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US: Man arrested after “explosive” found in suitcase at airport

March 2, 2023
This airport surveillance camera image released in an FBI affidavit shows alleged suspect Marc Muffley at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allenstown, Pa., on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. Muffley was arrested Monday after an explosive was found in a bag checked onto a Florida-bound flight, federal authorities said. (FBI via AP)

(CNN) — Federal agents arrested a Pennsylvania man this week after he allegedly tried to bring explosives in his suitcase on a flight from Lehigh Valley International Airport to Florida.

Marc Muffley, 40, faces two charges, according to a federal complaint, including possession of an explosive in an airport and possessing or attempting to place an explosive or incendiary device on an aircraft.

A federal judge Thursday ruled that Muffley remain in custody pending trial, finding that he posed a danger to the community and was a flight risk. Muffley did not enter a plea during Thursday’s hearing.

According to court documents, an alarm alerted that the baggage belonging to Muffley contained explosives. Transportation Security Administration agents paged Muffley over the airport intercom system and asked him to report to the airport’s security desk, prosecutors said, but he did not show up.

Soon after, security cameras allegedly caught Muffley leaving the airport. He had checked his luggage on Flight 201 bound for Orlando Sanford International Airport, according to court documents.

The FBI contacted the Carbon County chief of detectives who said he knew Muffley personally, according to court documents, and confirmed that Muffley’s address matched the one on his driver’s license.

“The FBI arrested Marc Muffley, 40, without incident at his Lansford, Pa., residence late Monday night,” an FBI spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.

CNN has reached out to Allegiant Air and the Lehigh Valley International Airport for comment.

According to the complaint, an alarm alerted Muffley’s baggage to TSA agents as it was being screened. Agents inspected baggage and found a “circular compound approximately three inches in diameter, wrapped in a wax-like paper and clear plastic wrap hidden in the lining of the baggage, among other items,” court documents stated.

A safety bomb technician X-rayed the bag, investigators said, and found that it contained a powder concealed in the plastic wrap consistent with “commercial-grade fireworks.” Investigators also said a fuse was attached to the circular compound.

“The baggage also contained a can of butane, a lighter, a pipe with white powder residue, a wireless drill with cordless batteries, and two GFCI outlets taped together with black tape,” the complaint stated.

TSA said in a statement that “out of an abundance of caution, the immediate area of airport was evacuated and the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were notified.”

Bomb technicians determined the item “was indeed a live explosive device,” according to TSA.

“Transportation Security Officers are highly trained and highly skilled professionals at the front line of aviation security and catches such as this illustrate the point,” TSA said in its statement.

The airport was closed for more than two hours after the incident, according to Colin Riccobon, public relations director of the airport. Numerous agencies responded, including two bomb squads, and it demonstrated “tremendous teamwork,” Riccobon said.

Checked baggage at the Lehigh Valley airport is handed by passengers to airline personnel at the check in counter. The baggage is then transferred to a TSA agent for screening.

TSA agents screen about 800-1,600 passengers a day at the airport, the agency told CNN.

Muffley’s attorney, Jonathan McDonald, argued in Thursday’s hearing his client had been overcharged, saying the device allegedly found in Muffley’s bag did not meet the legal definition outlined in the charge of possessing or attempting to place an explosive or incendiary device on an aircraft. The device, McDonald said, was merely the innards of a firework and had no way of being remotely detonated.

“Although this might be a flashy story because it involves a plane, this is not a situation where there’s any reason to believe that this person had any interest in causing harm to anyone other than lighting fireworks off at a beach in Florida,” McDonald said.

But an expert who inspected the item determined it to be an explosive, prosecutor Sherri Stephan said, telling the court, “It was an explosive. It was in his bag. He checked it into the airport.” Additionally, Stephan said Muffley told law enforcement he knew the bag contained what Stephan called an “explosive” as well as butane, a lighter and lithium batteries.

“Knowledge of the fact this man would go to an airport with those things in his suitcase and attempt to have them placed on an aircraft is nothing short of astonishing,” Stephan said.

Pennsylvania court records show that Muffley had been charged more than a half-dozen times over the last decade for possession of controlled substances, harassment and minor theft, among other crimes.

Jack Soberick, the former police chief in Lansford, Pennsylvania, who federal authorities consulted with before arresting Muffley, said he’d come into contact with the suspect numerous times during his 25 years with the department in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In a brief interview with CNN, Soberick said he did not recall details but that all of the incidents were minor in nature, such as drug arrests or misdemeanor domestic issues. Soberick had encountered Muffley both as a suspect and a victim, he said. Any violence, he said, would have been limited to a fist fight.

“There’s nothing that would light up and say, ‘Hey, this guy’s gonna try to bomb an aircraft,'” Soberick said.

“I don’t think he’s radicalized or anything like that.”

James Desanto, a lawyer who represented Muffley in several of his cases, said he hadn’t spoken to him in years but that he had also never had any indication that Muffley had radical beliefs or would have brought an explosive on a plane.

Some of Muffley’s arrests made local news. In April 2017, Muffley was arrested after stealing about $22 worth of batteries from a Family Dollar store, the Hazleton Standard-Speaker newspaper reported.

Court records show that Muffley was charged with retail theft. He pleaded guilty in September 2017 and was sentenced to a year of probation.

Court documents suggest that Muffley failed to pay required fines related to several of his court cases as recently as December 2022. At several points, prosecutors moved to revoke his probation, although it’s unclear whether it was ultimately revoked.

Stephan, the federal prosecutor, referenced Muffley’s past in Thursday’ detention hearing, saying, “He has shown a pattern of not being able to follow the rules of release.”

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