A former JetBlue flight attendant’s baggage now includes a felony conviction.
Marsha Gay Reynolds, 32, pleaded guilty Monday to taking part in a multimillion-dollar, cross-country drug smuggling operation.
Reynolds was discovered in March when she bolted from a screening checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport and abandoned two carry-on luggage bags filled with more than 60 pounds of cocaine – estimated to be worth about $3million.
Appearing in a downtown New York City courtroom on Monday, Reynolds pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine. She faces a mandatory 10-year prison term when sentenced on March 13 in federal court.
The former Jamaican beauty queen and New York University track athlete was studying to be a nurse while working for JetBlue, her former attorney said.
She was a runner-up in the Miss Jamaica World 2008 pageant, which sends the country’s representative to Miss World contests.
Leaders of the Jamaica pageant were ‘shocked and surprised’ at news of Reynolds’ arrest, said organizer Laura Butler, who doesn’t know Reynolds.
She said Reynolds apparently had traveled to Jamaica to compete while living in New York, as the contest allows for women of Jamaican heritage living elsewhere.
Reynolds acknowledged earning thousands of dollars to help smuggle drugs and money through airport security at LAX and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York by using her ‘known crew member’ status to breeze past security and then transfer the contraband to a co-conspirator.
Airline employees with the clearance can bypass typical screening, even during personal travel in the US but can be randomly searched.
When she was pulled aside for screening March 18, she flung off her Gucci high heels and ran barefoot down an upward-moving escalator out of the terminal, an affidavit said. She was off duty at the time.
A TSA officer said he didn’t pursue her because their primary concern was her abandoned luggage.
Inside Reynolds’ bags cops said TSA agents found clothes, Trojan Magnum condoms and more than 68 pounds of cocaine wrapped in green saran wrap labeled ‘BIG Ranch’.
Reynolds reported to work for a flight to New York the next day and surrendered to the Drug Enforcement Administration there four days later, according to court documents.
The US citizen and resident of Queens, New York, was dressed in a white jail jumpsuit Monday with her ankles chained together and wrists shackled to her waist.
She could barely raise her right hand to pledge to tell the truth before her guilty plea.
She spoke in a soft voice and politely answered more than a dozen questions, addressing Judge Virginia Phillips as ‘your honor’ almost each time.
The investigation into a larger drug ring is ongoing, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office.
In addition to a co-conspirator identified only as GB, who fled to Jamaica, court papers refer to others ‘known and unknown’ who carried out the scheme.
GB was in the US illegally and stole the identities of mentally disabled men to get passports and driver’s licenses in their names that he used to fly, court papers said.
He and Reynolds were often on the same flights.
Mrozek said: ‘She was able to facilitate this individual’s drug trafficking operation.
‘She was ferrying the drugs across the country and then bringing the proceeds of the drug sales back to Southern California.’
Defense lawyer Stuart Goldfarb said outside court that he expects Reynolds will be able to get a reduced sentence despite the mandatory minimum. Goldfarb would not explain how that would happen.
‘She’s doing fine. She’s not a jailbird,’ Goldfarb told the Daily News after the hearing.
‘This is the first time she’s been charged with anything like this.’
Typically, convicts who testify against co-defendants can get some break in sentencing.
Goldfarb said Reynolds was not cooperating at this point with authorities and declined to say how much his client knew about the cocaine trafficking scheme.
Reynolds’ plea agreement mentioned nine dates she helped the unnamed co-conspirator pull off the scheme so he could deliver drugs to customers in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
After Reynolds was arrested, her mother and family friends offered their homes as a surety for bail, and more than a dozen people submitted letters to the court describing her character and work ethic.
Reynolds’ father came to her defense and said the bags carrying the cocaine didn’t belong to her.
‘Somebody gave her the bag,’ said her father, who refused to give his name, to the New York Post in March. The newspaper visited his home in Jamaica, Queens.
The Post also talked to a friend of Reynolds who said that he is in ‘shock.’ He met her at a photo shoot in 2006 and they stayed in contact.
He told the paper that he helped her with her English homework while she was a student at NYU.
‘I only remember her as the nice, thoughtful, beautiful girl who was going to college, working and keeping in shape,’ said the friend, who spoke to the paper on the condition of anonymity.
The TSA has been concerned about security threats from insiders, including airline and airport employees, particularly after several baggage handlers were arrested in December 2014 on charges of smuggling guns from Atlanta to New York.
The TSA has said it would be too expensive to screen all employees fully.
Instead, it has urged airports to increase random screenings of workers and to keep background checks up to date.