ORLANDO, Fla. – Passengers on a commercial flight from Florida to Puerto Rico were in little danger despite more than a dozen guns being on board, because at least two federal air marshals were also on the plane, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman said Thursday.
TSA spokesman Christopher White declined to address the security breach at Orlando International Airport or whether the marshals knew that guns were on the plane. He said multiple marshals were on the plane but declined to specify how many.
"I cannot comment on the operational details of this ongoing, long-term federal law enforcement investigation," White said.
Two baggage handlers used their employee uniforms and airport identification cards to enter restricted areas, bypass screeners with a bag containing the guns and drugs and board the commercial Delta Air Lines flight Monday, according to court documents.
The Orlando Police Department received a tip from an anonymous person that led authorities to investigate the men, said Carlos Baixauli, a Miami-based special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Security screeners questioned Zabdiel J. Santiago Balaguer, 22, when he was taken off the plane Monday, but court documents said he was released when no weapons or drugs were found on him.
Thomas Anthony Munoz, 22, was arrested in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when he got off the plane at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. Inside the duffel bag he was carrying, authorities found 13 handguns, one assault rifle and eight clear bags containing a total of 8 pounds of marijuana, Baixauli said.
Balaguer was arrested late Tuesday. Munoz and Balaguer were charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and possessing firearms in interstate commerce during a drug trafficking offense, court documents said.
Balaguer allegedly acted as a middle man between Munoz and a connection in Puerto Rico as part of a weapons and drugs scheme, authorities said.
Balaguer delivered guns and drugs to Puerto Rico several times himself and offered to pay Munoz as much as $5,000 to make the delivery to Puerto Rico, court documents assert. The contact in Puerto Rico had wired more than $1,800 to Balaguer last week, which was used to buy the guns and drugs, according to a federal agent's affidavit.
Balaguer remained in custody Thursday in the Orange County Jail. It was not clear when Munoz would be transported to Florida. It also was not known if the connection in Puerto Rico was in custody.
Stephen Langs, the public defender representing Balaguer, said Thursday his client plans to plead not guilty.
"We'll see what the government thinks it has," said Langs, who declined to go into more detail about the case.
It was not clear if Munoz had an attorney.
Munoz and Balaguer worked for Comair, an Erlanger, Ky.-based subsidiary of Delta. Both passed federal background checks before employment, Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said.
Both men have been suspended from their jobs pending the investigation, Marx said.
Screening at airports nationwide, including in Orlando, follow the process outlined by the Transportation Security Administration, said Carolyn Fennell, an Orlando airport spokeswoman.
White refused to comment on whether the TSA will increase security or improve security plans after the Orlando breach.