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Tourists crack the case of the stolen suitcase

David and Jackie Hubbard touched down at McCarran International Airport in March for a leisurely trip, but instead found themselves starring in their own self-made episode of “CSI.”

Rather than kicking it by the pool with a cocktail or bellying up to a blackjack table, the Florida couple spent a good chunk of their vacation as sleuths, snooping around Las Vegas investigating the fate of their suitcase.

The Hubbards’ case is mostly comedic, thanks to the primary character who, you will see, should be inducted into the Dim-Wit Criminal Hall of Fame. Although entertaining, the Hubbards’ tale certainly raises questions about whether luggage theft is a problem at our airport.

Their adventure started March 26, when they picked up two pieces of baggage at the Southwest Airlines carousel. The third had gone missing and they figured it had been left in Houston, where they had changed planes. They filed a claim with the airline.

The following day, they received a phone call from Hougan’s Racing Sandwich Shop. Employees at the Silverado Ranch restaurant had grown suspicious of a customer who was acting goofy.

As they eyed him leaving on their surveillance monitor, they saw him nervously look around before tossing something into the parking lot trash bin.

The items, it turns out, were a damaged suitcase lock and an address tag with the Hubbards’ contact information. Hougan’s contacted the Hubbards, who filed a report with Las Vegas police.

The couple then launched their own probe.

They concluded that the thief probably lived near the sandwich shop, so they wrote a list of pawn shops in the area. David Hubbard said most of the contents of the bag were his higher-priced wardrobe, and he quickly learned pawn shops aren’t big on clothes. They changed the direction of their investigation – thrift stores.

It was the last one they hit – the Mustang Xchange near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas – that broke their case wide open. The clerk told the Hubbards that a man had come in earlier and was upset with the cheap rate offered for his designer clothing.

Here’s the kicker: The guy demanded to talk to the owner and left his name and phone number with the clerk.

The owner, with Las Vegas police detectives by his side, called the man and admitted the offer was too low. He invited him back to the store so he could offer him a better deal, which turned out to be a free ride to jail.

According to a Las Vegas police report, the Hubbards weren’t the thieves’ only victims that day. A woman lost her bag too. Police arrested Brandon McGrew, 30, and Stanley Eccles, 36, in connection with the thefts.

The two allegedly sold the clothing and jewelry to various stores, apparently without question. Hubbard’s cuff links, for example, were taken to Neiman Marcus in exchange for a $150 gift card, according to the arrest report. The loot was sold for nearly $2,000. It was a gainful gig blown by the ill-advised decision to leave a real name and number with a clerk.

“I love seeing a good story about criminals getting busted by being stupid and good Samaritans going out of their way to help,” Hubbard said. “If it had not been for the staff at Hougan’s, we’d have never known what happened to the bag.”

Hubbard, a frequent traveler, said he is now tempted to engage in behavior he once abhorred. Hubbard was on the opposite end of the carousel from where the luggage is elevated into the terminal.

“I never understood why people crowded that area; they weren’t going to get their luggage that much faster than everyone standing back,” Hubbard said. “Now I’m going to be one of those people who stands right there where your bags come out. Now I’m going to make my luggage as obnoxious as possible so no one will try to steal it.”

Airlines once paid to have luggage claim inspectors at turnstiles leading out of the baggage area, but at most airports, including McCarran, they stopped funding the program after 9/11. They had to invest more money in security measures for passengers boarding airplanes. The federal government has since taken over security, but airlines are still struggling, and that is probably why we no longer see those inspectors.

Even the suspects were surprised at how easy it was to pull up to McCarran’s baggage claim, hop out, grab a couple suitcases and continue on their way.

Eccles told police he “could not believe that no one was checking bags when passengers leave, like they do in Los Angeles,” the police report says.

Chris Jones, spokesman for McCarran, said undercover officers are placed in the baggage claim area. He has not heard that thefts have been a problem.

“For the most part, the police force has been pretty effective,” Jones said. “But people are encouraged not to put valuables in checked bags.”

Hubbard said his airline wasn’t particularly helpful. It didn’t appear the company had any sort of tracking system. Even while he was well on the thieves’ trail, he received phone calls from airline representatives explaining that they were still trying to locate his bag.

Other airlines have been more proactive. Hubbard typically flies Delta Airlines for business. It scans luggage as it is loaded into the plane and taken off the airliner. It has a phone application that tells passengers that the baggage has been transferred to the connecting flight and when it has been unloaded at passengers’ final destination.

That is somewhat helpful; the Hubbards could have launched their investigation sooner. With most travelers packing roller bags that all look alike, theft is still difficult to prevent without checkers. If passengers do stop someone who lifted their bag, the thief can always dismiss their actions as a mistake.

Not everyone is as lucky as the Hubbards, who were willing to spend two days of their vacation tracking down their luggage. The suspects are scheduled to appear in court July 2, but as far as the Hubbards are concerned, this case is closed.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an email to roadwarrior
@reviewjournal.com. Include your phone number.

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