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Airport baggage screener charged with stealing passengers' stuff

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A baggage screener for the US Transportation Security Administration has confessed to brazenly stealing a trove of electronics gear from the luggage of passengers he was sworn to protect, federal prosecutors said.

Pythias Brown, 48, of Maplewood, New Jersey, regularly sold the high-priced video cameras, laptop computers, and global positioning systems on eBay using the handle "alirla", according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Newark. Brown told investigators he began stealing the items in September 2007 while screening luggage at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Among the items Brown helped himself to was a Sony Camcorder and related paraphernalia from a Cable News Network employee who was flying to Houston. The same day the items went missing, on August 12, alirla posted them for sale on eBay. After a federal investigator offered a winning bid and took possession of the gear, the investigator found it bore the serial numbers and bar codes contained on the CNN employee's missing items.

A month later, while an employee of the Home Box Office network was traveling to London, a $48,000 Hasselblad camera and accompanying lenses disappeared from bags that passed through TSA screening at Newark Liberty. One day later, alirla's eBay account listed the identical items.

Investigators tracked the alirla account to Brown using the internet protocol address for his home computer. They also found his physical address listed on the package that included the CNN camera. Closed circuit TV recorded him mailing the package at a nearby post office.

Investigators searching Brown's home recovered 66 cameras, 31 laptops, 20 cell phones, 17 electronic games, 13 pieces of jewelry, 12 global positioning systems, 11 MP3 players, eight camera lenses, six video cameras, and two DVD players. He admitted to stealing two to three items per week.

Brown was freed on $100,000 unsecured bond, according to a prosecutor in the case. He has not yet entered a plea. He faces up to ten years in prison, according to news reports. Brown's attorney didn't return a phone call by time of publication.

No doubt, anyone who has ever flown has felt the ignominy of having a perfect stranger rifle through their stuff. The accusations against Brown aren't likely to improve relations between passengers and TSA screeners.

Alirla, on the other hand, had a stellar reputation with the people he sold to. His eBay feedback profile contains 205 positive reviews, one neutral review, and zero negative reviews. Typical was this comment, from a buyer of a Sony Cyber-shot digital camera: "fast, friendly, awesome product. just as described. will do business again. A+++++" ®

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