US investigates how American teen travelled to Ja unwittingly with three rifle bullets
THE case of an American teenage girl who was acquitted of ammunition charges here earlier this month has triggered an investigation by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) into security systems at two airports in the US that failed to detect three live rounds in her carry-on bag.
At the same time, the TSA has decided against preventing the teen — 18-year-old Casey Felpel — from flying again after her parents wrote to their congresswoman protesting the impending action, according to Clayton Morgan, the Jamaican attorney who represented Felpel at her trial in the Corporate Area Resident Magistrate’s Court.
Morgan told the Jamaica Observer that TSA staff at the two airports — Philadelphia National and Miami International — who were on duty the day that Felpel travelled to Jamaica were taken off the job during the probe, but have since returned to work.
The Observer sought a confirmation of the investigation from the TSA, but was directed to the US Embassy in Kingston.
When the embassy was contacted, it responded by saying that the “TSA’s investigation is ongoing, and federal agencies do not comment on ongoing investigations”.
The investigation was conducted after the authorities learnt that the teenager had passed through both airports on June 24 with three live R-P 444 rounds, which were inadvertently left in her carryon bag by her father, a big game hunter.
Felpel, a part-time student and cashier from Akron, Pennsylvania, was among a group of 28 Mennonite Church volunteers who came to Jamaica as guests of the Salvation Army in Mandeville.
The group, which was on a nine-day work and cultural exchange, had departed Philadelphia National Airport for Kingston via Miami International Airport.
At her trial on July 6, Felpel — who was charged with illegal possession of ammunition and attempting to export ammunition — testified that she checked in three pieces of luggage which she packed herself; two of which were knapsacks which she checked as carry-ons. All three pieces were screened by security personnel at the airport prior to departure.
Upon arrival in Miami, all passengers disembarked the aircraft but remained in the intransit section of the airport. They reboarded the same aircraft after a delay of approximately one hour.
After arriving in Kingston, the group cleared Customs and Immigration then boarded a chartered bus for Mandeville.
At about 1:00 pm on Tuesday, July 3, the group arrived at the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston for departure. Felpel checked her suitcase, but again kept both knapsacks as carryons and placed them on the X-ray machine.
However, Port Security Corps Supervisor Andrea McEwan noticed what she described as unusual objects resembling ammunition in one of the bags.
In her testimony, McEwan told the court that she allowed the bag to go through the scanner but conducted a secondary hand search as the metal detector did not react.
The search resulted in the discovery of the three bullets in a side pocket of the bag.
McEwan said when she asked Felpel if the bullets belonged to her, the teen said no. Felpel, however, volunteered that the bag belonged to her father who frequently used it to carry his ammunition and food on hunting trips in Northern Pennsylvania.
Her father, she said, may have accidentally left the rounds in the bag.
Her father, Gerald Felpel, also testified and corroborated his daughter’s story.
In his closing statement to the Court, Morgan urged the judge, Stephanie Jackson-Hailsly, to accept the Felpels’ testimonies as truthful. He also argued that the Crown failed to prove any criminal intent by the teen to import the ammunition into Jamaica or to export them from Jamaica to the United States.
After reviewing the evidence, the judge concluded that the credibility of the father and daughter remained intact throughout the proceedings.
“She further submitted that even if there were areas of doubt in their testimonies she was obliged to resolve them in favour of the accused,” Morgan said, adding that the judge then dismissed Felpel of the charges.
Morgan, in reacting to the outcome of the case, praised the Port Security Corps supervisor.
“Were it not for the alertness of Mrs McEwan, the cartridges may not have been detected as the X-ray machine at Norman Manley airport also apparently failed to detect them,” he said.
“Perhaps the sensitivity of the machines will have to be changed to recognise every type of metal and gunpowder known to the industry,” he added.