SOUTH AUSTIN, TX March 3 2017 — Three men — including a baggage handler — have been charged in connection to a rash of firearm thefts from checked luggage at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, police said Wednesday.
Ja'Quan Johnson, 25, was assessed federal charges as a result of the thefts after turning himself into the U.S. Marshals Services offices on Wednesday to face charges.
Johnson was a contract baggage handler at the airport, and has been identified as the mastermind of the operation, according to law enforcement officials. Police allege that he sometimes traded stolen firearms for marijuana.
Austin police on Wednesday also identified two other suspects connected to the thefts. Matthew Bartlett, 21, and Catronn Hewitt, 36, have been charged with felony possession of marijuana, police said in an advisory to media outlets.
The arrests stem from the recovery of seven stolen firearms on Feb. 3 during which police also seized an unspecified amount of illicit drugs during search warrants that netted Bartlett and Hewitt.
The investigation was a joint operation among the Austin Police Department’s (APD) Airport Operations Unit, Organized Crime Division, and the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Office of Law Enforcement.
Police said the firearm thefts occurred between Nov. 29, 2016, and Jan. 20 from checked luggage at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Bartlett has since been charged with possession of marijuana, a state jail felony while Hewitt was charged with a third degree felony for the same charge. Presumably, the degree of each offense is due to the amount of drugs recovered, but police didn't disclose those details in their news advisory
Johnson's charges are far more serious, having formally been charged by a federal criminal complaint in the Western District of Texas with Theft from Interstate Shipment and multiple counts of Possession of Stolen Firearms. He faces up to ten years' imprisonment on each charge.
Johnson was released on a personal recognizance bond on Wednesday afternoon after his initial appearance before a federal judge.
Police believe they have accounted for all the stolen firearms, but urge possible theft victims to notify them.
"Although we feel confident that we have addressed all known theft of firearm cases, if anyone whose firearm may have been stolen from checked baggage at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, please contact Detective Westling at 512-530-7540," police said.