An airport worker arrested for attempting to traffic several pounds of heroin wrapped as Christmas gifts through Los Angeles International Airport plead guilty Monday to federal charges.
Authorities nabbed 25-year-old James Mitchell Dec. 21, after agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched an investigation into the seized heroin, which officials originally found Dec. 10. LAX security discovered “six packages of a suspicious gray brittle concrete-like substance” that gave off a vinegary odor after the luggage was flagged during a security screening. One of the packages, weighing 2.1 pounds, tested positive for heroin, reports CBS Los Angeles.
Mitchell is charged with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute heroin and possession with the intent to distribute heroin, facing a minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum sentence of 40 years.
“At a time when airlines are carrying loved ones across the country and the world, this defendant jeopardized passenger safety by attempting to use the system to traffic in dangerous drugs,” United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker said after the arrest. “Interdicting drug shipments is part of the mission to protect our critical infrastructure, and criminals seeking to abuse that infrastructure will be punished.”
The initial discovery sparked a minor panic among travelers and airport officials, who called in a hazardous materials unit to inspect the packages, which forced airport officials to close a portion of Terminal 3, reports LA Weekly.
Mitchell worked at LAX with Aero Port Services, which provides wheelchair services and baggage transportation to travelers. DEA agents identified Mitchell acting suspiciously on airport security cameras exiting the terminal Dec. 10 talking on a cellphone. Security cameras outside captured Mitchell removing a beanie and changing a sweatshirt before disappearing.
DEA agents eventually obtained a warrant and tracked Mitchell down to his residence in the Pico-Union district.
Law enforcement officials across the country are in a fight against relentless trafficking of heroin and other opioids from Mexican cartels and domestic distributors. A record 33,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opioid deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993 and eclipsed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015.
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