A passenger departing Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) thought his packing creativity would fool TSA, but he underestimated the precision of TSA’s screening technology and the skill and training of ABQ officers in resolving a checked bag alarm.
When ABQ Explosive Detection TSA Officer (TSO) Lorraine Chavez looked at the image on the monitor, she knew something was off. Her initial suspicion was the first domino tipped in a security screening incident that uncovered an artfully concealed gun part.
While working with the nimble baggage screening technology, Chavez interpreted the X-ray images on the screen as a red flag.
“This was solid and out of place,” said Chavez.
Chavez was referring to an item the X-ray couldn’t penetrate, and it concerned her.
Once Chavez notified Lead TSA (LTSO) Officer Bianca Gomez about the questionable image, Gomez began secondary screening on the bag and found a rectangle cardboard box wrapped in duct tape. Cutting through the tape, Gomez discovered pieces of lead on the outside of a hard, plaster-like substance.
Before breaking the plaster seal, Gomez activated the next layer in her security chain of command by calling Supervisory TSA Officer (STSO) Brian Piccola.
“I called for STSO Piccola because I did not feel comfortable going any deeper,” said Gomez. “I knew I had to engage my network after I had a gut feeling something was not right.”
“The first thing I did was look at the (X-ray) image (on the monitor) and reviewed the bag,” said Piccola. “The LTSO had already opened the box and removed the tape which revealed the pieces of lead and the plaster. I analyzed all this information in combination with my trust of the TSO and LTSO to make careful examinations and decisions. My experience and gut told me that all of these factors didn’t add up.”
Piccola paused further screening and notified the airline, requesting the passenger be paged to return to the check-in counter. TSA Managers Nathan Torres and Treela O’Connor were also apprised of the alarm and arrived in the baggage area.
When Piccola and Torres questioned the passenger at the counter about what was in his bag, the passenger replied, “It was film that needed to be insulated, and you can toss it.”
Piccola went back to the baggage room to continue the search.
“Once we peeled back all the layers of duct tape, lead and socks wrapped in plaster of paris, we found the gun part (an AR-style upper receiver),” said Piccola.
The FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Albuquerque police questioned the passenger but did not charge him. Law enforcement confiscated the firearm part, and the airline didn’t allow the passenger to board his scheduled flight.
“This gives new and young officers some perspective into attempts to circumvent screening,” said TSA Assistant Federal Security Director Stephen Felty about the incident. “It changes your focus when you realize for the first time that not every passenger is benign. For a few weeks after, you could overhear officers talking about how TSA might have kept a person from transporting gun parts elsewhere for final assembly and use in a malicious way.”
“Once we put it in the (daily) brief and shared it with everyone, it opened a lot of the officer’s eyes,” said Piccola. “It reinforced they should trust their gut, follow policies and use their network.”
“Mission Essentials training includes things like ‘we resolve alarms; we don’t clear them’ and ‘stay laser focused,’” said Felty. “This incident gave the officers a real-life example of why we emphasize these things in training.”
By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs