According to federal prosecutors, 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia was so intent on murdering Transportation Security Administration officers Friday morning at Los Angeles International Airport that when he noticed that an officer he had already shot was still moving, he turned around, walked back down an escalator, and shot him again.
Federal prosecutors announced Saturday that they have filed charges of murder and commission of violence at an international airport against Ciancia, who could get the death penalty if convicted.
Authorities say Ciancia walked into Terminal 3, pulled a Smith & Wesson .223-caliber assault rifle from his duffel bag and fired repeatedly at point-blank range at a TSA officer identified as Gerardo I. Hernandez, 39, who was checking IDs and boarding passes at the base of the escalator leading to the main screening area.
The killing was “believed to be a premeditated act of murder in the first-degree,” U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said in announcing the charges.
After killing Hernandez, Ciancia fired on at least two other uniformed TSA employees and an airline passenger, who were all wounded. Airport police eventually shot him as panicked passengers cowered in stores and restaurants.
Ciancia, 23, remained hospitalized Saturday after being hit four times and wounded in the mouth and leg. The FBI said he was unresponsive and they had not been able to interview him.
The announcement of charges came after authorities say they have found a note handwritten by Ciancia in which he describes his intent to kill TSA employees and “pigs,” a law enforcement official told The Associated Press. The handwritten note found in Ciancia’s duffel bag and signed by him stated that he had “made the conscious decision to try to kill” multiple TSA employees and that he wanted to stir fear in them, FBI agent in charge David L. Bowdich said.
“Black, white, yellow, brown, I don’t discriminate,” the note read, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to the Associated Press.
The suspect’s screed reportedly also mentioned “fiat currency” and “NWO,” possible references to the New World Order, a conspiracy theory that foresees a totalitarian one-world government.
A law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the note referred to how the gunman believed his constitutional rights were being violated by TSA searches and that he was a “pissed-off patriot” upset at former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The FBI was still looking into Ciancia’s past, but investigators said they had not found evidence of previous crimes or any run-ins with the TSA. They said he had never applied for a job with the agency.
Authorities believe someone dropped Ciancia off at the airport. Agents were reviewing surveillance tapes to piece together the sequence of events.
“We are really going to draw a picture of who this person was, his background, his history. That will help us explain why he chose to do what he did,” Bowdich said. “At this point, I don’t have the answer on that.”
“He looked at me and asked, `TSA?’ I shook my head no, and he continued on down toward the gate. He had his gun at the ready and but for the grace of God I am here to tell about it.” – Leon Saryan
Leon Saryan, 65, had just passed through security when he heard gunshots. He fled with a TSA worker, who he said was later wounded slightly, and managed to hide in a store. As he was cowering in the corner, the shooter approached.
“He looked at me and asked, ‘TSA?’ I shook my head no, and he continued on down toward the gate. He had his gun at the ready and but for the grace of God I am here to tell about it,” said Saryan, of Milwaukee.
Witness Brian Keech said he heard “about a dozen gunshots” from inside the security gate at Terminal 3. Other travelers described the scene as airport security staff evacuated terminals, including onto to the tarmac.
“People started saying there’s a shooter, there’s a shooter,” said Natalie Morin, a senior at USC who was heading to San Francisco for a graduate school interview.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the gunman had an additional 100 rounds of ammunition he did not fire.
President Obama called TSA administrator John Pistole to express his condolences to the families and friends of the TSA officer who was killed and the two other officers who were wounded Friday.
Ciancia’s family had told Pennsville, N.J. Police Chief Allen Cummings early Friday afternoon that the 23-year-old had mentioned taking his own life in a text message to his younger brother, the chief told The Associated Press.
Cummings notified the LAPD, which in turn, went to Ciancia’s residence. He was not there at the time, but his two roommates told authorities that he seemed fine, Cummings said. LAPD told Cummings that they would check on him again when Ciancia returned from work.
Forty-five minutes later, Cummings got a call about the shooting.
Ciancia graduated in 2008 from Salesianum School, an all-boys Roman Catholic school in Wilmington, the school said. Former classmates barely remember Ciancia and even a recent roommate could say little about the young man who moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles less than two years ago.
“He kept to himself and ate lunch alone a lot,” David Hamilton, a former classmate at Salesianum, told the Los Angeles Times. “I really don’t remember any one person who was close to him …. In four years, I never heard a word out of his mouth.”
Outside the father’s home Friday in Pennsville, a police cruiser blocked the long driveway. Phone calls weren’t answered, and efforts to reach siblings were also unsuccessful.
Cummings said he learned from Ciancia’s father that the young man had attended a technical school in Florida, then moved to Los Angeles in 2012 hoping to get a job as a motorcycle mechanic. He was having trouble finding work.
Ciancia graduated in December 2011 from Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Fla., said Tina Miller, a spokeswoman for Universal Technical Institute, the Scottsdale, Ariz., company that runs the school.
A basic motorcycle mechanic course takes about a year, she said.
Hernandez is the first TSA officer killed in the line of duty in the 12-year history of the agency, which was founded in the aftermath of 9/11.
Friends remembered Hernandez as a doting father and a good neighbor who went door-to-door warning neighbors to be careful after his home was burglarized.
In brief remarks outside the couple’s house, his widow, Ana Hernandez, said Saturday that her husband came to the U.S. from El Salvador at age 15.
“He took pride in his duty for the American public and for the TSA mission,” she said.
The shooting, which sent passengers in the airport scrambling for cover, disrupted flights nationwide as planes headed for Los Angeles were temporarily grounded. LAX estimated 1,550 scheduled flights were impacted by the shooting and approximately 167,050 passengers were affected, including those diverted to other airports, held on the ground in Los Angeles or held at their originating airport.
Terminal 3 re-opened at around 1 p.m. Saturday, and airport operations were expected to return to normal by the end of the day. The other terminals had all re-opened by the end of the day Friday.