Even after he sailed through a routine checkpoint without incident, and then underwent a random search that turned up five knives and two sets of scissors, an Indian national still had three knives in his possession when he boarded a flight bound for Washington, D.C., at Louis Armstrong International Airport on Sunday.
While Albert Silvarian did not appear to have any criminal intent in bringing the knives aboard, the security breaches demonstrate the vulnerability of airport checkpoints, acting U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said after Silvarian made his first appearance in federal court Monday.
“There is no way I can whitewash this,” Letten said. “I and other law enforcement officials are profoundly disturbed about this.”
Silvarian faces a felony charge of attempting to board an aircraft while in possession of dangerous weapons. If found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He is due back in court Thursday for a bail hearing.
Letten`s explanation of what happened at the airport Sunday was different, and more disturbing, than the one related Sunday by airport officials. Initially, it was reported that Silvarian made it through the main checkpoint into Concourse C undetected, and that the knives were all discovered in Silvarian`s briefcase during a random search at his gate.
But Letten confirmed what one passenger said Sunday, that Silvarian had been allowed to board United Airlines Flight 1482 with his briefcase even after knives were found in it and confiscated. Letten said Jefferson Parish sheriff`s deputies and National Guardsmen boarded the plane, searched the briefcase again and found three more knives, one with an 8-inch blade.
The discovery led to the evacuation of Concourse C and about 1,000 passengers for about 90 minutes Sunday morning.
“I`ve got to express my extraordinary displeasure that the security system in place broke down,” Letten said. “This came a lot closer than it should have to the knives being on board the aircraft. We cannot afford security breaches like this. Sept. 11th taught us that. It`s not going to happen here in New Orleans, I can tell you that.”
Silvarian`s attorney, Ralph Capitelli, agreed that the security lapses were troubling. But he stressed that his client had no intention of doing anything with the knives he brought aboard. The blades were purchased at Wal-Mart, and they were unconcealed, wrapped in their plastic packaging, when searchers found them.
Capitelli also noted that Silvarian is a Christian and a lifelong sailor who was headed home to see his family in India.
“This was clearly not an act of terrorism,” Capitelli said. “It was an act of stupidity, probably compound stupidity and ignorance. . . . He had no intention of doing any violence. He`s terribly sorry to have created this furor. He made a mistake and is very, very sorry for it.”
But Letten noted that that the law does not require any sinister intent on the part of a person carrying a weapon onto a plane. He said he thinks it is crucial for the government to discourage such violations by vigorously prosecuting weapons offenses.
At Monday`s hearing, Capitelli, who had just been hired to represent Silvarian, asked U.S. Magistrate Louis Moore for more time to meet with his client to prepare for the bail hearing, which was set for Thursday.Capitelli said he had been hired by Silvarian`s employer, a foreign shipping company. He did not yet know the company`s name. Silvarian and co-workers were in New Orleans delivering a vessel to a Louisiana company that bought it, Capitelli said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Bizzarro said Monday that she will ask the court to deny bail because she thinks Silvarian is a flight risk.