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Baggage Handler Charged With Smuggling Handguns

NEWARK, June 11 - A baggage handler at Newark Liberty International Airport smuggled at least 18 handguns on flights from Alabama to New Jersey, where he sold them to criminals, the authorities said today.

The man, Antonio Marquette Lewis, 30, an American Airlines employee, was arrested at the airport on Monday and charged with violating federal firearms laws, said James R. Needles, assistant special agent in charge at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in New York.

The authorities say that between June and September 2002, Mr. Lewis went to a Selma, Ala., pawn shop and used an Alabama driver's license with a relative's address to buy at least 12 handguns. Two other men bought at least 6 guns for Mr. Lewis in the same period, Mr. Needles said.

The smuggling took place months before a federal law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2003, requiring transportation officials to search all bags by hand, Mr. Needles said. "He was a baggage handler and knew how the system worked, so he was able to do this," he said.

Prosecutors say Mr. Lewis filed off the guns' serial numbers and resold them to convicted felons and drug dealers who could not ordinarily buy guns in New Jersey.

A spokesman for American Airlines would not comment on the specifics of the case, but said Mr. Lewis had been suspended without pay pending the results of an internal investigation.

Mr. Lewis appeared before a federal magistrate here on Tuesday and was released on $100,000 bail and ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. Prosecutors said they did not know whether he had a lawyer.

The police in Jersey City, where Mr. Lewis lives, began investigating the case late last year when they arrested two men who had some of the smuggled firearms. The authorities traced the defaced serial numbers back to Alabama and Mr. Lewis's accomplices, said the Hudson County prosecutor, Edward J. DeFazio. "He was getting a premium price on the street for the weapons and contributing to the criminal stream of commerce in New Jersey," said Mr. DeFazio, who noted that Mr. Lewis had no prior criminal record.

Mr. DeFazio said his office was looking into whether any of the weapons had been used to commit crimes. Mr. Lewis had no prior criminal record, he said.

Mr. Needles said that two handguns, roughly 1,500 rounds of ammunition and driver's licenses from New Jersey, Alabama and Tennessee had been found in Mr. Lewis's apartment. He said that no one else had been charged in the smuggling and that the investigation was continuing in all three states.

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