As the woman was being screened on Oct. 4 in one of the imaging machines at San Diego International Airport, Transportation Security Administration officers noticed she was shaking, according to federal court documents.
The machine detected a large mass in the area of her abdomen, and the security officers, unable to determine what the mass was, sent her to a private screening room. After further screening, the officers found that the large mass was an item wrapped around her abdomen. A drug-detection dog was brought in and smelled something inside the item, according to court documents.
The woman, Terese White, a 41-year-old Mesa Airlines flight attendant from Dallas, was taken into custody, and told the officers that the item they had found was “not what you think,” but that it was a “mercury pack” her co-workers had given her for weight loss, according to a complaint.
The item was sampled and tested and turned out to be more than three pounds of fentanyl, according to court documents.
Ms. White pleaded guilty on Friday in federal court to possessing fentanyl with the intent to distribute. She faces up to 20 years in prison, and will be sentenced on March 24 in federal court in the Southern District of California. It was unclear whether her plea agreement would significantly reduce any sentencing.
Ms. White admitted that she was trying to use her flight attendant privileges to avoid the more robust security screening process to smuggle the fentanyl, which was taped to her abdomen, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California said in a statement on Friday.
A lawyer for Ms. White did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. Mesa Airlines also did not respond to inquiries on Tuesday.
Shelly Howe, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, said in a statement that, “Drug traffickers use air, land and sea for personal gain, putting people’s lives in danger.”
In her plea agreement, Ms. White admitted that she flew off-duty from the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas to San Diego. After she arrived at the San Diego International Airport, she briefly left the airport’s secure area, and returned later in the day for a scheduled flight to Boston, according to prosecutors.
Ms. White tried to skip the regular security screening that passengers go through by using what is called the “known crew member queue.” But Ms. White was randomly selected by T.S.A. agents to go through regular security instead of the known member line, which led to the officers’ discovering that she was trying to smuggle drugs, according to court documents.
“As part of her plea, White admitted that she attempted to use her status as a flight attendant, a position of trust, to facilitate the offense,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement on Friday.
It was unclear whom Ms. White intended to give the fentanyl to or where. She was trying to travel with 3.33 pounds of the drug, or 1.51 kilograms, according to court documents.
The drug is 100 times more powerful than morphine, and one kilogram can potentially kill 500,000 people, according to the D.E.A. Fentanyl has been linked to the deaths of more than 70,000 Americans in 2021, and the agency has seized more than 379 million doses of fentanyl this year.