Murder charge filed in LAX shootings; note reveals anti-TSA grudge
Law-enforcement officials were trying to determine a motive for the attack at Los Angeles International Airport as federal prosecutors filed a murder charge against the 23-year-old suspect.
The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — One was a troubled 23-year-old with an assault rifle and an apparent grudge against the government. The other was a 39-year-old father of two who for three years had been a screener of passengers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
After a few chaotic minutes Friday, the security agent, Gerardo Hernandez, was dead, and Paul Anthony Ciancia, identified by the police as the gunman, was critically injured, shot in the head by officers. All around, the drudgery of passing through security gates turned into terror, passengers running for their lives and abandoning luggage as heavily armed police ordered them to hit the floor.
Ciancia was a drifter who had come to Los Angeles without a job, according to friends, and settled with roommates for a time in an apartment complex in Atwater Village, north of downtown Los Angeles, that is an enclave for young professionals and artists. A former roommate who did not want to be identified said Ciancia had slept on his couch from late 2012 until February 2013. Then he left.
In court documents filed Saturday, prosecutors brought two federal charges against Ciancia: murder of a federal officer and committing violence at an international airport, both of which carry a maximum sentence of life without parole or the death penalty. The documents said a handwritten letter found in a duffel bag at the scene showed Ciancia “made the conscious decision to try to kill” Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees. In a part of the letter, addressing TSA employees, he wrote that he wanted to “instill fear in your traitorous minds.”
Authorities said that during the shooting spree, Ciancia approached several people in the terminal, pointed the gun at them and asked if they “were TSA.” If the answer was no, he moved on. One witness said the gunman cursed the TSA as he moved through the terminal.
Prosecutors said Ciancia shot Hernandez, who was checking IDs and boarding passes at the base of an escalator leading to the main screening area, several times at point-blank range, went up an escalator, and then, seeing the wounded officer move, returned to fire again. He shot at least two other uniformed TSA employees, the documents said, and one airport passenger.
The gun was described as a Smith & Wesson .223-caliber M & P15 rifle, a semi-automatic rifle, that he purchased legally. He owned two other firearms, also purchased legally, officials said.
FBI investigators said they had not found evidence of previous crimes by Ciancia or any run-ins with the TSA. They said he had never applied for a job with the agency.
By Saturday afternoon, Terminal 3, where the shooting happened, had reopened and operations were back to normal. Passengers who had abandoned luggage to escape Friday’s gunfire were allowed to return to collect their bags.
Los Angeles is a world away from Pennsville, N.J., where Ciancia grew up; his father owns an auto-body shop. Ciancia attended a Roman Catholic boys school in nearby Wilmington, Del. Several family friends, neighbors and classmates described him as a reserved, quiet boy who along with his younger brother, Taylor, seemed to be scarred by his mother’s long battle with multiple sclerosis and death in 2009.
“It was very hard for them,” said Amanda Lawson, 21, who graduated from Pennsville Memorial High School in 2010 with Ciancia’s brother. She described both brothers as “awkward.”
Ciancia graduated from the University Technical Institute in Orlando, Fla., in December 2011, according to a school spokeswoman. He received a diploma that allowed him to become an entry-level motorcycle technician at a dealership or shop, she said.
James Mincey, who told ABC News he was a former roommate, said he met Ciancia a week ago for lunch.
“He would always talk about documentaries he would watch about whatever, but there was never any kind of hatred, or any hatred group, or anything like that,” Mincey told ABC News. “He said he was going back to New Jersey, going to work for his dad, making amends with family problems, and spending the holidays with his family.”
But Ciancia had apparently turned against the government, and it seemed clear he knew he was putting himself in a suicidal situation by marching with an assault weapon and 100 rounds of ammunition into the third-busiest airport in the country, officials said. He also sent a text to his brother that alarmed his family.
He seemed to have a specific grudge against the TSA; his handwritten note singled out the agency as a symbol of what was wrong with the government, mentioning the former head of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, according to a federal official.
Officials said Ciancia, who was dropped off at the airport, pulled the rifle out of his duffel bag just before reaching the security screening area in Terminal 3 and shooting Hernandez.
He led airport police officers on a chase into the terminal, past several airplane gates. Ultimately, he was shot by the police and wounded in the head. He remained in critical condition at UCLA Medical Center, raising questions about whether he would recover enough to explain his actions.
The slain agent, Hernandez, had worked as a security officer screening passengers and cargo since 2010. He was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. at 15.
In addition to a son and a daughter, he is survived by his wife, Ana Hernandez, who works at Warner Bros.
She recalled her husband’s sense of humor on Saturday and said he “was always excited to go to work and enjoyed the interactions with the passengers at LAX. ... He took pride in his duty for the American public and for the TSA mission.”
“I’m truly devastated,” she added. “We are all heartbroken, we will miss him dearly.”
Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Pat Gannon said Saturday that the LAPD dedicated extra resources to the airport and that visitors will see an increased law-enforcement presence for some time.
Material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post is included in this report.