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Feds: Man at L.A. airport had weapons, smoke grenade

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 7:06 a.m.

LOS ANGELES — A man arrested at Los Angeles International Airport wearing a bulletproof vest and flame-resistant pants is not cooperating with federal officials working to discover why he was headed to Boston with a suitcase full of weapons, authorities say.

Yongda Huang Harris, 28, was taken into custody recently during a stopover on a trip from Japan when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers reported noticing he was wearing the protective gear under his trench coat, triggering a Homeland Security investigation.

A search of Harris' checked luggage uncovered numerous suspicious items, including a smoke grenade, knives, body bags, a hatchet, a collapsible baton, a biohazard suit, a gas mask, billy clubs, handcuffs, leg irons and a device to repel dogs, authorities said.

Harris has not cooperated with authorities attempting to interview him, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation Tuesday.

The official said Harris, who was taken into custody Friday, is not believed to be linked to a terrorist organization. His motive, however, has not been determined, the official said.

Harris has been charged with one count of transporting hazardous materials, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. He made a brief court appearance Tuesday, but his arraignment was delayed until Friday and he was ordered held until then.

Harris is a U.S. citizen whose permanent residence is in Boston, though he recently started living and working in Japan, officials said. Attempts to reach Harris' family in Boston and his associates were unsuccessful.

His attorney, Steven Seiden, was unavailable to comment, said Chris Williams, a spokesman for Seiden, who also represents Mark Basseley Youssef, the man behind the anti-Islam video that recently sparked violence in the Middle East.

It's unclear what Harris had on his body and what he had checked in baggage, which will be crucial information to the defense, said Williams, who declined to comment on why Harris was carrying any of the weapons.

“It raises a lot of questions, and those questions will need to be answered. Right now, the case is very early,” Williams said.

The defense attorney's spokesman described Harris as “very intelligent,” earning A's in high school and college calculus.

The smoke grenade was X-rayed by police bomb squad officers, who said the device fell into a category that is prohibited on board passenger aircraft.

Such a grenade “could potentially fill the cabin of a commercial airplane with smoke or cause a fire,” federal officials said in a news release.

Many of the other items authorities say they found in Harris' luggage — including the hatchet and knives — wouldn't violate Transportation Security Administration guidelines for what is permissible in luggage that is checked. Also, bulletproof vests and flame-resistant pants are not listed among items prohibited aboard flights.

However, customs officers Kenny Frick and Brandon Parker believed in their initial investigation that the lead-filled, leather-coated billy clubs and a collapsible baton may be prohibited by California law, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court.

A customs official said Tuesday night that Harris was not enrolled in any of the U.S. government's trusted traveler programs, which could have allowed faster processing through security or customs. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the ongoing investigation.

Harris traveled from Kansai, in western Japan, to Incheon, Korea, before landing in Los Angeles.

An immigration officer at Kansai International Airport, Masahiro Nakamoto, said authorities did not report anything suspicious at the time Harris boarded. Spokesman Keisuke Hamatani said Kansai security officials had not reported any suitcases containing the hazardous materials U.S. authorities say they found in Harris' luggage.

Nakamoto said arriving passengers are checked more closely than those leaving the country.

Yasunori Oshima, an official at Japan's Land and Transport Ministry's aviation safety department, said there had been no official inquiry or request from U.S. authorities to look into the case, which he said would have been more of a concern if the hazardous materials were brought on board rather than checked.

“The case does not seem to pose any immediate concerns about aviation security measures in Japan,” he said.

Airport police said they do not believe the case constitutes illegal conduct under the Japanese domestic criminal code, but Japan may cooperate at the request of U.S. investigators.

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