By Tom Hays
NEW YORK — The testimony at a federal drug trafficking trial was chilling: Jurors heard how bribed baggage handlers at John F. Kennedy International Airport concealed cocaine on commercial jets inside sensitive wing assembly compartments.
Saying the tactic risked the lives of passengers, a federal judge sentenced the convicted leader of the drug ring on Tuesday to life in prison.
Former American Airlines baggage handler Victor Bourne was found guilty last year of charges he used his behind-the-scenes access at New York City's busiest airport to orchestrate the smuggling of more than 330 pounds of cocaine from 2000 to 2009.
"You personally exacerbated one of the nation's greatest blights," U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said at the sentencing in federal court in Brooklyn.
An unrepentant Bourne insisted investigators used "false evidence" to frame him.
"How can I accept responsibility for something that I don't have nothing to do with?" the 37-year-old native of Barbados asked.
The sentencing capped a federal investigation that has resulted in the convictions of 20 people — 19 of them airlines employees — the seizure of large amounts of cocaine and the forfeiture of $6.9 million. As leader of the crew, Bourne made millions of dollars that he laundered through business ventures in Brooklyn and Barbados, authorities said.
Bourne "turned American Airlines into his personal narcotics shuttle service, running a criminal organization that ignored passenger safety and security in pursuit of a greater goal — enriching Victor Bourne," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement.
Prosecutors built much of their case against Bourne based on the testimony of six former employees of Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines who pleaded guilty to narcotics trafficking.
The jury heard evidence that Bourne bribed crew chiefs to assign his gang of corrupt baggage handlers to flights from the Caribbean. The cooperators testified he also paid them tens of thousands of dollars each to "pull drugs" hidden in the planes — and to keep quiet about it.
One witness described one instance when Bourne carried two duffel bags into a cargo hold so he could retrieve drugs off an American Airlines jet arriving from Barbados.
After removing a panel covering the wing assembly — containing "some of the plane's avionics and other vital equipment" — Bourne "proceeded to remove conservatively over 60 bricks of cocaine," prosecutors said in court papers.
Another witness testified that Bourne accused him of stealing cocaine and warned he would "kill me, my family and kids" if it wasn't returned.
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press