Airport Theft Incident Marred by Lack of Cameras, Says Victims

A Somerset schoolteacher has filed a federal lawsuit accusing a screener of stealing his diamond wedding ring last summer while he was passing through a security checkpoint at Logan International Airport.

John Wright said he put his ring, a 1.53-carat diamond set in gold, into a plastic bin with his Rolex watch and wallet. He said he then placed the bin on the conveyer belt as he and his wife, Janet, passed through the checkpoint to catch a flight to San Juan on July 14.

After walking through the metal detector, Wright said, he went to retrieve his belongings from the bin, but the ring, valued at $7,000, had vanished.

"I hadn't even gone 15 feet on my vacation and I was robbed," Wright said. He immediately began shouting that his ring was missing, he said, prompting the three Transportation Security Administration screeners who were at the checkpoint to search around the conveyer belt, without success.

Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the federal TSA, said she couldn't comment on the specifics of Wright's case because of the lawsuit, but that the agency does not tolerate workplace theft and aggressively investigates all complaints.

Wright, 51, who lives in Tiverton, R.I., and teaches health at Somerset Middle School, said he suspected that one of the TSA screeners took the ring because there were no passengers in front of him as he went through the checkpoint and his wife was directly behind him.

A TSA supervisor summoned to the scene said he couldn't search or question the employees, according to the Wrights, because there was no evidence that they had taken the ring.

Janet Wright said they were told that only one end of the conveyer belt was monitored by a security camera, and a review of the videotape from that camera only showed her husband picking up the plastic bin and yelling, "My ring! My ring!"

"I was shocked when I found that out," said Janet Wright. That discovery only bolstered the couple's belief that the ring had been stolen by a TSA employee, she said, because the screeners would have known the theft could not be caught on camera.

After TSA denied a claim seeking $7,000 to replace the ring, Wright filed suit in US District Court in Boston last month against the federal government alleging that TSA negligently allowed the ring to be stolen and failed to provide a secure checkpoint. The suit seeks reimbursement for the ring and attorney's fees.

Davis declined to address the Wrights' assertion that only one side of the checkpoint, located in Terminal B, was monitored by a security camera. "Ultimately, we don't want to confirm where cameras are or aren't for security reasons," she said.

But, she added, "there are a substantial amount of cameras throughout the terminal and at the checkpoint to cover the area and certainly to deter any criminal activity."

Between February 2002 when TSA assumed responsibility for screening passengers and baggage and last October, 165 TSA screeners have been arrested for theft at airports throughout the country, according to Davis. None of those arrests occurred at Logan.

On five occasions, twice in 2005 and three times in 2004, passengers have accused TSA screeners at Logan of stealing property, Davis said. Passengers reported property stolen from checked baggage and at checkpoints, but in all cases the employees were cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed to remain on the job, she said.

She also said that none of the screeners accused of theft in the past had been on duty at the checkpoint on the day Wright's ring was lost.

Davis said the number of TSA screeners caught stealing is small, considering that the agency has 43,000 screeners at airports nationwide and about 740 in Boston.

Still, there have been a number of highly publicized cases around the country. In some instances, screeners have been accused of stealing cash from purses or wallets at checkpoints. But most cases involve checked baggage.

Four former TSA screeners pleaded guilty last year to stealing laptops, cameras, and other items from checked baggage at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Complaints from passengers, including celebrities Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers, and Susan Lucci, that items were taken from their luggage triggered an investigation that led to the arrest in 2004 of four TSA screeners from LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The Wrights voiced dismay at how their complaint was handled, saying the TSA supervisor who was summoned to the checkpoint did not call State Police and gave them an 800 number to call to report a lost or stolen item.

But Davis said it is not standard operating procedure at Logan for TSA to call State Police every time a theft is reported by a passenger. Passengers may choose to file a complaint with the police, however.

"We will, of course, interview the screeners if they've been accused of stealing," said Davis, but she said employees aren't searched if there's insufficient evidence to warrant it.

The Wrights, who have been married for 27 years, said TSA denied their claim without a thorough investigation, leaving them with no choice but to sue.

"We felt we were in a secure area," said Janet Wright. "We followed instructions, they told us to remove items. . . . We got to the other side and one of our valuables is missing," she said.