By Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4)– CBS4 has learned that an employee at Denver International Airport has been fired and charged with rifling through passengers’ checked bags on three occasions, and stealing guns out of their luggage.
The worker, Melvin Deandre Lewis, 24, worked for Air Serv, a vendor that handles bags and other services for airlines. According to court documents and interviews, Denver police believe Lewis opened United Airlines passengers checked bags and stole firearms in April and on two occasions in May.
Contacted by CBS4, Lewis denied being involved in the thefts.
”No, that was never me… that’s not me,” said Lewis. “I never took anything out of no bag. I’m not really worried about it.”
Denver prosecutors have now charged Lewis with multiple felony counts in connection with the gun thefts.
Air Serv fired Lewis and his airport security badge was pulled June 1.
DIA police commander Tony Lopez told CBS4, “We’re confident his arrest sent a message to anyone else at DIA in that function that intends to commit a crime that crime doesn’t pay.”
Lopez acknowledged there has been an upswing in reports of items being stolen out of checked bags at DIA but he said that could be due to a commensurate increase in passenger traffic at the airport.
”We’ve seen an increase in reports. With growth you would expect an increase in reports.”
CBS4 reviewed reports filed by DIA passengers for the first six months of 2017 and found passengers reporting everything from watches and earrings, to laptops and sentimental items, stolen out of their checked bags.
A New Jersey prosecutor’s office investigator who had just attended a conference on terrorist bombings in Denver reported his bag was looted at DIA and hundreds of dollars of belongings were stolen.
However, DIA officials say with nearly 11 million bags checked at the airport each year, the number of thefts from luggage is a tiny percentage of checked bags moving through the airport.
Laura Daily and her friend Lyn Schaefer believe their bags were pilfered at DIA in April. The two women were flying to Europe for a cruise vacation they had been planning for a year. They say they arrived at DIA and checked their bags three hours before their flight departed.
But, when they arrived in Lisbon via United Airlines, the women say locks had been cut off their bags and Schaefer’s suitcase had been looted. She said every cosmetic and toiletry bag had been opened and dumped out and a purse valued at about $145 was missing. There was no note or card from TSA found in either suitcase.
“It just felt dirty”, said Schaeffer. ”Someone had gone through my stuff.”
Daily suspects the neon orange “priority” tags affixed to their bags might have tipped someone off that they were travelers with higher value items in their luggage.
“Obviously someone in baggage handling is cherry picking suitcases with the Priority tags figuring those passengers with higher status likely have something worth stealing,” said Daily. “I think this is like catnip to someone in baggage. You’re probably a traveler who might have something valuable in your suitcase.”
Schaefer said that after filing a complaint with United about her missing purse, the airline repaid her about $145 to cover the cost of the stolen item.
Lopez said his officers “do painstaking work to try to identify responsible parties” connected to the luggage thefts.
He acknowledged thefts from luggage at DIA are challenging since travelers typically wait until they return to Denver from vacation- sometimes weeks later- before reporting thefts.
“The delay in reporting makes it harder,” said Lopez.
Erin Benson, a representative of United Airlines, issued a statement in response to the CBS4 report reading, “United holds all of our employees and vendors to the highest standards and requires them to follow all applicable laws and regulations.”
She did not provide further information or answer additional questions.
Lewis is due in court Oct. 2.