‘A matter of minutes:’ Police checked on LAX suspect after he left for the airport

Posted at 9:29 AM, Nov 02, 2013
By Miguel Marquez. Greg Botelho and Sarah Aarthun


LOS ANGELES (CNN) — Police missed speaking with suspected Los Angeles International Airport shooter Paul Ciancia by “a matter of minutes” the day his family asked authorities to check on him after receiving disturbing messages, according to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

By the time officers arrived at Ciancia’s apartment Friday, he had already left — as little as 45 minutes earlier — for the airport, according to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul.

As authorities piece together Ciancia’s actions leading up to the shooting, new details emerged Sunday from those close to the suspect.

According to someone who knew Ciancia and his roommates well, Ciancia began asking one of his three roommates days before the shooting if he could get a ride to the airport. Ciancia told the roommate that his father, back in New Jersey, was sick and he needed to get home “to go help take care of him,” the source said. Ciancia didn’t, however, indicate what day he needed to leave.

On the day of the shooting, Ciancia burst into his roommate’s room and demanded a ride to the airport immediately, said the source, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity.

“That morning he doesn’t knock. He just opens the door and says, ‘I need to leave. Can you take me now?'” the source said.

The roommate, who investigators believe didn’t know about any shooting plot, dropped him off at the airport, a law enforcement official said.

Texts alarmed family

Meanwhile, his family back in New Jersey had been receiving alarming texts from Ciancia, indicating he was unhappy, according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the investigation.

It was one of those text messages that made his family think something bad was about to happen.

“Basically, the text message was just a message to the little brother, and the way it was written, they had some concern about it, and that’s when they brought it to our attention,” said Allen Cummings, the police chief in Ciancia’s hometown of Pennsville, New Jersey.

The father called Cummings about 1:30 p.m. ET on Friday. Cummings, in turn, called the Los Angeles Police Department, asking them to check on him to make sure he was OK.

When they checked, he wasn’t home. His two other roommates were sleeping, unaware of where he and the fourth roommate had gone.

The next thing Cummings heard, he said, were media reports linking Ciancia to the shooting.

McCaul, R-Texas, called the timing “tragic.”

“This is how we typically stop these things — through good intelligence, and if family members or friends see a loved one who is exhibiting signs of mental illness … then I think it’s incumbent to call this to local authorities,” McCaul said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union. “They actually did that in this case and, unfortunately, missed the suspect by a matter of minutes.”

Ciancia, 23, remained “unresponsive” Sunday, according to a law enforcement source, recovering from multiple gunshot wounds he suffered after airport police confronted him inside Terminal 3. He is in critical condition at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the hospital said.

He is unable to speak, the source said, leaving many questions as to why he allegedly walked into the airport shortly after 9 a.m. Friday. pulled out an assault rifle and opened fire.

‘Conscious decision to kill … TSA employees’

Even in Ciancia’s silence, more details are trickling out about what happened at the bustling airport.

The incident began when Ciancia walked up to a security checkpoint and shot a TSA officer “at point-blank range,” according to an affidavit accompanying the criminal complaint against him. He then went up an escalator and, upon seeing the officer apparently continue to move, came back down to shoot him again, the affidavit said.

That TSA officer, Gerardo Hernandez, later died.

After shooting Hernandez, the gunman continued through the terminal, firing on two other uniformed TSA officers and a passenger before he was shot by airport police, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said.

The gunman had a note that indicated the suspect made a “conscious decision to kill multiple TSA employees,” according to the affidavit.

The note also apparently referred to the New World Order and anti-government claims, a federal law enforcement official said.

It’s not clear what gave rise to the references, and federal investigators have found no links to known groups and nothing in the suspect’s background to explain them. The New World Order is generally considered to be a conspiracy theory in which people suspect a group of elites is conspiring to form an authoritarian, one-world government.

“He addressed them (TSA officers) at one point in the letter and stated that he wanted to ‘instill fear into their traitorous minds,'” FBI Special Agent in Charge David Bowdich said.

In his diatribe, the gunman claimed the TSA treats Americans like terrorists even though all people aren’t equally dangerous, a U.S. law enforcement official said.

Wounded victims identified

Both wounded TSA officers were treated and released from hospitals. The TSA identified them Sunday as James Speer, 54, and Tony Grigsby, 36.

The passenger who was shot in his leg was still being treated Sunday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center Sunday, according to a hospital statement.

Brian Ludmer “remains in fair condition but faces at least one additional surgery for a fractured leg along with extensive physical therapy,” a hospital spokesman said Sunday.

Ludmer, a 29-year-old Lake Forest, Illinois, native, teaches stage craft in the theater program at Calabasas High School in Los Angeles County, according to the school’s website.

Ciancia is now charged with two felony offenses — murder of a federal officer and commission of violence in an international airport.

If convicted, Ciancia could face the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the prosecutor said. The U.S. attorney general would decide whether to pursue a death sentence.

‘A wonderful husband, father’

Hernandez is the first TSA officer to die in the line of duty since the agency was founded in 2001. He was working as a travel document checker at the time, the TSA workers’ union said.

He would have turned 40 next week. His widow described him as a “wonderful husband, father, brother, son and friend.”

The chaos also affected more than 165,000 passengers on hundreds of flights as the airport shut down for hours. By Saturday afternoon, all of it — including Terminal 3 — had been reopened.

Placement of police questioned

The shooting has stirred questions about a recent repositioning of airport police officers around LAX.

Airport police Chief Patrick Gannon said in the past year, he decided to move officers from behind a TSA security checkpoint to in front of it, where they also took on “greater responsibilities” such as monitoring both the arrival and departure floors of the terminal.

“The threat … at the airport does not exist behind security at that podium, the threat exists from the curbline on,” Gannon said. “So … we have our people stationed throughout the airport.”

He said the nearest police officer to the site of Friday’s initial shooting “was just moved to the front part of the airport.”

Gannon acknowledged the trade-off of having the officers roam a larger area rather than sit at a checkpoint.

“So are they going to be in the exact same (place), exactly where I’d hoped they would be? No,” he said. “It didn’t happen in this particular case.”

TSA Administrator John Pistole said the shooting has prompted a review of security protocol with partner agencies.

Congressman speaks out

McCaul said better coordination between TSA officers and local law enforcement at the nation’s airports could help improve security at those locations.

“I talked to the director of TSA, John Pistole, yesterday. We talked about a review of the policies at airports. Every airport is a little bit different, but the coordination with the local police is key because remember, TSA officers are not armed,” he said.

“I think it’s important we have the local law enforcement really at different points at the airport to protect not only the perimeter, but also things that could happen through security checkpoint,” he said.

He also talked about the importance of using special TSA VIPR teams, short for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. The teams are tasked with performing random, unpredictable baggage and security checks at transportation venues.

McCaul said Pistole wants to further the use of such teams at airports “to make sure American people are safe and the traveling public are safe when they go to our airports. I think that better coordination with local law enforcement should help tremendously.

“However, having said that, it’s very difficult to stop these types of attacks. Anybody can show up, as we saw in the Navy Yard with the shotgun.” He was referring to the September attack at the Navy Yard in Washington.

“It’s almost like an open shopping mall,” he said, “so very difficult to protect.”

CNN’s Miguel Marquez reported from Los Angeles. Greg Botelho and Sarah Aarthun wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Dan Simon and Doug Gross contributed to this report.

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