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United States v. Rawlins

May 26, 2010


On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands District Court No. 3-04-cr-00154-005 United States District Judge: The Honorable James T. Giles.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge


Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit L.A.R. 34.1(a) May 3, 2010

Before: SMITH, CHAGARES, and JORDAN, Circuit Judges.


Robert Rawlins was a baggage handler for Worldwide Flight Services at Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. He was caught using that position to help smuggle cocaine through the airport, and was eventually convicted of various drug crimes. Finding no error, we will affirm.


"As required when reviewing convictions, we recite the relevant facts in the light most favorable to the government." United States v. Leo, 941 F.2d 181, 185 (3d Cir. 1991).

This appeal arises out of a conspiracy among employees at Cyril E. King Airport, and others, to smuggle cocaine onto commercial flights bound for the continental United States. The conspirators included Alric Thomas, a cocaine supplier; Dion Brookes, the station manager for a small airline called Air Sunshine; and airport baggage handlers Rawlins, Bernard Gabriel, Brent Donovan, Meleek Sylvester, and Mervin Dorival.

This group employed several methods to move cocaine through the airport. The method the conspirators used most often was what we will refer to for purposes of this opinion as "tag switching" or "tag pulling." The word "tag" refers to the flight tags that airlines affix to checked luggage. All luggage to be loaded onto commercial aircraft requires such a tag. The switching the conspirators engaged in involved stealing flight tags from legitimately checked bags and affixing those tags to bags containing cocaine. This method allowed the cocaine to be smuggled into the cargo holds of U.S.-bound commercial airplanes.

The main workspace for the tag-switching operation was the airport's baggage room. It was located behind the ticket counters of several airlines, including Air Sunshine, as well as the Transportation Security Administration ("TSA") inspection area. The room had two baggage belts, both of which held checked luggage intended for outgoing flights. A conspiring baggage handler was able to select a bag that was bound for a destination where he intended to direct the cocaine. He would remove the bag's flight tag, steal any valuables found inside, then discard the plundered bag. The stolen flight tag would then be taken to Air Sunshine's ticket counter or office, where Brookes was paid to hold unchecked, uninspected, untagged bags filled with cocaine.*fn1 The tag would be transferred to one of the drug bags, making it appear that the bag had been checked and inspected in the ordinary course. A baggage handler would then transport that bag to the baggage room and place it among other checked baggage. Finally, the bag containing drugs would be loaded onto the flight denoted on the flight tag, along with legitimately checked bags.

The earliest evidence of Rawlins's involvement in this operation pertained to the events of September 20, 2003. The day before, Thomas had given Sylvester three suitcases filled with cocaine, along with $60,000 in cash. Two bags were to be loaded onto a flight to Philadelphia; the third was destined for Newark. As agreed, Sylvester brought the suitcases to the airport on September 20. Brookes and Dorival took them and stored them in the Air Sunshine office. Brookes held the three bags in his office until Rawlins delivered the tags that would allow the two bags bound for Philadelphia to be loaded onto the plane.*fn2 Either Rawlins or Brookes affixed the tags to the bags. Rawlins then carried the two bags to the baggage room.

Unfortunately for the conspirators, the tag pullers made a mistake that day. They failed to discard the legitimate Philadelphia-bound bags from which the two flight tags had been stolen. A baggage handler who was not involved in the conspiracy was loading those bags onto the plane when he noticed that they lacked the necessary flight tags. He and a colleague alerted TSA, which in turn ordered an X-ray scan of all luggage intended for the Philadelphia flight. The scan revealed the two "replacement" bags filled with cocaine. The third bag that Sylvester had delivered to the Air Sunshine office, however, remained there undiscovered. Sylvester contacted Rawlins and told him that the Air Sunshine office held a suitcase containing ten kilograms of cocaine. Rawlins agreed to retrieve the suitcase, and returned it to Sylvester around 7:00 or 7:30 that evening.

Rawlins's involvement in cocaine smuggling at the airport continued. On November 8, 2003, he removed a flight tag from a checked bag in the baggage room, placed it in his pocket, and took it to Brookes's office. He returned with a tagged blue bag, which he placed on the baggage belt. Later that day, officials in Newark, New Jersey intercepted a cocaine-filled bag that had been placed on Continental Flight 1902 from St. Thomas.*fn3 Rawlins was also tied to a cocaine-filled suitcase discovered on February 21, 2004. Donovan obtained two tags and brought them to Brookes. Brookes informed him that he needed only one tag, so Donovan placed one tag on the drug bag and restored the other to the luggage from which it had been taken. Donovan testified that Rawlins was "involved with that transaction," and that Rawlins took ...

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