Three Texas men allegedly plotted to swipe guns from checked baggage at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and exchange them for drugs, prosecutors say.
On Wednesday, a U.S. attorney in Western Texas charged Ja’Quan Johnson, 25, a baggage handler at the airport, with stealing firearms from passengers’ bags. From November to February, Johnson allegedly lifted at least seven guns from checked luggage. The firearms resurfaced during a February 3 drug bust on Johnson’s home, which also netted two his alleged accomplices, police say.
Johnson was sleeping with a gun under his pillow when Austin police led the raid on his home, a criminal complaint alleges. Police found another gun in his medicine cabinet.
Both weapons were .40 caliber Glocks, the same make as one of the guns that had recently disappeared from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where Johnson worked as a baggage handler. Also missing from the airport were a series of pistols and revolvers, all easily concealable weapons that had vanished from travelers’ checked luggage beginning in November, police say.
In an interview with police, Johnson confessed to stealing seven guns from passengers’ luggage and trading some for marijuana, which he said went for a rate of approximately seven grams for a gun, the criminal complaint states. Police also booked two of his alleged accomplices—Matthew Bartlett, 21, and Catronn Hewitt, 36, who allegedly exchanged Johnson’s guns for drugs. Both have been charged with felony marijuana possession.
Only Johnson is facing federal charges, due in part to where he allegedly stole the guns—from outgoing luggage at Austin’s international airport—which led to one charge of theft from an interstate shipment, which carries up to 10 years in prison. He also faces an additional 10 years for every gun he allegedly stole, which could add up to a staggering 80-year sentence.
His arrest raises questions on airlines’ handling of guns, even when passengers declare the weapons before boarding.
Airplane passengers are increasingly packing heat, the Transportation Security Administration reports. Guns confiscated from carry-ons have skyrocketed over the past decade, from 660 seized in 2005, to a projection of over 3,000 seized in 2016, according to The Trace.
Fewer figures exist on the numbers of guns legally packed in checked luggage, where guns must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. But the regulations apparently haven’t prevented airport staff from swiping the firearms, if gun owners are to be believed. Over decades of internet forum posts, aggrieved gun owners have complained that their weapons went missing on a flight, either as the result of theft, or simply when the airline misplaced their luggage. In 2006, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was home to a rash of firearm thefts from checked luggage, with some guns being stolen from military officials’ luggage, police reported.
“It’s happened before,” Mark Howell, a spokesperson for the TSA told The Daily Beast, referring to a gun smuggling ring in an Atlanta airport in 2014. “Obviously we don’t want firearms in secure areas for tons of reason. That’s why we do background checks on folks, but people are still going to do things that are illegal.”