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'Thiefrow' undercover operation nets 23 baggage handlers

By
ED LION

LONDON -- Scotland Yard says undercover police have arrested 23 baggage handlers for looting passengers' bags at Heathrow Airport, dubbed 'Thiefrow' because of suspected multimillion-dollar luggage pilfering at the world's busiest airport.

The five-month operation was the second time authorities have broken up employee theft rings at the airport.

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Detectives, who filmed the workers stealing, arrested 23 British Airways baggage handlers Wednesday in synchronized raids at their homes and the airport, police sources said.

'At times the baggage area resembled a fitting room at a clothes store,' said one officer who was part of the 10-member police team who worked undercover in the airport's British Airways baggage depots.

'Bags were being opened and some people were trying the clothes on for size. If they didn't fit they would put them back into the cases.'

Police sources said hidden video cameras were used to film the workers in the act of stealing and they were confronted with the evidence after their arrests.

Scotland Yard said the 23 were charged with conspiracy to steal from passengers' luggage but a Scotland Yard spokesman would not reveal the estimated value of the stolen items in advance of the suspects' trials.

After a similar undercover operation put 15 baggage thieves in jail last year, Judge Michael Argyle dubbed the airport 'Thiefrow' for the pilfering estimated by police sources to run annually in the millions of dollars.

Another judge called the stealing at Heathrow, used by millions of tourists entering Britain each year, a 'national disgrace.'

Police sources said some of the looting is organized by gangs of baggage handlers who use 'fences' outside the airport to sell the pilfered goods.

A police spokesman would not say if such operations were organized by the 23 handlers just arrested.

Police sources said baggage handling unions and airline operators cooperated in the latest operation -- timed to beat the summertime rush of vacationers.

A British Airways spokesman said the airline had been 'told of the police investigation' but refused all further comment.

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