Oregonian article, Feb 24 2008
Theft of guns uncovers breach in security at PDX
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Richard Sollars went to great pains to properly pack and check his two firearms before boarding a Texas-bound plane this winter at Portland International Airport.
But when he arrived in Houston, the lock on the special gun case that carried his two handguns was broken. One of his firearms was missing.
"I was sick to my stomach, because I've always played by the rules," Sollars said.
The theft of Sollars' Walther .22-caliber pistol on Dec. 5 wasn't an isolated case. Three months earlier, a man flying from Spokane to Texas for a hunting trip arrived at his destination dismayed to learn his rifle case never made it onto his connecting flight in Portland.
An investigation by the Port of Portland police has tied a 19-year-old Vancouver man who worked as a baggage carrier for Airport Terminal Services Inc., to both thefts. Charles Dean Miller III was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Thursday after a grand jury indicted him on charges of first-degree theft and theft by receiving. He was fired. His former employer declined comment.
Good detective work and a lucky break cracked the case, but it's still unclear how the thief managed to get away with the guns and whether he had help.
"This is supposed to be a very secure environment," Sollars said. "If they're able to do this . . . what else is going on that jeopardizes everyone?"
In 2007, the Port of Portland recorded three gun thefts from passengers' luggage; none has been recovered. Port police are investigating whether anyone else was involved and how the security breaches occurred.
"It's very concerning that this is going on at the airport," said Multnomah County prosecutor Andrew Lavin.
Port spokesman Steve Johnson said that reported gun thefts are few and far between, considering that 14.6 million travelers passed through PDX last year. No guns were reported stolen from luggage in the three years before 2007.
"Still, we take this sort of thing very, very seriously," Johnson said.
Port police said they've assigned more officers to patrol the baggage tunnels where passengers' luggage goes after check-in and before the bags are loaded onto planes. "Our guys are just being present so everyone knows the police are out here," said Lt. Bob Baxter of the Port police.
Firearms stored as luggage have been stolen from airports in other cities, including Seattle, Chicago and Philadelphia. Some airports have considered installing surveillance cameras in the baggage tunnels, but the idea is often nixed as too costly.
"Anytime you get a weapon stolen, whether it's from someone's home, car or luggage -- it's an alarm to police because sooner or later, it's going to end up where it shouldn't be," Baxter said.
That's what happened with a 9 mm pistol stolen from a Bremerton man's checked gun case at SeaTac Airport on Dec. 13, 2005. King County sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart said the gun turned up four months later on the floorboard of a gang member's car.
Rules to travel with guns
Douglas Jacklin, 68, of Idaho has traveled the world with his custom rifle to hunt wild sheep and elk and never had a firearm stolen.
There are stringent federal rules for anyone who wants to check a firearm while traveling by air. Gun owners must fill out disclosure forms. The weapons must be unloaded, stored in a locked, hard-sided container, and ammunition must be specially packaged.
"What really bothers me is the security of the airport. Here we all go through the checks, the scanners and the screeners," Jacklin said. "Yet the employees, the baggage carriers, can come and go. In this age of terrorism and homeland security, this type of theft bothers me."
On Sept. 24, Jacklin flew Alaska Airlines from Spokane to Portland. He watched as his rifle case was loaded onto his plane. He had a one-hour layover in Portland before taking an American Airlines flight to Texas for a hunting trip. His suitcase full of clothes arrived, but no guns. He had to borrow his friend's rifle during their five-day hunting trip.
"Let me tell you," Jacklin said, "you feel absolutely naked when you don't have your rifle on a hunting trip."
He reported the missing case to both airlines, his local county sheriff, local police, a federal marshal and Spokane airport security. "I was stonewalled everywhere I went," Jacklin said, until he reached Port of Portland police. He gave an officer a list of what he lost from a rifle case secured by three locks: a $4,000 custom .300 Ultra Mag Weatherby rifle, a $1,500 pair of Swarovski binoculars, a $1,200 Leupold 6-by-20 rifle scope, a $400 Leica brand range finder and other accessories.
Padlock didn't stop theft
It wasn't until another case of gun theft came in that the investigation took off.
Sollars, 39, an Oregon native who recently moved to Texas, had returned late last year to visit his parents. He brought two firearms along for target shooting.
On Dec. 5, he flew Continental Airlines back to Texas. His two pistols were in a Walther brand hard-plastic pistol case, secured with a padlock. Only one gun arrived in Texas. But what Sollars discovered inside the case proved to be a major break for investigators.
He found a set of keys and a QFC membership tag. Since there are no Quality Food Centers in Texas, Sollars surmised the keys and tag belonged to someone in Portland.
"In a nutshell, we got a lucky break," Baxter said.
Port Detective Seth Klein obtained a list of baggage handlers who worked Sollars' flight from Airport Terminal Services, the company that contracts with Continental for baggage service. The detective also learned from an ATS manager that employee Miller was missing a set of keys.
Miller had an access control card to get into secure portions of the airport. Pauline Nelson, the airport's access control administrator, confirmed that Miller had swiped his card at 9:51 a.m. Dec. 5, putting him in a location where Sollars' baggage would have been handled.
The detective learned that the keys matched Miller's personal car.
As Klein was investigating Sollars' case, a fellow Port officer told him of Jacklin's complaint. The detective found Miller had also been in the baggage area when Jacklin's rifle case was stolen.
Miller, who has no prior criminal record, told detectives after his Dec. 29 arrest that he had stolen Sollars' gun because he hadn't gotten a raise and was having financial problems. Alone in the cargo hold of Sollars' plane, he noticed the pistol case, pried the lock open and took the .22. He told authorities he sold the handgun for $250 to a man named "Casper" in Southeast Portland.
Miller told police a former co-worker gave him Jacklin's binoculars, which he sold to Vancouver's Easy Pawn shop for $40. By the time police traced the $1,500 binoculars, they had been resold. They had no luck tracing Jacklin's rifle or other accessories.
Jacklin has ordered a new custom rifle. Today, it'll cost him $12,500.
Douglas Laird, an aviation security consultant who formerly worked as security director for Northwest Airlines, said thefts may occur in the cargo hold of a plane, because generally only one person fits at a time.
Regardless, Laird said, "it shouldn't happen."