LOS ANGELES – A Los Angeles man facing federal drug trafficking charges for allegedly trying to smuggle at least a kilogram of heroin on a plane leaving Los Angeles International Airport is scheduled to make his first court appearance this afternoon.
James Mitchell, 25, who resides in Pico-Union, was arrested yesterday by special agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration after prosecutors on Tuesday filed a criminal complaint in United States District Court.
The complaint specifically alleges that Mitchell attempted to smuggle approximately 2.15 pounds of heroin through a security checkpoint at LAX on December 10. At that date, Mitchell had checked in for a Frontier Airlines flight to Cincinnati, Ohio, only two days after purchasing a one-way ticket. Mitchell checked one article of luggage that “alerted to an unknown dense material” during an “image scan” by the Transportation Security Administration. An inspection of the bag revealed “six packages of a suspicious gray brittle concrete-like substance,” one of which later tested positive for heroin. The packages were wrapped in Christmas-themed paper.
TSA officials noted a “vinegar odor” emanating from one of the packages, which prompted Los Angeles World Airport (LAWA) police officers to seek assistance from a Hazardous Materials Unit. A portion of Terminal 3 was closed while personnel worked to detect and alleviate any potential chemical threat.
LAWA Police responding to the scene worked with Frontier Airlines in an attempt to locate Mitchell. When he answered a phone call from Frontier personnel, Mitchell told the gate agent he was in the restroom and not feeling well. At about this same time, airport surveillance cameras captured Mitchell exiting the terminal while speaking on a cell phone. Once outside, Mitchell removed a beanie cap from his head and changed his sweater, disappearing on foot in the lower terminal arrival area.
Investigators ultimately tracked Mitchell down at his Pico-Union residence, obtained an arrest warrant, and took him into custody without incident yesterday morning. After his arrest, investigators confirmed Mitchell is an employee of Aero Port Services at LAX and has direct access to secure areas of the airport.
“At a time when airlines are carrying loved ones across the country and the world, this defendant jeopardized passenger safety by attempting to use the system to traffic in dangerous drugs,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “Interdicting drug shipments is part of the mission to protect our critical infrastructure, and criminals seeking to abuse that infrastructure will be punished.”
At this point, Mitchell is charged in relation to only one of the six packages recovered from his luggage. Authorities are in the process of testing the other five packages to confirm the presence of heroin. The total weight of all six packages was approximately 6.5 kilograms, which is more than 14 pounds.
The complaint charges Mitchell with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute heroin, and possession with the intent to distribute heroin. If he were to be convicted of those two counts, he would face a mandatory minimum term of five years in federal prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of 40 years.
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
The DEA Los Angeles International Airport Narcotics Task Force, an inter-agency task force based at LAX, is conducting this investigation. The Task Force is charged with providing a coordinated law enforcement effort to target airport/airline internal criminal enterprises that use the aviation system to transport large amounts of illicit drugs throughout the United States, and throughout the world.
“Criminal organizations recruiting individuals with special access to commercial aircraft pose a serious threat to commercial aviation,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Steve Comer. “Accordingly, we're working with our law enforcement partners to mitigate this threat and aggressively prosecute individuals that could potentially exploit such access.”
In addition to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Task Force is made up of representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Los Angeles Airport Police, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The Task Force also works closely with the United States Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.
The case against Mitchell is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Reema M. El-Amamy of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.
USAO – California, Central Updated December 22, 2016
Central District of California DOJ / 16-311 / December 22, 2016