LOS ANGELES — James Speer had just helped a shell-shocked passenger run away from a gunman at Los Angeles International Airport and thought they were in the clear.
That’s when Speer, an officer with the Transportation Security Administration, watched as a bullet ripped through the calf of another passenger.
“A split second before I could say, ‘Oh my God,’ I felt boom, boom in the back and upper left arm. I was thrown forward from the blast,” said Speer, who ran wounded into a convenience store amid the chaos.
Speer hid behind a pillar as the gunman moved through the terminal, asking people if they were TSA agents and letting them go when they said no.
The gunman, Paul Anthony Ciancia, pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez and 10 other charges stemming from the Nov. 1, 2013, attack motivated by anger over the security measures imposed on airline passengers.
Speer, another TSA agent and a teacher survived gunshot wounds.
Ciancia, 26, showed no emotion during the hearing as survivors and Hernandez’s family members cried listening to prosecutors describe the attack in detail. The bespectacled, soft-spoken Ciancia was spared the death penalty by entering the plea. But he faces a mandatory term of life in prison on Nov. 7.
“I’m satisfied,” Speer said. “Unfortunately we can’t bring Gerardo back, but this is probably the next best thing.”
The other agent who survived, Tony Grigsby, said the sentence was fair and brings closure to his family, which includes a mother and a sister who are also TSA agents at the same airport.
“He caused a lot of pain to a lot of people,” Grigsby said. “I’m never going to get back my friend. I’m never going to get back the moments that I lost to this man making this decision.”
But, he added, a life sentence is much easier to secure than the death penalty.
Had Ciancia chosen to go to trial, he would have faced overwhelming evidence, including a note he wrote about the attack, receipts for the gun and ammunition he bought to carry it out, and surveillance video that all but captured the entire incident.
Ciancia first used a semi-automatic rifle to fire on Hernandez, who was manning a document-screening podium. He wounded the 39-year-old father of two before he headed up an escalator to the main security area.
When he turned around to see Hernandez moving, he returned and fired more shots at point-blank range. Hernandez was hit 12 times in all and died.
Ciancia then returned to the upper level, where terrified passengers and TSA agents were running for their lives.
Police shot and wounded Ciancia in the food court, hitting him four times. Officers found a duffel bag Ciancia dropped that had 500 rounds of ammunition inside and a handwritten note saying he wanted to kill TSA officers for treating Americans like terrorists.
“I want to instill fear in your traitorous minds,” the note said. “I want it to always be in the back of your head just how easy it is to take a weapon to the beginning of your Nazi checkpoints.”
Ciancia, an unemployed motorcycle mechanic living in Los Angeles after growing up in Pennsville, New Jersey, signed the note with his name, adding underneath, “Pissed-off Patriot.”
Hernandez’s wife, Ana Machuca, declined to comment after Ciancia’s hearing. But she told The Associated Press last week that no sentence would bring peace for her family.
“My husband died, and my children lost their father,” she said. “There isn’t anything anyone can do for us.”