Four Flight Attendants Charged After Smuggling Drug Money on Commercial Flights

On Wednesday, four flight attendants were charged with multiple offenses for their suspected involvement in smuggling drug money to the Dominican Republic on commercial flights over an extended period.

The flight attendants leveraged their “Known Crewmember” (KCM) status with the TSA, which granted them access to a dedicated security lane at airports like John F. Kennedy and others, where they faced reduced scrutiny.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) in the Southern District of New York, an estimated $8 million in cash was purportedly carried in their luggage during the years-long smuggling operation, as they flew from New York to the Dominican Republic.

Charlie Hernandez, aged 42 from West New York, Sarah Valerio Pujols, aged 42 from the Bronx, Emmanuel Torres, aged 34 from Brooklyn, and Jarol Fabio, aged 35 from New York, have each been charged with operating an unlicensed money transmission business and entering an airport in breach of security requirements.

Ms. Pujols and Mr. Hernandez face additional charges of conspiring to operate an unlicensed money transmission business. Furthermore, Ms. Pujols has been charged with one count of bulk cash smuggling.

“As alleged, the defendants knowingly smuggled large amounts of illicit money linked to the sale of narcotics, to include fentanyl, and took advantage of airport security checkpoints by using their trusted positions as flight attendants,” said Ivan J. Arvelo, Special Agent in Charge of the New York Field Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in prepared remarks.

“This investigation has exposed critical vulnerabilities in the airline security industry and has illuminated methods that narcotics traffickers are utilizing. Today’s announcement should serve as a warning to all airline personnel: HSI New York will not tolerate employees’ attempts to abuse their power for the sake of transporting illicit goods,” he continued.

The purported smuggling activities reportedly started in 2014 and persisted until 2022. During this time, all the defendants worked as flight attendants for various international airlines that serviced routes connecting New York City and the Dominican Republic.

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In 2021, a cooperating witness, arrested for running a money laundering organization in New York City, assisted the attorney general and Homeland Security in their probe. One tactic employed within his operation to transfer cash earnings from drug deals in New York City to the Dominican Republic involved collaborating with corrupt flight attendants.

Following this, HSI orchestrated sting operations with the help of this informant and another cooperating individual. Allegedly, the flight attendants would receive large amounts of cash from the first informant in New York City, navigate it through airport security using the KCM lane, and then transfer it to other participants in the money laundering scheme in the Dominican Republic.

Reportedly, the attendants would receive a fee, typically a small percentage of the sum they were smuggling.

“As alleged, these flight attendants smuggled millions of dollars of drug money and law enforcement funds that they thought was drug money from the United States to the Dominican Republic over many years by abusing their privileges as airline employees,” said Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“Today’s charges should serve as a reminder to those who break the law by helping drug traffickers move their money that crime doesn’t pay,” Williams added.

When questioned about whether they informed the TSA about security gaps concerning airline attendants at the nation’s airports, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney General’s Office declined to provide a response.

“They were all bailed subject to the same conditions: $50,000 bond, 1 co-signer. They all have one week to fulfill their conditions,” the spokesman said via email.

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By Hunter Fielding
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