An American Airlines contract cleaner removed five life vests from a passenger plane and replaced them with bricks of cocaine weighing at least five kilograms and with a street value of around $815,000 on a flight from St Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Miami, Florida.
Luis Ortiz Jr, 25, has reached a plea deal with prosecutors after being arrested in July 2019 for his part in the smuggling scheme. Ortiz could be incarcerated for life and faces a minimum sentence of 10-years behind bars, as well as a maximum fine of $100,000.
Ortiz worked as an aircraft cleaner and used his privileged access to hide a sizeable quantity of Cocaine aboard American Airlines flight AA2227. Along with his girlfriend at the time, Ortiz recruited two drug mules who bought tickets for the flight and recovered the drugs shortly after boarding.
Surveillance footage recovered from St Croix’s Rohlsen airport on the evening of July 10, 2019, showed Ortiz wearing an oversized jacket boarding a parked American Airlines plane in the middle of the night and immediately walking to rows 17 and 18 of the aircraft.
He then lowered the window shades and eight minutes later exited the aircraft carrying a package that “was consistent in size with the life vests that were removed from rows 17 and 18”.
The following morning, the drug mules were instructed to get help from an American Airlines gate agent who allowed them to preboard the flight and remove the drugs from the life vest bins without any other passengers around d them.
On arrival at Miami, the flight was met by Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officers and the two mules were taken into custody. They both pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute and have already been sentenced in a Florida court.
Prosecutors didn’t have declined to reveal how they were tipped off but say the investigation part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation.
Flight attendants aren’t routinely tasked with making sure life vests haven’t been tampered with but airlines carry regular checks which can range from making sure every life vest is correctly stowed to just sampling a certain percentage are onboard.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.