Skipping death row, the diminutive killer of a TSA guard at Los Angeles International Airport in 2013 who targeted federal security officers pleaded guilty Tuesday to murder and other charges.
The plea agreement between Paul Ciancia, 26, and federal prosecutors will spare him the death penalty, but he still faces life in prison without the possibility of parole for the killing and the wounding of three. Formal sentencing is set for Nov. 7.
Ciancia pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts stemming from the Nov. 1, 2013, shooting rampage in the airport’s Terminal 3, including the murder of TSA Officer Gerardo I. Hernandez.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty, but the murder charge to which Ciancia pleaded carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Weapons charges carry another mandatory 60 years in prison, in addition to several years behind bars for other charges.
Ciancia, standing about 5-foot-3 and shackled at the waist, wrists and ankles, surveyed the crowd as he was escorted into the courtroom for the 40- minute hearing.
Speaking in a high-pitched, strangled-sounding voice that is apparently a remnant of neck wounds suffered when he was shot by police, Ciancia told the judge he was taking about a half-dozen medications for various ailments.
When asked by U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez if he was indeed guilty of the premeditated attack in which he shot Hernandez multiple times at point-blank range, Ciancia said yes.
Members of the victims’ families filled the downtown Los Angeles courtroom, many weeping throughout the proceeding.
One of the survivors, 38-year-old TSA Officer Tony Grigsby — who was wounded in the ankle and foot but has returned to work at LAX — said outside court that the plea has given his family “some closure,” but he “cannot fathom” the motivation for the attack.
A member of Hernandez’s family, who did not wish to be identified, wept as she recalled the late officer — the first TSA agent to die in the line of duty in the agency’s 15-year history — as “a really good father who just loved his kids. It’s such a shame.”
Ciancia walked into Terminal 3 at LAX and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle while carrying dozens of rounds of ammunition, along with a signed handwritten note saying he wanted to kill TSA agents and “instill fear in your traitorous minds.”
Witnesses to the shooting said the gunman asked them whether they worked for the TSA, and if they said no, he moved on.
The New Jersey native, an unemployed motorcycle mechanic who had been living in the Sun Valley area of Los Angeles for about 18 months, was shot in the neck and leg during a gun battle with airport police.
Federal prosecutors cited Ciancia’s “substantial planning and premeditation.”
Ciancia purchased his weapon almost seven months prior to the attack and concealed it on the day of the shooting by tying two pieces of luggage together to create a carrying case, according to court records.
According to the plea agreement, Ciancia sent text messages to his brother and sister while he was being driven to the airport on the morning of the attack. In one, he called himself a “patriot.”
“I’m so sorry that I have to leave you prematurely, but it is for the greater good of humanity,” he wrote to his brother. “This was the purpose I was brought here.”
To his sister, Ciancia wrote that he had to “stand up to these tyrants,” and asked her not to let the media distort his actions.
“There wasn’t a terrorist attack on Nov. 1,” he wrote. “There was a pissed off patriot trying to water the tree of liberty.”
The evidence includes a two-page, handwritten, signed letter in which Ciancia wrote that he had “made a conscious decision to kill” TSA agents that morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said.
After he shot Hernandez at a passenger ID checkpoint and the officer fell to the ground, Ciancia got on an escalator heading into the terminal. When he saw Hernandez still moving, Ciancia went back and shot the officer repeatedly, prosecutors said. Hernandez was shot a total of 12 times.
Moving back into the terminal, Ciancia shot TSA Officers Grigsby and James Maurice Speer, along with a civilian, Brian Ludmer. He continued into the terminal but was shot by police.
Ciancia spent two weeks recovering at a hospital before he was transferred to a federal detention center in downtown Los Angeles, where he remains in custody.
—City News Service