An airline baggage handler who was convicted of trafficking millions of dollars’ worth of drugs in the bellies of commercial jets was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday, putting an emphatic stamp on a case that revealed rampant theft and corruption by some airline employees.
The baggage handler, Victor Bourne, who spent many years working for American Airlines at Kennedy International Airport, led a ring of airline employees in Barbados and New York who used their specialized knowledge of planes to stow cocaine behind panels, beyond the detection of swarming customs agents, sometimes filling spaces in ways that could have put passengers’ lives in danger.
During a trial last year, employees who pleaded guilty and were cooperating with the government described an airport underworld that would horrify any traveler, testifying about how they and their colleagues at American Airlines broke into passengers’ luggage for laptops, liquor and perfume, all while moving huge quantities of drugs. The government, with cinematic flair, called the conspiracy the “Bourne Organization.” Nineteen airline employees either pleaded guilty or were convicted. Mr. Bourne, unlike his former colleagues, pleaded not guilty. He testified in his own defense, saying that all the witnesses who testified against him had lied. At his sentencing in Federal District Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, the judge who presided over the trial emphatically concluded that it was Mr. Bourne who had lied.
The judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis, pointed to what he called perjured testimony when meting out the life sentence, an unusually harsh punishment for a convicted drug trafficker.
“You personally exacerbated one of this nation’s greatest blights,” Judge Garaufis said.
The judge, who was previously the chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration, said he was most concerned by testimony that the corrupt baggage handlers had dismantled an airplane wing to remove hidden drugs, making changes that could have brought the plane down during a flight. He said he wanted to deter others from committing such acts.
Mr. Bourne spoke briefly, saying that the government built its case on “false evidence.” Then he sat silently in the courtroom, looking occasionally at several relatives who fought back tears.
Mr. Bourne’s mother, Maria Alleyne, who was acquitted of money-laundering charges in connection with the drug scheme and was described by prosecutors as having placed a voodoo curse on them during the trial, waited outside the courtroom during the sentencing.
Mr. Bourne, 37, a native of Barbados, bought cocaine in bulk and arranged for baggage handlers in Barbados and other Caribbean countries to hide it on New York-bound planes, several American Airlines employees testified. He smoothed the way by bribing his supervisors.
The hiding spots depended on the planes. On Boeing 757s, the Barbadian baggage handlers hid bricks of cocaine among loose bags and freight. On 767s, which are larger, they stowed the drugs in giant containers that were filled with luggage at the terminal and then loaded onto the planes. On Airbus A300s, they found spaces behind wall and ceiling panels in the cargo hold.
Prosecutors estimated that the organization imported 330 pounds of cocaine, which was sold for about $8,000 a pound. The government is also seeking a $5.1 million forfeiture from Mr. Bourne.
[left screenshot is of the suspect, the right shot is of his mom, who is putting voodoo curses on everyone involved with her son being locked up]
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