Newark Liberty Airport screener charged with stealing electronics from luggage

by Stephanus Surjaputra on October 8, 2008

Transportation Security Administration agents are supposed to be the first line of defense against terrorists. Not Pythias Brown. An airport screener at Newark’s Liberty Airport, he has been accused of swiping electronic equipment from luggage.

He started out small, stealing a cellphone here, a laptop there. Then he expanded. In all, he’s stolen more than 100 items, according to authorities.

This summer, he got a little too ambitious. He stole a $47,900 camera from an HBO crew and a camcorder from a CNN employee. It would have probably gone unnoticed if one of the victims didn’t later recognize the item up for sale on eBay.

Federal investigators have charged Brown with theft. He faces up to 10 years in prison. Based on their own findings, the Transportation Security Administration will soon fire him. He has been a screener at Newark since 2002.

Authorities raided his home last week and seized, among other things, “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.” Brown confessed that he started stealing beginning in September 2007 and has put most of the items up on eBay.

The camcorder, stolen in July 2008, was found by the CNN employee on eBay in August 2008. Brown used the name “alirla” to sell the items.

After the employee contacted the police, investigators used their account to place the winning bid, arranged for payment through PayPal, and had the item shipped to an address in Marlton, New Jersey. Brown listed his Maplewood home as the return address. The serial number matched that of the stolen camera.

After the HBO employee reported the theft of the $47,900 camera, authorities found it for sale on eBay by “alirla.” They traced the account to a Verizon Internet address, which was registered to Brown’s fiancee. The Verizon account was registered at the Maplewood address.

Authorities raided the home on October 1, 2008.

Lara Uselding, TSA spokeswoman, said that they are working closely with investigators to bring charges against Brown. She said that these types of crimes were rare and that “less than 300 TSA employees have been terminated for theft.”

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  • Mindy

    Less than 300? That’s cited as a GOOD statistic?? I mean.. this guy was a rabid theif and it took them 1+ year and the help of one of the victims to catch him. Had he not gone nutso and taken a 50k+ camera how long would he have gotten away with this? I am tired of my bags getting tossed (without the TSA notice) every time I go through the airport. We need to have some serious changes in the baggage handling process.

  • Hapgood

    Let’s see… it took a year for the TSA to catch a thief in its own ranks? How does this inspire any confidence in their ability to protect aviation from terrorist threats?

    I can only hope the new administration appoints an independent auditor to conduct a thorough review of the Homeland Security bureaucracy.

  • FRANK

    I believe that employees at the US Mint and the Bureau of Engraving & Printing have to go through a screening process themselves as they enter and leave the building so as to prevent them from taking money home. Why not do the same thing for the TSA screeners? Set up an employee screening station at the entrance and exit to the secure area. If they come to work with a cellphone, iPod or whatever, it’s logged in. Then they have to go back through the screening as they leave and they can’t have more cellphones than they came in with.

    If 300 of them have been caught, probably three times that many have not. Especially if they can walk out the door with whatever they can slip into a pocket or backpack. This is a problem that can be addressed with well known existing loss prevention techniques. I suspect that Walmart, Target, Best Buy etc. take more precautions to make sure their employees aren’t taking merchandise home than TSA does to protect citizens’ property that is entrusted to it.

  • James Falsedo

    Forget the rules that are currently in place at the TSA. Grade school rooms for placing one’s backpack are more secure than your luggage at the airport. I read a list of recommendations once from a retired Navy Officer of what he expected from the TSA (a “wish list” if you will). One of those suggestions was a notification left in your luggage if the TSA went through it, stating the time, date, and by whom it was searched. BTW, spare me the line that this will help terrorists. If they find a bomb or something, the person (hopefully) will be arrested. It’s just a simple matter of CHECKING power.
    You have to CHECK power, or it becomes UNCHECKED.

  • Hapgood

    The TSA apparently has an extremely narrow definition of “security.” Their mandate is strictly limited to (retroactively) reacting to 9/11 and to terrorism. Although you’d think “security” should include protecting passengers’ property from theft and damage, that’s not within the TSA’s definition of “security” or their mandate. So they ignore the risk of theft, and even (unintentionally?) encourage it when they devise their procedures.

    So it doesn’t matter to the TSA that the distraction and juggling of shoes, carry-ons, and baggies at screening checkpoints creates a bonanza for thieves. And they don’t bother with basic precautions like checking their own baggage screeners for theft because it’s not part of their mandate. They have far higher priorities, like spending $13 million on spiffy new uniforms to show us how professional the screeners are!

    If enough passengers complain about theft to create a public relations problem, they’ll eventually get around to firing a few screeners and declaring the problem solved (that approach worked very well at addressing the Abu Ghraib embarrassment, after all). But otherwise it’s no big deal. There hasn’t been a repeat of 9/11 since the TSA was formed, so they’re clearly doing an excellent job. And besides, a few thefts are a small price to pay for the highly effective protection the TSA is providing.

    Now go away people. Nothing to see here. The TSA has to get back to work.

  • Lily

    This wasn’t just cell phones and game boys he slipped into a pocket or backpack. Are you telling me that no one thought it was weird when this guy came to work with his greasy fingers in his pockets and then left at the end of his shift with a professional film crew camera? Seriously! A $47,900 camera is not something that can be slipped out in your lunch bag. Those things are huge! How is it possible that no one was noticing this guy?

    Sheesh! And I thought it was bad when TSA stole chocolate covered nuts out of my checked luggage. This takes the cake!

  • Bruce InCharlotte

    A disgrace. These folks should be suing the TSA management for gross negligence and dereliction of duty for allowing this to happen. Why aren’t there cameras? How could one person be allowed to open bags? Even the most BASIC security requires two people to be present.

    Look over here flying public! It’s something shiny!

  • Marcelo Ribas

    TSA offends me and all American residents and citizens by stealing from many of us and telling you that they might take up to six months to decide if they will accept your claim (via e mail of course). I had items stolen from my bags out of EWR Terminal C many times, In November my wife traveled to Sao Paulo, Brazil and had several items stolen by TSA personnel, I know that as a fact because I work for the airline and I was at pier 16 to check the bag. There is nothing between the check in counter and pier 16 in that terminal but the TSA thieves.

    What really worries me is that I first talked to Mr. Manuel Paredes, TSA’s night shift supervisor to complain about what happened and he gave me the , I am sorry I apologize but there is nothing I can do attitude. The only thing he said he could do is to give me a piece of paper with TSA’s web site address to send them a complain. Of course he will not do anything because all he cares about is to get a pay check at the end of the month. Pythias Brown was only one of the thieves working for TSA at Terminal C in Newark, there are several of them still getting paid to do this to you (you pay them with your tax money). At least now , TSA spent several millions of dollars buying them new uniforms so that they look more professional.

    I know that I am just one person complaining about what goes on at EWR airport, I wish somebody one day will step up to the plate and do something to put a STOP to this pilferage wave.

    Today TSA theft was on national TV in the biggest talk show in Brazil hosted by Jo Soares, he says that USA is a great place but could be a better place if it wasn’t for all things that get stolen from his bags almost every time he returns to Brazil from EWR.

    One other thing that I worry about is that WHAT IF someone like Pythias Brown who stole from people over , over and over again is offered a large sum of money to put something illegal or dangerous inside a bag? Think about it, think , think, think and tell me if you feel safe………………….

  • Eric Hill

    I can vouch for this. My friend just had several bottles of perfume (gifts for family) stolen from his suitcase between Miami and Sao Paulo. Of course he couldn’t carry the perfume on for fear of using it as an explosive. We’re simply out of control for trying so hard to be in control.

  • Pingback: Are VIPR and TSA forces preparing us for Concentration camp style behavior?

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