Chicago, IL

Chicago Unwanted Visitor Deemed Danger to Community Living Secretly in O’Hare For Months Before Being Discovered

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Person found living in secure area of Chicago airport for three months considered threat to community by judge.

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Credit: Phillip Capper United Airlines Terminal, Chicago O'Hare 1991 on Flickr

Do you remember the movie, The Terminal, with Tom Hanks? Hanks’ character is an Eastern European tourist who arrives at JFK airport, to learn there has been a coup in his country. Because the U.S. doesn’t recognize the new regime, he is not permitted to inter the U.S. At the same time his old papers have been canceled and he cannot return home.

While they are trying to figure out exactly what to do about him, he is forced to live in the International Transit section of JFK indefinitely. He manages to live off of his own resourcefulness even while be constantly watched via security cameras by Homeland Security. He is befriended by everyone he meets, falls in love, and ultimately experiences his happy ending, finally being allowed to go home.

The movie seemed a bit whimsical and made us wonder what it would be like to live in an airport for months. Thirty six year old Aditya Singh can answer that question. Found over the weekend in a secured area at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Singh, was arrested and charged with felony criminal trespass to a restricted area of an airport and misdemeanor theft.

According to the the Chicago Tribune Singh was found by two United Airlines employees, who asked him for identification. Singh displayed a badge that belonged to an operations manager who had reported it lost in late October.

The United Airlines employees called the police who arrested Singh. He told the police that he had found the badge under a bench and that other passengers he met at the airport had given him food. They were shocked to learn that Singh had been living in what was supposed to have been a secured area of the airport for over three months. He told the authorities that because of the coronavirus pandemic he is afraid to fly.

After meeting with him, Assistant state attorney Kathleen Hagerty told the judge that Singh was “scared to go home due to COVID.”

Why he became so frightened after flying from California to Chicago is unclear as is the reason he says he is scared to return home or whether it’s related to the rising number of people infected with the new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 across the state.

Singh has a master’s degree in hospitality, is unemployed and lives with roommates in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of Los Angeles according to Assistant Public Defender Courtney Smallwood who defended him during Sunday’s court proceedings. She also stated that he does not have a criminal background. She did not explain why he traveled to Chicago or whether he has ties to the area.

However, at the court hearing Judge Susana Ortiz didn’t agree, becoming deeply troubled upon hearing the Assistant Public Defender’s account of the case. The judge responded,

“So if I understand you correctly, you’re telling me that an unauthorized, non-employee individual was allegedly living within a secure part of the O’Hare airport terminal from 19 October 2020 to 16 January 2021, and was not detected? I want to understand you correctly.”

Singh's defense attorney, citing a statement from the Chicago Department of Aviation stating that Singh was not a security threat, requested that he be allowed to fly home. However, Judge Ortiz denied the request, and set bail at $1,000. He is also barred from entering the airport. Before issuing her ruling, the judge said,

“The court finds these facts and circumstances quite shocking for the alleged period of time that this occurred. Being in a secured part of the airport under a fake ID badge allegedly, based upon the need for airports to be absolutely secure so that people feel safe to travel, I do find those alleged actions do make him a danger to the community."

As of Monday, Singh had yet to post bail and remained in jail. His next court date is scheduled for Jan. 27.

Opinion

It is an obvious reality that our airports must be secured and not accessible to people hiding out for long periods of time. However, it seems that a crucial part of the problem here has gone unaddressed. In this case, given it’s been determined that Singh posed no threat to the airport or travelers, and that he just took advantage of circumstances, that some of the blame should be shouldered by airport security personnel. No explanation was demanded for how they failed to discover that a man was living in a restricted area of the airport for three months.

Furthermore, the judge deciding that Singh’s ability to do so which only came about because of the lax security at the airport not because he is a trained criminal, indicated that he is a danger to the community doesn’t seem warranted. It appears more likely to that although he was apparently aware that using the badge to lie about who he was so that he could remain in the airport indefinitely was a crime, the actual threat posed was not by him but by airport security.

Had circumstances been different such that he was someone with nefarious intentions, a great deal of harm could have resulted. I would imagine that bad guys especially terrorists could prepare and carry out a lot of dangerous and life- threatening scenarios over the course of three months.

And if a regular Joe can manage to go undetected for months it’s frightening to think how long terrorists who are trained to evade detection and capture could remain hidden for. Placing all the blame and attention on the man who evaded detection for three months instead of on the system which allowed him to do so, is the threat to the community.

Then there’s the question of how you permit someone who the judge has determined is a threat to the community to post bail and leave. It would seem safer to have him undergo a psychiatric evaluation or at least be interviewed further until the judge felt the circumstances did not warrant keeping him incarcerated because he was a threat.

It seems during recent years, the idea of who to hold responsible for certain acts and offenses has become confused and the lines blurred. Yes, Singh should be held accountable for his actions. Yet, there is clearly missing information as to why he did what he did that needed to be discovered before sentencing him. But based on what we currently know, yes, some sort of consequence was warranted.

However, the bigger threat that could result in major catastrophe if not corrected, is the lax security in the nation’s second largest and busiest airport. For whatever reason, the judge chose not to focus on that, and the media likewise has neglected to mention their responsibility. How about the worker who lost the badge? It seems the loss of a badge that allows someone to get into the restricted areas of an airport which could have potentially devastating results would have some kind of fine or other penalty associated with it.

Although they didn’t assume responsibility for any part of the occurrence, the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) did release a statement in an attempt to reassure the public about the situation as well as the individual, saying,

“CDA has no higher priority than the safety and security of our airports, which is maintained by a coordinated and multilayered law enforcement network. While this incident remains under investigation, we have been able to determine that this gentleman did not pose a security risk to the airport or to the traveling public. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners on a thorough investigation of this matter."

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