Feds dig into motive, name of LAX gunman

By HIL ANDERSON  |  July 5, 2002 at 2:42 AM
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LOS ANGELES, July 4 (UPI) -- Three people were killed Thursday when shooting erupted at the ticket counter of the Israeli airline El Al at Los Angeles International Airport, sending horrified passengers running for cover and raising fears that terrorists had struck the United States in the midst of Independence Day celebrations.

The preliminary investigation into the circumstances surrounding the midday shooting revealed no clear indication that the alleged gunman, who was quickly shot to death by El Al security personnel, was a terrorist, although the killer's name and the motive for the shooting spree remained a mystery.

"From the motive, we can make a determination as to whether this was an act of terrorism; if this person was working for a specific cause, or something like that," FBI Special Agent Richard Garcia said at a news conference five hours after the shooting.

Garcia had said earlier that the shooting "appeared to be an isolated incident," however he indicated the identity of the slain suspect and his nationality had not been nailed down.

"We're still trying to make a true identity on the suspect," Garcia said. "We have the coroner here working with us, so that is going to take time."

Garcia's reference to the coroner indicated that fingerprints had been taken post mortem of the shooter and that they would be processed by the FBI to assist with the learning his identification.

California Gov. Gray Davis told a news conference that he spoke by telephone to Tom Ridge, the head of the national Office of Homeland Security, and that he was inclined not to jump to conclusions.

"Ridge is in much the same position as I am," said Davis, who had been making an appearance at Playa del Rey beach about a mile from LAX when the shootings occurred. "We have to await the professional judgment of the FBI as to precisely what went on today at LAX before we make any judgments about where to go from here."

"Ridge is on top of it and has been fully briefed," Davis said, adding that the incident should not scuttle anyone's holiday plans.

But in Israel, the shooting was immediately labeled a likely terrorist attack.

"It's an attack on the national airline of Israel, one must assume it's terrorism," Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh told CNN.

Sneh later scoffed at what he saw as the downplaying of the possibility of terrorism, calling it "infuriating" in a telephone interview with United Press International.

"Every day we are being slaughtered so when fire is opened, one must look for different reasons?" he asked. "One might think that in a country such as Denmark."

Acting Police Chief Martin Pomeroy said that intelligence in the wake of the shootings indicated no signs of terrorist attacks being launched, although the LAPD will remain on alert through the evening.

"From a tactical standpoint, we are well prepared to handle this incident," Pomeroy said. "We find nothing else in the city or in the rest of the nation to indicate that our (holiday) venues are not safe."

The LAX shootings erupted at the ticket counter of the Israeli airline, which is considered one of the most secure airlines in the world and is the only airline that has armed security agents stationed at their airport facilities. The ticket counter, however, is located outside the metal detectors and X-ray machines where passengers are screened for guns and other weapons.

"He didn't come through security," Gary Paxon, an airport security guard told Los Angeles television station KABC. "But he got shot right on the spot."

Davis said that the incident was not an indication that post-Sept. 11 security measures were flawed.

"The original goal at airports was to prevent another plane from being hijacked and turned into a missile," Davis said. "In that regard, we have been successful around the country."

The gunman's identity and his hometown were not immediately released, but witnesses described him as a middle-aged in a business suit. His body lay covered by a white sheet on the second floor of the Tom Bradley International Terminal and remained there as frantic passengers were herded out of the area.

Two other victims were taken to area hospitals in critical condition. Another person somehow suffered a minor stab wound in the incident and a woman was taken to a hospital after suffering chest pains.

Garcia said investigators had not ruled out the possibility that the shooting was a "situation between individuals," and refused to confirm media reports based on witness interviews that the gunman had been involved in an argument over his identification documents in the moments before the shooting started.

He also cautioned against assuming that the suspect was Arab based on reports that he had a dark complexion.

"He could, in fact, be Hispanic," Garcia said. "It's hard to say just based on physical appearances."

There were unconfirmed reports that a second suspect was being sought, however police spokesman Officer Alex Baez said police on the scene might have been exercising extreme caution in following up on reports from stunned passengers, many of whom did not speak English.

One man, wearing long sideburns and a blue shirt, was seen being taken away in the back of a police car. His role in the incident was not revealed.

The LAPD was quickly placed on a citywide tactical alert, meaning that officers would stay on the job after their shifts were over, and additional officers from around the city were dispatched to the airport area.

The shooting occurred in the midst of the Fourth of July travel rush, which appeared to cause many witnesses to think that the nearly dozen gunshots were firecrackers.

"It scared the hell out of me," Los Angeles resident Robin Berglund told KABC. "You never think it is going to happen to you, but we are at war. It just makes you mad. I'm ready to fight."

A Miami man identified only as "Mr. Park," who was on his way to Korea, described pandemonium in the area as passengers hit the deck or bolted for the exits.

"I thought he was running away and the police were chasing him," Park said.

Thousands of passengers were quickly cleared from the Bradley Terminal -- one of the airport's nine -- as the El Al counter was secured as a crime scene.

Aircraft continued to arrive and take off as the investigation got under way, however vehicle traffic in and out of the busy facility was virtually shut down.

Airports across the United States have been on increased security vigilance since Sept. 11, and U.S. authorities have been on alert during the Fourth of July holiday, although there were reportedly no specific terrorist threats.

The airport, commonly known as LAX, has been involved in terrorist incidents in the recent past. Two of the four airliners hijacked on Sept. 11 were bound for the airport, and LAX was also the apparent target of a foiled millennium New Year's bomb plot hatched by Algerian terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's network of training camps in Afghanistan.

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(With additional reporting by Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv, Israel)

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