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Accused Los Angeles airport shooter could face death penalty

An airport police officer cordons off terminals 2 and 3 after a shooting at Los Angeles airport (LAX), California November 1, 2013. 
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
An airport police officer cordons off terminals 2 and 3 after a shooting at Los Angeles airport (LAX), California November 1, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

LOS ANGELES(Reuters) - The 23-year-old man accused of opening fire at Los Angeles International Airport, killing an airport security officer and wounding three other people, could face the death penalty after being charged with murder on Saturday, a federal prosecutor said.

Paul Anthony Ciancia was charged with murder of a federal officer and committing violence at an international airport, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte told reporters a day after the shooting that touched off panic and chaos at the world's sixth busiest airport.

Ciancia carried a signed note that called Transportation Security Administration officers "traitorous" and he targeted them during his rampage at the airport's Terminal 3, FBI special agent in charge David Bowdich said.

Ciancia was dropped off at the airport, said Bowdich, who declined to say if the FBI knew who drove the suspected gunman there.

The slain TSA officer, Gerardo Hernandez, 39, became the first employee of the agency created after the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks to be killed in the line of duty.

The shooting sent hundreds of travelers running for safety and some dove for cover behind luggage, as loud alarms blared through the terminal. Flights were grounded, delayed or diverted, with more than 167,000 arriving and departing passengers seeing disruption to their itineraries on Friday.

Ciancia entered Terminal 3 and pulled a Smith & Wesson .223-caliber assault rifle out of his bag, firing multiple rounds at Hernandez at point-blank range, said a criminal complaint filed in court on Saturday. The shooting occurred at a document verification checkpoint, authorities said.

The suspect then began to walk up an escalator and looked back at Hernandez who appeared to move, and returned to shoot him again, the complaint said.

Ciancia, who police say continued past the metal detectors and ran deep into the passenger boarding area at Terminal 3, shot and wounded two other TSA employees and an airline passenger, the complaint added. Two other people were hurt evading gunfire, Bowdich said.

Authorities said the suspected gunman made it down a long passageway as far as a food court in the passenger loading area, where he was shot and wounded by airport police officers. The Los Angeles Times has reported his wounds include a gunshot to the head.

"They did stop this before, we believe, what would have been a much more grave action" with more casualties, Bowdich said of the airport police.

Ciancia was "unresponsive" in a hospital on Saturday, with investigators unable to interview him, Bowdich said.

Both federal charges against Ciancia carry the maximum penalty of death or life in prison, said Birotte.

"It will be the decision of the attorney general of the United States whether or not to seek the death penalty in this case," the prosecutor added.

ANGRY NOTE

The Los Angeles Times reported that among the wounded was teacher Brian Ludmer, 29, who was shot in the leg. Ludmer teaches high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas.

In the handwritten note the suspect was carrying, he expressed malice toward TSA officers, Bowdich said.

"We found a statement where he made a conscious decision to kill multiple TSA employees," Bowdich said. "He addressed them at one point in the letter and said that he wanted to ‘instill fear into their traitorous minds.'"

Late on Friday, FBI agents obtained a search warrant and combed through Ciancia's home in the suburban Sun Valley section of Los Angeles, FBI spokeswoman Ari Dekofksy said.

John Mincey, Ciancia's former roommate from another part of Los Angeles, told local television station KABC that Ciancia never displayed hatred or ties to "any hate group, or anything like that."

Hernandez, the slain officer, was born in El Salvador and came to the United States at age 15, his wife, Ana Hernandez, told reporters outside her home in a Los Angeles suburb.

The couple met when he was 19 and Ana was 16 and they had two children together, she said. He began working for the TSA at Los Angeles International Airport in 2010, she said.

"He was a joyful person, always smiling, who took pride in his duty for the American public as well as the TSA mission," Ana Hernandez said. "Gerardo was a great man who always showed his love for our family."

TRIBUTE TO OFFICER

Los Angeles police officers will be wearing black mourning bands in memory of Hernandez, Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department said on Twitter.

The airport said its public art display of 100-foot (30-metre) pylons would be lit blue through Sunday to honor Hernandez.

All airlines at the airport except JetBlue were back to normal operations on Saturday afternoon, airport officials said in a statement. Terminal 3, which had been the scene of a massive investigation, was fully reopened to passengers at midday on Saturday, officials said.

Bowdich said the FBI was seeking more information about the background of Ciancia, who has family in New Jersey.

Police and FBI agents have visited the home of Ciancia's family in Pennsville Township, New Jersey.

Pennsville Police Chief Allen Cummings said he had been contacted by Ciancia's father before the shooting, prompted by a worrisome text message from the young man to his brother.

The police chief declined to reveal more about the content of the text message, but said that family members told investigators they had no previous indications that Ciancia, who moved to California about 18 months ago, was troubled.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Dave Warner in Pennsville, New Jersey, Noreen O'Donnell in New York and Mark Hosenball and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Edith Honan, Gunna Dickson and Peter Cooney)

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