Deadly LAX shooting: Questions over positioning of airport police

National/World News
Police gather at the scene of a reported shooting at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 1, 2013. (Photo: Twitter / KTLA)

Police gather at the scene of a reported shooting at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 1, 2013. (Photo: Twitter / KTLA)

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LOS ANGELES -- Even as airport police were called heroes for chasing a gunman in Los Angeles International Airport, the shooting raised questions about changes in their positioning -- both where they were when shots rang out, and why the recent repositioning happened at all.

Airport police Chief Patrick Gannon elaborated about the strategic shift Saturday, one day after a Transportation Security Administration officer was killed and two others were wounded in Terminal 3. In the past year, he decided to move officers from behind a TSA security checkpoint to in front of it, where they also took on "greater responsibilities" such as monitoring both the arrival and departure floors of the terminal.

"The threat ... at the airport does not exist behind security at that podium, the threat exists from the curbline on," Gannon said. "So ... we have our people stationed throughout the airport.

"That particular individual" -- he added, referring to the nearest police officer to the site of Friday's initial shooting -- "was just moved to the front part of the airport."

At the same Gannon acknowledged that having the officers roam a larger areas, rather than sit at a checkpoint, has a trade-off.

"So are they going to be in the exact same (place), exactly where I'd hoped they would be? No," he said. "It didn't happen in this particular case."

Was there anything more behind the shift? A law enforcement source said on Saturday that airport police officers had complained to their union about being "bored with the assignment" of being stationed behind the TSA checkpoint.

Concurrently, TSA management complained that airport police officers weren't paying attention -- sometimes perusing their phones, using iPads or reading books -- according to the same source.

Then came "a fix" agreed to by TSA and airport police management, to keep officers in the public areas but position them in front of the checkpoints, including the one where Friday's shooting began. Part of the deal was that officers would never be more than two minutes from the checkpoing screening area, if needed, according to the law enforcement source.

While Gannon hasn't addressed the claims of "bored" and "distracted" officers, he said Saturday that the FBI has indicated his officers "were 60 seconds behind the suspect." However it was decided where they'd be standing, he insisted the two were where they were supposed to be, and did what they were supposed to do.

"Our officers were deployed where they were supposed to be and performed heroically in this particular matter," Gannon said.

'Hey, are you TSA?'

The horror began around 9:20 a.m. Friday, on an otherwise normal morning in a characteristically busy airport. A man walked up to a checkpoint in Terminal 3, just like so many others queuing in line.

"(He) pulled an assault rifle out of a bag and began to open fire," Gannon said.

But not just at anyone -- at a TSA officer.

As the gunman walked through the airport, he asked some -- like traveler Leon Saryan -- a simple question: "Hey, are you TSA?"

Saryan told Anderson Cooper he was asked this by a man who'd just "grazed" a TSA officer with a bullet, then walked "calmly" toward him through the terminal.

"I just shook my head," Saryan said. "And he kept going."

By then, people were sprinting for their lives -- down escalators, out emergency exit doors, cramming into bathrooms and first-class lounges, anything to get out of the line of fire.

The shots finally stopped at the end of Terminal 3, when the two airport police officers shot the suspect multiple times in the chest, an intelligence source briefed by Los Angeles police said. In addition to the slain officer, two other TSA officers were, said the federal agency's chief John Pistole in a letter to employees.

They carried him out, handcuffed to a gurney -- leaving behind what police described as an "assault rifle" and more than 100 rounds of unspent ammunition.

"That could have literally killed everyone in that terminal," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

The suspect has been identified by authorities as 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia.

Why did the gunman set out on a deadly course Friday? Despite being wounded, the suspect theoretically could tell police that. But some clues have emerged -- including that authorities found he'd been carrying a rant that appeared to refer to the New World Order plus anti-government claims, a federal law enforcement official said Saturday.

It's not clear what gave rise to the references, and federal investigators have found no known links to known groups or anything in the suspect's background to explain them. The New World Order is generally considered to be a conspiracy theory in which people suspect a group of elites is conspiring to form an authoritarian, one-world government.

The message featured an extended rant against TSA, claiming that this agency treats Americans like terrorists even though all people aren't equally dangerous, a U.S. law enforcement official said Saturday.

And near the end of the note was a derogatory reference to Janet Napolitano, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security that includes TSA, according to the same official.

Another clue to the state of mind of Ciancia -- who was dropped off at the airport by a roommate who, investigators believe, didn't know about any shooting plot, the law enforcement official said -- came from his family. He lives in Los Angeles, but his family back in New Jersey were concerned about him, said Allen Cummings, chief of police in Pennsville, New Jersey.

Ciancia's family became concerned in recent days after he sent his brother and father "angry, rambling" texts venting about the government, living in Los Angeles and his unhappiness generally, an intelligence source said.

But despite the unsettling text, Ciancia's family was still surprised by Friday's events.

"They're upset," Cummings told reporters. "I mean this is a shock to them, it's a shock to our community."

Widow of victim: 'I am truly devastated'

Ciancia was being treated for his injuries at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, according to an intelligence source. So, too, is one other person -- the hospital said Saturday one person is in critical condition and the other is in fair, without specifying their names, and noted another person was treated and released Friday.

Two other patients were transported to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, said David Klurad, a trauma surgeon there.

Klurad described one as a "middle-aged" person with minor injuries from being shot in the shoulder. The other had no signs of life when he arrived at the hospital, the surgeon said Friday.

It's presumed that fatality is Gerardo Hernandez, the lone person killed in the shooting according to authorities.

He's the first TSA officer to die in the line of duty since the agency was founded in 2001. The late officer was working as a travel document checker at the time, TSA workers' union and federal sources say.

Gannon said airport police quickly applied first aid to Hernandez, put him in a wheelchair, then rolled him to an ambulance.

"They were absolutely committed to trying to save a life," the police chief said. "Unfortunately, that didn't work out."

Gerardo Hernandez would have turned 40 next week. His widow described him as a "wonderful husband, father, brother, son and friend."

"I am truly devastated," his widow said. "We are all heartbroken and will miss him dearly."

The chaos also affected more than 165,000 passengers impacted by the ordeal, as the airport widely known as LAX shut down for hours. The airport estimated that over 1,500 scheduled flights were somehow "impacted."

Terminal 3, where the shooting and ensuing investigation took place, was declared "fully reopened and operational" Saturday afternoon by Gina Marie Lindsey, head of Los Angeles World Airports.

By then, security was out in force -- an "enhanced deployment" that included Los Angeles police department officers and air marshals in addition to airport police, according to Gannon. Some were uniformed, others were undercover.

"For today and for the foreseeable future, we'll continue (to have) a very high profile at the curbs and anywhere in those ticketing areas and anywhere on our campuses," the chief said.

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