By SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News
Sparkling blue and white airplanes with the well-known Alaska Airlines logo painted on the side of the jets. This is the company image Alaska Airlines wants you to see.
But the KING 5 Investigators have obtained photos of the inside of some of their planes that the company would never want you to see: image after image of graffiti buried in the bellies of a number of planes where luggage, cargo and animals are loaded.
The pictures show area codes, scratched out symbols, and words that look like they could be related to gangs.
Is this harmless scribbling or really gang graffiti? We showed our photos to five highly respected gang experts in Arizona, New York, California, and two in the Seattle area. They all came to the same, disturbing conclusion.
“It’s definitely gang, and some major gangs are represented there, with some very violent rivalries. No doubt about it,” said Richard Valdemar, who started the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gang unit 33 years ago. He’s one of the top gang experts in the country.
“There is some real rivalry going on,” he said.
We asked him to analyze 62 images, all taken from Alaska cargo bins. Like the other four experts, he said the graffiti shows gang members are working there, with full access to the airplanes.
“By definition, they are gang members, which means they are outlaws. They’re outside of our system of law. They answer to their own system of law, which is a criminal culture,” he said.
Experts say the word “norte” appears many times in the images, as does “XIV”, the Roman numeral 14. Together, they refer to the violent Norte 14 gang. Members identify themselves with locations like Oakland , and area code 510.
Their number one rival – the Surenos — is represented as well, primarily from further south, like Orange County and Santa Ana and area code 714.
Experts say this gang answers to the Mexican mafia, or EME, which you can faintly see spelled out in one of the images.
Throughout the bins, the monikers are crossed out, which means a serious challenge by a rival gang.
“It’s not just ‘I’m claiming this territory’ it’s also an act of defiance and it demands retaliation,” said Valdemar.
There other references to “Tookie,” likely the Crips gang founder Tookie Williams executed in California last month.
What’s more, there are many references to smoking drugs on the job.
One picture shows a marijuana joint with the Seattle area code 206 reference nearby. Underneath the joint, a line reads: “reason for delays.”
And a dollar sign written on top of a person smoking pot means something else in the gang world.
“So, they’re saying they sling dope … sell dope,” said Valdemar.
Pilots tell their union they saw a dramatic increase in this kind of graffiti last May, after Alaska fired its ramp workers and hired a cheaper outside contractor, Menzies Aviation, to load the bags on planes at Sea-Tac.
The union says whoever’s to blame, they want something done.
“Where is their limit? What else are they going to do or what are they capable of? It’s against the law and they should be prosecuted, and not out there on our ramp,” said Capt. Paul Emmert of the Seattle Pilot’s union.
Asked by Alaska Airlines months ago to look into complaints about graffiti, the Port of Seattle Police concluded that gang graffiti does not always equal gang activity.
“It just doesn’t amount to anything that raises to that level of concern that we’d want to take any other overt action in dealing with it,” said Port of Seattle Police Chief Tim Kimsey.
Alaska’s director of security says the company’s satisfied with the Port police investigation.
“They have told us it is not an indication of gang activity,” Holly Geiger Zimmerman said.
“I think we have to go with the jurisdiction. The people with jurisdiction is the airport police unit. We know they are good at their job,” she said.
Port police say they even went outside their department and showed similar images to their own gang experts.
“A few of them in there may raise some concern, based on that input that we got back, but again, not enough that it tells us that we have an issue or problem here at Sea-Tac Airport,” according to Kimsey.
But the KING 5 Investigators learned Wednesday night that the port was warned. A local gang task force looked at some photos last summer and told the officer assigned to the case this looked like a serious problem.
And that’s exactly what all the experts told us in our investigation.
And the people writing the graffiti don’t belong anywhere near an aircraft, said Valdemar.
“That is a criminal element, active in the bellies of the planes, with rivals also in the same proximity.”
Why did the port ignore the advice of experts?
When we confronted them with that question Thursday, they said they didn’t think the group had enough experience to draw any conclusions.
That doesn’t explain why they sought their advice in the first place.
The experts tell us the graffiti suggests strong connections to California and Seattle.
Alaska Airlines told us repeatedly it’s depending on the Port of Seattle to investigate.
To this date the Port has not interviewed one employee or done any surveillance, something our experts all say would be a very good idea.