TSA calls Newark screener a one-person crime wave

TSA employee was stealing electronics from bags during screening process


As a screener at Newark Liberty International Airport, Pythias Brown was supposed to keep deadly objects off airplanes. But for the past year, authorities allege, Brown has been swiping electronic equipment from luggage of the passengers he was supposed to protect.

A laptop here, a cell phone there. Within months, he had snatched more than 100 items, authorities said.

But this summer, Brown got too ambitious for his own good, allegedly stealing a $47,900 camera from an HBO crew and a camcorder from a CNN employee, authorities said.

Brown attracted the attention of one of his victims - and eventually investigators - when he tried to sell the equipment on eBay, the online auction site, authorities said.

Federal investigators charged the 48-year-old Maplewood resident this week with theft and he is scheduled to appear in federal court in Newark today. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jenny Kramer said.

Officials at the Transportation Security Administration, which employs the airport screeners, said Brown has been placed on administrative leave and, based on their own findings, will soon be fired. Brown has worked as a screener at Newark Liberty since 2002.

"The TSA takes these matters of theft and any wrongdoing very seriously, and takes a hard line against those offenders," spokeswoman Lara Uselding said.

When investigators raided Brown's home last week, they seized a trove of contraband, according to an affidavit signed by Thomas Adams, an agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and the lead investigator on the case.

Among the items seized were 66 cameras, 31 laptop computers, 20 cell phones, 17 sets of electronic games, 13 pieces of jewelry, 12 GPS devices, 11 MP3 players, eight camera lenses, six video cameras and two DVD players, the affidavit said.

According to the affidavit, Brown confessed that he began stealing two to three items per week from the airport beginning in September 2007. He told authorities he put most of the stolen items up for sale on eBay, it said.

One of the items was a Sony camcorder that was swiped from the bag of a CNN employee who was a passenger on a flight from Newark to Houston in July 2008, authorities said.

In August, the CNN employee contacted police to report that the stolen camera was listed for sale on eBay. Authorities said the camera was posted by a person with the user ID "alirla."

Investigators then used their own eBay account to place the winning bid on the camera, and arranged to pay Brown through a PayPal account, the affidavit said.

Authorities said they gave Brown an address in Marlton where he sent the camera. On the package, Brown listed his Maplewood home as the return address, authorities said. The serial numbers on the camera matched those of the stolen CNN equipment, authorities said.

Video images from security cameras at the Newark Post Office, where the shipment was mailed, linked Brown to the package, authorities said. Brown's credit card was used to pay for the postage, they said.

As investigators built their case against Brown, an HBO employee reported the theft of a $47,900 camera from a bag he had checked at Newark Liberty for a flight to London in September.

Again, authorities found the camera posted for sale on eBay by "alirla," according to the affidavit. They traced the eBay account to a Verizon internet address listed to Brown's fianc e, authorities said. The couple, who had their wedding scheduled for Oct. 12, lived together at the Maplewood residence where the Verizon account was registered, authorities said.

Authorities raided the home Oct. 1.

Uselding said the TSA worked closely with homeland security investigators to bring the charges against Brown. She also said his crimes were rare and that less than 300 TSA employees have been terminated for theft.


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