A suspicious cane came through a Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) checkpoint, and it took an alert TSA officer and her Alaska team to crack the case.
Officer Kanoelani Eli was on X-ray in one of ANC’s TSA PreCheck® lanes and noticed something odd when a passenger’s cane rolled across her screen. She immediately stopped her belt to take a closer look.
“My first thought was this was a test,” Eli recalled. “I checked my surroundings, thinking someone would come out and say, ‘Good job, you passed!’ I hit the suspect button a few times, thinking maybe it was a threat image projection.”
Turns out it wasn’t a test!
Still not believing what she saw on the X-ray, Eli quickly called TSA Officer Michael Chaffin who agreed the cane’s image didn’t look quite right. She flagged down Supervisory Officer Christian Waltensperger. Waltensperger removed the cane from the X-ray tunnel and engaged with the passenger who said the cane was purchased at a garage sale and was given to him years ago. The traveler told Waltensperger there shouldn’t be anything inside it since he never opened it or modified it in any way.
Knowing something seemed strange about the cane, Waltensperger pulled off the cane’s rubber foot and found a rubber stopper flush with the shaft of the cane. But the stopper was so tight that he couldn’t pry it loose. So, he ran the cane through a computed tomography scanner to get a 3D image to determine the potential threat, but still no solid answer. That’s when Waltensperger pulled TSA Manager Jeremiah Wilson over to help.
Wilson found something to pull out the rubber stopper, and after a couple of minutes, finally out came an 8-inch spike knife made of hard plastic with a triangular cross section.
“I reacted with excitement that they were able to finally get the knife out of the cane,” said Chaffin. “It made me feel great, because this was the first time I’ve experienced something hidden in a cane.”
The passenger was able to convince airport police, the FBI and a TSA inspector that he didn’t know anything about the knife. After authorities released him, the man booked another flight for later in the day.
Waltensperger said the great catch took tremendous teamwork and networking through what’s called team-based alarm resolution.
“It took multiple officers working together to resolve alarms using professional skepticism, confer and concur, specific open-ended questions and the SOP (standard operating procedures),” Waltensperger explained. “I believe the knife was artfully concealed but not necessarily by the passenger. With the passenger’s physical limitations, it would be highly unlikely that he would be able to remove the knife discreetly, nor would he be able to remove it quickly in case he was attacked. I believe someone put the knife there with the intention of getting into places it was not allowed, but I don’t believe it was this passenger.”
Alaska Assistant Federal Security Director-Screening Mike Kombe wasn’t surprised by the great catch and teamwork, saying, “Officers Eli and Chaffin are highly committed to our mission and understand the importance of getting it right. We push a culture of team-based alarm resolution, which is highly effective and empowers our officers. That empowerment was on display in the team’s attention to detail and persistence. They are laser-focused whenever uncertainty is present.”
Eli called the cane “the most interesting thing I’ve caught on X-ray,” noting, “It’s one of the things you hear about but don’t really expect to ever see. To have not only witnessed it, but to have caught it, is surreal. It would be pretty hard to beat this catch!
By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs