while Jean-Pierre left to meet up with Port Authority Police and Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officers to locate and interview the passenger on the public side of the checkpoint.
“On my way to the ticket counter, I was thinking, ‘Another hunter must be trying to sneak one through,’” remembered Jean-Pierre. But that wasn’t the case.
During the 30-minute interview with law enforcement officers, the passenger changed his story a number of times. He offered inconsistent answers about the improper packaging and artful concealment of the items as well as the reason he was traveling internationally. Ultimately, the passenger was arrested and charged with undeclared weapons. He and his property were removed from the flight.
“At the end of the day, I was doing my job, and I did what anyone else would’ve done,” said a modest Owens. “I’m satisfied knowing they weren’t able to sneak an illegal firearm past us and get away with it.”
“The X-ray officer and Marcos Owens were thanked by Port Authority Police and CBP for doing such a great job and especially for making a decision [on a bag check] without hesitation,” said Jones.
“It’s times like these when I’m very appreciative and proud of the excellent officers we have here at Newark Liberty International,” said Jean-Pierre.
By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs