Airport arrests highlight baggage claim risks

CHICAGO — For a convicted thief like Anthony Hargrove, baggage carousels at Chicago’s airports have apparently been an attractive target.

Since the 1990s, Hargrove has been arrested at least 12 times on charges of stealing bags in the arrivals areas of Midway and O’Hare airports, and at least five times he has been convicted.

The 59-year-old’s history of theft went largely unnoticed by the public until last month, when police said he fled from O’Hare with what turned out to be a rare Indian guitar, a crime that drew international attention after the victim described the loss on Facebook. Police nabbed Hargrove a few days later as he allegedly tried to steal more luggage.

Hargrove’s string of arrests and convictions for theft over the decades highlight the vulnerabilities of airport baggage claims, areas that are often barrier-free, open to the public and near quick escape routes to public transit and away from the airport.

Airlines bear responsibility for security at baggage carousels at O’Hare and Midway, but many carriers believe their liability ends once the bags have been delivered, aviation experts said. Ultimately, the space is a public area, resulting in airlines and airports blaming each other when something goes missing, they added.

“Once it hits the carousel, boy, that is the grayest area of all in my mind,” said Joe Brancatelli, editor of a noncommercial website for business travelers.

Baggage claim theft happens regularly, aviation experts said, but not enough for airlines and airports to spend money to mitigate the risk. Airlines report the theft figures to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but the data is not separated from lost or misplaced luggage figures.

Before 9/11, security guards stood by baggage claim exits at many airports, ensuring that luggage tags matched the ticket claims held by travelers.

But airlines have largely stopped doing that because it was too costly, and they decided there wasn’t enough luggage theft for that measure to be necessary, said Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant.

Baggage claim security today is handled differently across the country.

For example, airlines are in charge of monitoring the carousels at airports in New York City, Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles, but the responsibility is managed by both the airlines and airports at Reagan National and Dulles International airports near Washington.

Airlines have security cameras mounted in the terminals, and airport police walk the grounds at airports across the country. But neither tactic is foolproof, the experts said.

“It’s a bigger problem than most people know,” said Scott Mueller, who has worked in the commercial airline industry for 24 years and wrote the book “The Empty Carousel.” “It’s just too easy. Most of the bags are on wheels. Even if the bag weighs 200 pounds … you pop the handle, and you’re rolling out the door.”

At O’Hare’s Terminal 2, where Hargrove allegedly stole Canadian musician Harry Manx’s Indian guitar in February, a wide space abuts the luggage carousels. Nearby exit doors lead to taxi stands and shuttle bus stops.

Several security cameras overlook the carousels. When flights arrive, one or two baggage agents stand near the carousels as travelers claim their luggage. Sets of stairwells, escalators and elevators nearby lead to a hallway on the lower level that takes travelers to light rail.

Prosecutors said Hargrove was seen exiting the terminal and getting on the Blue Line.

On Feb. 21, Hargrove allegedly was seen on a surveillance camera stealing a Mohan veena guitar and bag off the carousel. The theft went viral on social media after Manx lamented the loss on Facebook and likened his signature instrument to an old friend.

Afterward, Chicago police kept a close eye on the terminal in case Hargrove returned. Three days later, he did. Officers spotted him pushing a cart and wearing the same clothing he wore during the earlier theft but with a different knit cap, according to a police report.

The officers watched as Hargrove walked to the US Airways baggage carousel and placed four bags onto the cart, covering them with a jacket, the report stated. He tried to leave, but police stopped him.

“You got me. You saw me. It is what it is,” Hargrove told police while he was placed under arrest, according to the report.

One of the bags belonged to Michael Hawthorne, an Arizona real estate investor in town on business. He said he didn’t arrive at baggage claim right away because he needed to recharge his cellphone at the gate.

Ten minutes later, he said, he received a call from an airline employee who told Hawthorne his bag was “not available right now” and that he needed to get to the baggage area quickly. Officers then escorted him and two other Arizona travelers to an airport police station, and they retrieved their stolen luggage.

Hawthorne said his bag didn’t carry anything valuable, but the experience was an eye-opener. He travels regularly and has never had luggage stolen.

“There is a hole in security that I didn’t recognize,” he said.

Several airlines based in Chicago’s two airports declined to talk about security in the baggage claim areas or didn’t return calls when contacted by the Chicago Tribune.

Some other airports do keep track of luggage thefts. At Denver International Airport, 40 thefts were reported last year in the baggage claim area. Authorities recorded 172 luggage thefts at New York City’s Kennedy International Airport in 2013, though the figure does not break down where the thefts occurred.

Robert Loeb, a veteran criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said stolen luggage crimes can be difficult to pursue since many theft victims live out of state and don’t want to return to pursue the charges. That’s legally problematic, he said, because hearsay evidence — such as an officer claiming a victim said the theft occurred — won’t help prosecutors when they go to trial.

“The prosecutor does need a victim to come to court during an actual trial to say that he, the victim, is the actual owner and didn’t give permission to the defendant,” Loeb said.

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