Security at John Wayne airport is being reviewed after passengers had to be evacuated from the terminals Friday evening when a man in a white jumpsuit illegally breached a secure part of the airport, delaying flights and leaving travelers stranded on the tarmac.
The 51-year-old man, who eluded capture for hours, was eventually located in the ceiling near a ticketing area and taken into custody.
The incident will trigger a review of JWA security by the TSA, airport personnel and others, who will evaluate if it should be fortified, Carrie Braun, spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said Saturday.
The trouble began to unfold Friday at about 5:30 p.m., when the man was spotted in the airfield in a secure area that only airport employees are allowed to access and made contact with an airport employee. He then took control of an airport vehicle and drove it into the airfield outside Terminal C, officials said.
He stopped near a gate and tried to access a secure area of the terminal, at which point an airport employee lost sight of him and notified emergency personnel, authorities said.
Security officers pushed passengers who already had been through screening back to the ticketing area, where they would have to go through the security process again before being allowed to re-enter the terminals. Some parts of the airport went into lockdown.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department eventually located the man, later identified as Johnny Hecker of San Diego, in the ceiling, and he was taken into custody.
He was booked into Orange County Jail on trespassing and vandalism charges, Braun said. The jail log described him as a laborer. He was being held on $120,000 bail.
Braun said it was believed the man obtained the paper, white jumpsuit he was wearing from somewhere at the airport. It was not known if he had been working there at any point, or what his motive would have been.
At 8:02 p.m. the airport was cleared and re-opened, allowing passengers to de-board or head out, Braun said. Some flights were expected to be delayed or canceled, JWA spokeswoman AnnaSophia Servin said.
Despite the incident, Jeffrey Price, a former airport director and aviation security expert, said Saturday that JWA’s security system worked.
“The way that the system is designed and always has been, is to protect access to the aircraft itself,” Price said in a brief interview Saturday.
When someone vanishes on the airfield, all airport procedures are the same, said Price, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a former airport director at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. A “re-sterilization” of the airport has to be completed and a systemic search of all secure areas must be carried out until the person is found or officials are satisfied the person is no longer there and nothing is left behind.
In addition to the criminal charges, if an investigation finds Hecker tampered with or compromised a security system, he will most likely receive a letter from the TSA explaining how much money he would owe the federal government, Price said.
During the closure, a sheriff’s helicopter flew low above the airport, circling the tarmac. Arriving commercial planes formed a line along the runway. Departing planes also sat idle at terminal gates and along the runway. Television broadcasts showed clusters of travelers waiting outside terminals with their luggage.
Though the Sheriff’s Department declined to confirm what prompted the search at first, some passengers received information from flight officials about the unfolding situation.
Charles Chronicle of Newport Beach, who waited inside an American Airlines plane bound for Phoenix, said the plane’s captain relayed information from the air traffic controllers, notifying passengers that the terminal was evacuated and sheriff’s deputies were walking throughout the terminal.
The captain announced deputies were searching for an individual who had hopped the airport fence, stole a truck and crashed through one of the gates, Chronicle said as his plane was parked at a terminal gate. After waiting for more than an hour and a half, Chronicle’s flight was cleared for takeoff around 7:45 p.m.
Other passengers who weathered delays were largely kept in the dark about the security breach.
Elizabeth Robins of Washington D.C., who arrived on a connecting Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas, said her plane was stuck on the tarmac after landing at 6:30 p.m., the sheriff’s copter circling above them. Flight attendants explained travelers in the terminal had to be re-screened before they could park the plane and enter the airport.
Robins, who was visiting family in Orange County for a funeral, said she waited at least two hours before deplaning.
“Glad everyone is safe, and for how Southwest flight attendants kept us entertained while we waited,” she said. “Airplane staff handled the event well and efficiently.”
I’m eating in a restaurant at John Wayne Airport and a guard and a suit walk in and ask the waitress if they’ve seen a guy in a white jumpsuit. 15 minutes later, the whole airport is on shutdown. #Johnwayneairport
— Greg Perkins (@doc_perkins) August 21, 2021
Everyone that was inside the concourse has been asked to go back into the check in areas to get rescreened. No flights will be deboarded until they finish sweep… and idk what happens after that if they don’t find who they’re looking for
— deb (@laotraperuana) August 21, 2021
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