As baggage goes, it was hardly your typical dull cargo: nearly $2 million from the U.S. government, shrink-wrapped and bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The temptation proved to be too much apparently for an American Airlines baggage handler working at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on April 26. He sliced open the plastic wrap and grabbed two bricks of cash totaling $40,000, authorities say.
For the FBI, it didn't take long to figure out what had happened.
For Sylvester Augustus Moott, the 55-year-old suspect, who has no criminal record, the whole matter has been mortifying, says his attorney. Mr. Moott plans to plead guilty this morning in federal court, according to a notation on the U.S. District Court schedule.
"He's a very decent man, law-abiding," said Shirley Watts, his lawyer. "He's very embarrassed by all of this."
No doubt. He also could serve time in prison and be forced to repay the missing money if convicted.
Mr. Moott was one of three baggage handlers assigned to load $1.92 million onto an 8:15 a.m. flight to San Juan. One by one they loaded 120 packages of money, each wrapped in plastic and containing four bricks of currency in sequentially numbered $1, $20, $50 and $100 bills. A strap marked with the denomination and "Federal Reserve BEP," for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, wrapped each bundle.
The money was en route to the Federal Reserve Bank in San Juan. A courier for Federal Armored Express supervised as the handlers passed the money to Mr. Moott, who stacked it in the back of the plane.
The theft wasn't discovered until several hours later, as the shipment was unloaded and the courier realized that two bundles of $20 bills had disappeared, each worth $20,000. Mr. Moott quickly became a suspect.
"Logic could tell you there's only a couple of ways something like this could happen," said Mel Fleming, supervisory special agent with the FBI in Baltimore. "It requires a good deal of luck. You can imagine that you just have to be at the right place at the right time."
Investigators learned from Mr. Moott's co-workers that he had left on a previously scheduled trip to the Virgin Islands and wasn't expected back to work until May 9.
They also discovered that Mr. Moott owed American Airlines about $7,000 for overextending his travel privileges.
And on the day the money disappeared, Mr. Moott paid the rent on his apartment in Randallstown in 33 $20 bills so crisp and new that the apartment manager commented to him about their condition, according to court records.
Under Mr. Moott's bed, wrapped in his American Airlines jumpsuit, more than $26,000 in cash was found, according to one investigator.
That cash and the rent money, which had not yet been deposited, is all that has been recovered. An airline spokesman said Mr. Moott no longer works there, but would not comment further.
Mr. Moott was arrested May 6 after he returned from his trip and called Baltimore County police to report his car stolen.
It had been repossessed by American Airlines while he was gone.