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TSA credits officers with rescuing kidnapped woman

By Mike M. Ahlers and Melanie Whitley, CNN
August 2, 2012 -- Updated 0932 GMT (1732 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Agency says behavior detection officers noticed suspicious group at Miami airport
  • Officers separated nervous woman from her four travel partners, report says
  • Police report: Woman accused two other women in group of punching her, taking her money
  • Pair charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment, other offenses

Washington (CNN) -- TSA officers rescued a woman from two kidnappers as a group of travelers passed through a security checkpoint at Miami International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration said.

In the July 5 incident, the two TSA behavior detection officers, trained to spot terrorists in passenger lines, noticed the 25-year-old woman trembling and trying to hide facial injuries at an airline ticket counter. The woman at first said she was fine, but later broke down crying and said she had been kidnapped, the TSA said.

The officers separated the woman from her four travel partners, leading to her rescue and the arrest of two women in the group on kidnapping and other charges, the TSA said.

"Our officers recognized that the woman was in danger and acted immediately to protect her," said Mark Hatfield, the TSA's federal security director for Miami International Airport.

The incident was first reported Tuesday by Miami television station NBC 6, a day before a congressional hearing on TSA screener misconduct. Several TSA officials said the timing of the news release was coincidental.

Nonetheless, TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski mentioned the kidnapping case as an example of good work being done by agency employees.

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"We stopped a kidnapping basically though the quick thinking and the abilities of our BDO (behavior detection officers)," he told the committee.

A North Miami Police Department report gave this account:

The incident began when the victim and four friends came to Miami from New Jersey to celebrate the Fourth of July. The following day -- July 5 -- the woman was alone at a Best Western hotel when her four friends returned from an outing, apparently intoxicated.

While the victim was lying in bed, one woman accused her of having intimate relations with her boyfriend and "began to violently punch her numerous times in the face." When the woman stopped punching her, a second woman punched her in the face several times.

The victim locked herself in a bathroom, but her two attackers struck her again when she left the bathroom. The two other friends "refused to get involved," the report says.

The attackers took jewelry from her, took money from her purse and went to an ATM, where they withdrew money from the victim's account, it says.

The group took a taxi to the Miami airport, and while they were at a ticket counter, a TSA behavior detection officer noticed the victim's injuries. The officer said that one woman "didn't seem comfortable with the people she was traveling with," the TSA said in a statement. The victim at first said she was fine, but a TSA officer "re-engaged the woman and she broke down crying and stated she was kidnapped," the statement said.

"The victim was pulled away by TSA Agents before reaching the travel document check point and Airport Police were called," the TSA said.

Police questioned the woman's four travel partners and arrested the two women. Police identified the women as Tori Beato, 19, of Secaucus, New Jersey, and Melissa Pineiro, 25, of North Bergen, New Jersey.

Beato and Pineiro are charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and related charges. Both have been released on bond, police said, and efforts by CNN to reach them were unsuccessful. Beato's listed phone number was no longer in service, and Pineiro did not immediately return a call for comment.

At Wednesday's hearing on screener misconduct, the TSA defended its workforce, saying that most screeners behave professionally and that the agency works aggressively to weed out unprofessional workers.

Deputy Administrator Halinski said criticism of the agency comes chiefly from the media, bloggers and politicians. Of the 600 million passengers screened every year, about 750,000 initiate contact with the TSA, and less than 8% of them register complaints, he said.

TSA: Eight Newark officers fired for violating procedures

"When you look at the large number of passengers that are going through, I think that statistic speaks for itself," Halinski said.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, chairman of the subcommittee, agreed that only a small subset of TSA workers are unprofessional, but he said the frequency of TSA misconduct "is a symptom of a larger problem."

"In some cases, we've seen poor screener performance going uncorrected or, even worse, being encouraged or covered up or by TSA management," he said, noting a 2011 case in which TSA employees at a Honolulu airport were failing to check baggage for explosives.

"TSA's own federal security director was in on it," Rogers said. "One of these cases is too many, but there have been others disturbing since then, including airports in southwest Florida, Philadelphia, JFK and Newark."

Said Halinski: "I'm not saying we're different from any other group of Americans. I'm saying we're exactly like any group of Americans."

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