LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A gunman who opened fire at the Los Angeles International Airport last week, killing a federal security screener and wounding several other people, did not immediately raise suspicions when he entered the airport, police said on Monday.
The gunman entered Terminal 3 of the sprawling airport looking like any other passenger, and likely would not have been detained immediately even if an armed officer had been stationed at the front door, said Patrick Gannon, chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police.
“He came in that door as a normal traveler with a bag and he was dressed normal. He didn’t raise anyone’s suspicions at that point,” Gannon told a news conference.
Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, was arrested following the shooting and has been charged with murder of a federal officer and committing violence at an international airport, offenses for which he could face the death penalty if convicted.
He is accused of walking into the terminal on Friday morning and opening fire with an assault-style rifle at the entrance to a security checkpoint, killing a Transportation Security Administration officer.
Authorities said the gunman continued past metal detectors and stalked the passenger boarding area, shooting and wounding two other TSA employees and an airline passenger, before he was shot and captured. The shooting triggered pandemonium as passengers and employees ran frantically for cover.
It has also sparked debate over the safety of unarmed security screeners at U.S. airports and about the adequacy of security measures that screen passengers as they enter airport terminals but do not conduct searches on people or vehicles as they enter the airport itself.
Ciancia, who was shot by law enforcement officers before he was taken into custody, remains hospitalized in critical condition, and local media have reported that he remained unresponsive and under heavy sedation.
A law enforcement official with knowledge of the case told Reuters that as of Sunday, FBI agents had been unable to question Ciancia, who was reported to have sustained four gunshot wounds, including one to his head.
Ciancia’s parents said in a statement released through an attorney that they have cooperated with investigators and expressed sympathy for relatives of the slain security agent.
Flight traffic throughout the airport, the world’s sixth busiest, was disrupted for much of the weekend, causing a ripple effect of delays around the country. Security was stepped up at many airports and federal authorities said they were considering changes to aviation security protocols.
In the days since the rampage, critics have suggested that the gunman could have been stopped sooner if an armed police officer had been stationed in front of the screening area, or if TSA agents themselves were armed.
A union representing TSA employees called for a “larger and more consistent armed presence in screening areas.” The American Federation of Government Employees said that to accomplish that goal, it wanted to see a new class of TSA officers with law enforcement status.
Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, told the Los Angeles Times that earlier this year armed officers had been moved from that position so they could patrol inside and outside of the terminal.
But Arif Alikhan, deputy executive director of law enforcement, homeland security and fire services at LAX, told a Monday news conference that armed police officers were still assigned to the TSA checkpoints.
“They’ve never been moved from the checkpoints. And there are many, many other armed police officers throughout the airport,” he said.
Alikhan said the slain security officer, 39-year-old Gerardo Hernandez, had been stationed at the base of an escalator that leads to the security gates when he was shot, becoming the first TSA employee to die in the line of duty since the agency was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Authorities have said it appeared that the gunman had specifically targeted TSA employees.
“In my opinion, where the TSA employee was when he was attacked saved lives,” Gannon said. “Where he was shot warned the people in the screening area of an attack.”
The law enforcement source said the suspect was given a ride to the airport by a roommate who authorities believe was unaware of any criminal intent on Ciancia’s part. The roommate is not expected to be charged, the source told Reuters.
Additional reporting and writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Richard Chang and Ken Wills