Even after airport security in Edmonton realized a potentially dangerous pipe bomb had been seized from a departing passenger, they did not immediately call the RCMP, inexplicably ignoring the most basic safety and security protocols, sources with direct knowledge of the incident told CBC News.
The security personnel also did not follow protocol when they removed the steel pipe bomb, with its nearly three-metre-long fuse, from an X-ray machine instead of immediately shutting down the machine, triggering an alarm, calling in a nearby RCMP officer and securing the public’s safety.
Instead, a security guard, apparently not realizing it was a pipe bomb, offered to return it to the teenage passenger who had inadvertently carried it into the screening area in a camera bag. He declined to take it and was allowed to board a flight to Mexico with his family on Sept. 20, 2013.
“The gentleman should have been arrested on site,” said one of the security guards, who spoke with CBC News on condition of anonymity. “But the police had no idea this was going on, and they were never called.”
Security personnel placed the pipe bomb in a so-called “forfeit” bin along with seized items such as scissors and toothpaste. Sources tell CBC News that many security staff saw the pipe bomb. One security guard who saw the device said it was obviously a pipe bomb.
“People don't carry a lead pipe with two caps on each end around with them,” the guard said. “I mean, it is the perfect picture of what a pipe bomb looks like. And that is what triggered me, when I saw it. It was so realistic that it scared me."
Pipe bomb wrapped in ‘head shop’ bag
Sources in Ottawa told CBC News that Murphy arrived at the airport with the pipe bomb wrapped in a bag from a "head shop" that sells drug paraphernalia. The bag had pictures of marijuana leaves on it. The wrapped bomb was inside the camera bag.
After the pipe bomb was caught by the scanner, the security screener looked at the images on the bag and assumed the pipe bomb was some kind of drug pipe. The inspector then swabbed the pipe bomb for drugs, but not for gunpowder. It tested negative for drugs.
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Souces say the pipe bomb was reported the same day to the management of Garda, the security firm hired by the Canadian Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to screen passengers at Edmonton International Airport.
Despite this, the pipe bomb sat in an office for four days, until Sept. 24, when it was finally noticed by a CATSA official who called the RCMP. The Mounties arrested 18-year-old Skylar Murphy from Spruce Grove, Alta., when he returned from Mexico on Sept. 27.
Murphy pleaded guilty to possession of an explosive device and was given a one-year suspended sentence, a $100 fine, and ordered to make a $500 donation to a burn unit.
When contacted by CBC News, Murphy sought $600 for an interview, saying he wanted the money to pay the fine and the donation. CBC declined to pay and no interview was granted.
Internal review conducted
In emailed statements to CBC News, CATSA said an internal review was conducted, changes were made to ensure this type of security failure could not happen again, and employees were disciplined, including being suspended.
But the guard who spoke with CBC News on condition of anonymity said only minor changes have been made to security protocols, and the operator of the scanning machine, and others who were directly involved with the pipe bomb on that day, were working as recently as this week.
These latest revelations raise yet more troubling questions about not only the safety of Canada’s airport-security screening system, but also about how the incident was handled both by the agency responsible for airport security, the federal government, the RCMP and Alberta Justice.
According to a transcript of Murphy’s court case, the RCMP believed the teenager’s story that he didn’t intend to blow up an airplane because of his “shocked reaction” when security screeners discovered the device.
The RCMP based this belief on surveillance video from the airport.
“I didn’t view [the video] but [RCMP investigating officer] Const. [Jim] Kirkpatrick described to me, he said it was obvious on the surveillance video, when the object was pulled out of his bag, the shocked reaction he had,” Crown prosecutor Trent Wilson told the court at Murphy’s hearing on Dec. 5.
Gunpowder stolen from sheriff
The court also heard testimony from the teenager that he obtained the gunpowder by stealing bullets from his mother’s fiancé, an Alberta sheriff. Alberta Justice issued a release saying RCMP had investigated the matter and found the sheriff’s weapon and ammunition had been properly stored.
Court transcripts reveal that another reason RCMP believed Murphy did not intend to harm anyone was that he returned from the vacation onSept. 27, when he was arrested by a large number of uniformed officers, a SWAT team and bomb-sniffing dogs.
The transcript shows he and a friend built the pipe bomb because they intended to blow up a shed for fun.
“Mr. Murphy also said he wanted to photograph the shed when he blew it up and that was why he had the bomb inside of his camera bag,” the prosecutor told the court.
“When Mr. Murphy packed for his flight he placed his camera bag inside his carry-on duffel bag. He emphatically denied that his intent was to cause damage to the airport or any aircraft. He claimed that he forgot the pipe bomb was inside his camera bag and he did not intend to try to take it on the airplane.”
The court transcript describes how the explosive device was discovered at the airport.
“An object, which was later confirmed by the RCMP explosive disposal unit members to be a fully functional pipe bomb was first identified by an employee conducting an X-ray inspection of Murphy’s bag,” the prosecutor said.
Murphy confirmed he was the owner of the bag.
“Items were taken out of the bag in front of Mr. Murphy,” the prosecutor said “The object was inside a small cloth bag and was made out of a five and a half inch long metal pipe with two threaded end caps. One end of the pipe had a fuse sticking out of it that measured over nine-feet long. The pipe was filled with black powder.
“The pipe bomb was not given back to Mr. Murphy and he was allowed to board his flight to Mexico,” the prosecutor told the court. The transcript makes no reference to the security screener attempting to return the pipe bomb to Murphy.
The prosecutor asked the judge to impose a one-year, suspended sentence to a guilty plea of being in possession of an explosive device, which the judge granted.
Several American security experts told CBC News they were shocked Murphy wasn’t charged with a much more serious offence and jailed.
In sentencing Murphy, the judge scolded the teenager for stealing from his mother’s fiancé and for his bad judgment in producing such a dangerous device.
“Pipe bombs are used to kill people, to destroy property, they are used in war, they are used by terrorists, they are used by individuals who are in conflict, and they are very successful at killing people,” the judge told Murphy.
The judge also told Murphy that had he carried the pipe bomb to Mexico, he might have been facing a different fate.
“If the authorities had missed that pipe bomb and you had gone, in Mexico, through a screening device, you would not even get a trial, more than likely,” the judge said. “You would be in a Mexican jail and your grandfather and your family would be visiting you in that jail. And you would probably be learning Spanish by now, if you survived. I doubt you would have survived.”
The security guard who spoke to CBC said media coverage of the security failure has undermined public confidence in the screening system.
“We have got passengers coming up to us and harassing us now [saying], ‘Why are you searching my stuff or why are you taking my liquids away? I mean you guys let a pipe bomb go,’” the guard said.