ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It was a city program that had the makings of a Hollywood heist movie.
Bags and briefcases packed full of up to a million dollars worth of jewelry, were flying in to the state’s largest airport. On the ground, the high-price cargo was loaded up and transported in secret operations called “diamond runs,” which ended at stores across the metro under the escort of a special police force.
But this story isn’t fiction, and the police force used to do it should have been protecting one of New Mexico’s most important properties: the Albuquerque International Sunport.
Through public records and interviews with current and former employees, a KRQE News 13 investigation has exposed a little known city program that had on-duty Albuquerque Aviation Police Department officers running high-priced jewelry in and out of town more than a dozen times, instead of protecting the Sunport.
The true story is one of the latest to come out of the Albuquerque Aviation Department. Their specialized police force is now facing possible restructure following a recent personnel investigation that lead to the suspension of the man leading the force: Aviation Police Department Chief Marshall Katz.
“He called it, ‘Diamond Runs.'”
A former Aviation police officer, Eldon Martinez says he was familiar with “diamond runs,” a practice that he says never sat right with him.
“There was a lot of shady things,” said Martinez in an interview with KRQE News 13.
While he claims he refused to go, Martinez says “diamond runs” were common amongst his co-workers. He says the runs were secretive and dangerous. Martinez also claims that on-duty aviation cops were ordered to do it while they should have been working at the Sunport.
“That was one of the major reasons that I left,” said Martinez of his retirement.
After 17 years of service, Martinez says he retired from Aviation Police in good standing. He says he left, in part, because he claims he was asked to do things that police officers should do.
“Almost illegal type of activities,” said Martinez.
More than 30 officers make up the city’s Aviation Police force. The department’s administrative control and budget is completely separate from Albuquerque Police (APD.) Aviation Police serve as the first responders to all airport emergencies.
“There’s multi-million dollar aircraft there and that’s a big responsibility,” said Martinez. “And of course the traveling public.”
According to the department’s standard operating procedures, Aviation Police’s sole duty is to protect the Sunport property and the five to six million passengers that move through the facility each year.
However, KRQE News 13 spoke to several current and former Aviation officers who say for years, they were forced to take on-duty assignments that felt more like private security and errand running.
Officers say “diamond runs” were some of those jobs that felt like private security.
“Gemologists or the carrier of the jewels would fly into the Sunport and we were to escort that individual directly to the arrival level … and take him throughout the city,” said Martinez.
Four officers who feared retaliation and didn’t want to speak on camera told KRQE News 13 that officers used Aviation Police cars while on the clock to escort jewelers to stores in Uptown and northwest Albuquerque.
The 50 to 60 pound bags of high-priced jewelry were taken to stores including Helzberg Diamonds, Shelton Jewelers and Kay Jewelers.
Officers say some of the runs took Aviation cops more than 60 miles away from the Sunport, the place they were being paid public money to protect.
“Some of the officers, especially the younger officers would run up to Santa Fe,” said Martinez.
Some officers told KRQE News 13 that they took the jewelry cases by themselves, describing drop-offs in jewelry store bathrooms and random street-side locations.
“It was a do this or get fired, basically.. is how officers felt,” said Martinez.
Martinez says he and other officers felt that way because the Aviation Police chief was the person assigning “diamond runs.”
“It was ordered by the top man,” said Martinez.
Chief Marshall Katz has lead Aviation Police for 14 years. Before joining the department in 2002, Katz worked for APD for 22 years.
Katz is well known throughout the airport. Many travelers can spot him greeting people in the Sunport’s “Great Hall.” Katz is also proud of his work.
“I love my job, I love being a police officer, love helping people, I love solving their problems,” said Katz.
However, Katz is also controversial. The city recently suspended Katz for 45 days after an investigation found that he was inappropriately using city resources. In the investigation, Katz admitted to using his assistant to tend to his personal business, which included writing letters to for varying matters like scholarship letters of reference.
Katz also admitted that he has dispatched Aviation police officers to friends and business associates around Albuquerque to take down police reports for them.
Katz declined to comment on the specific points of the investigation, but he says he is fighting his suspension.
“The people who know me, support me 100-percent,” said Katz.
“Diamond runs” weren’t part of the city’s investigation. According to Katz, the practice was on the books.
“We were paid to provide security for a diamond broker, at some point, the union and the officers felt uncomfortable, we stopped doing it,” said Katz.
Through a New Mexico Inspection of Public Records (IPRA) request, KRQE News 13 obtained a copy of a contract, proving that the “diamond run” program was on the city’s books.
The contract, dated from December 2010, shows that Aviation Department’s director, Jim Hinde, signed off on the “diamond run” program, which allowed officers to work as jewelry escorts for a Dallas-based company called “Orion Security Services. The contract, or “revenue agreement,” authorized the use of Albuquerque Aviation Police officers as “independent contractors.” It also waved Orion Security Services’ liability if an officer was hurt on the job.
Records obtained by KRQE News 13 show two-years worth of work orders from Orion Security Services, city bills collecting payments and checks from Orion Security Services that covered the cost of the so-called “diamond runs”.
Documents show some of the runs started at the Sunport and ended at Albuquerque-area jewelry stories. But other work orders show work that had nothing to do with the Sunport. Some runs are shown to have officers starting at stores in Santa Fe and traveling to metro-area hotels. Other documents merely list “out of town” as the final destination, making it impossible to know where the officer went.
Most of the time, the city wasn’t reimbursed for mileage either, even though officers used city cars and fuel.
Aviation Department’s Response
Director Jim Hinde runs the Sunport. He also oversees Aviation Police. Hinde signed off the the “diamond run” program, after he says he was approached by Chief Marshall Katz. According to Hinde, Katz was approached by Orion Security Services, which requested the service.
“I was aware that possibility of it going off property,” said Jim Hinde, the director of Albuquerque’s Aviation Department.
KRQE News 13 reporter Chris McKee asked director Hinde if he was “OK” with the idea of Aviation officers traveling off property, within the city of Albuquerque.
“Yeah I was OK with it,” said Hinde.
Hinde says he wasn’t aware that officers were leaving the city and traveling to Santa Fe, though. He says he saw the program as an opportunity for officers to get paid for extra work, if they wanted it. In theory, each run also made the Aviation Department a small fraction of money.
“Again, they’re (Aviation Police) providing the service, it’s generating revenue.”
However, it wasn’t much money. Aviation officers likely transported millions of dollars worth of jewelry over the course of two years. The Sunport’s take was about $1,800.
While officers who spoke to KRQE News 13 claim that they didn’t get any extra pay for the “diamond runs,” Hinde claims that most of the money earned was paid out as overtime. However, he admitted to KRQE News 13 that some of it may not have been.
“Marshall did indicate that if we had more than enough staff here, they would do the service with on-duty officers,” said Hinde.
Both director Hinde and Chief Katz says the “diamond run” program did not put the officers or the Sunport in danger.
“Do you think that was in the best interests of public safety?” asked KRQE News 13’s Chris McKee.
“No, it was just a requested service that we were able to provide,” said Hinde.
Chief Katz says he didn’t get a dime from the “diamond run” program. He says all of money went straight into the Aviation Department’s coffers.
“Did you ever think that it was anything that maybe officers felt uncomfortable with, or did they ever express that to you?” asked KRQE News 13’s Chris McKee.
“Not that I recall, I mean they got paid for it,” said Chief Katz.
The union representing Aviation police officers, the Albuquerque Police Officers Association disputes that officers were paid anything extra. A letter they sent to director Hinde in early 2013 shows they object to the “diamond run” program for on-duty, travel, safety and training concerns.
The city put a stop to “diamond runs” in late 2012, after it found out that officers were traveling out of town. An email correspondence between Katz and director Hinde indicates that the program was stopped after a phone conversation between the two about it.
After the program was halted by Aviation director Hinde, records show Chief Katz authorized one final “diamond run” in early 2013. According to a city memo written by Chief Katz, Orion Security Services called the chief directly to arrange a run over the New Year’s holiday weekend, after a different private escort was unable to complete the work. According to the memo, Chief Katz arranged the run on the condition that it would be the last one that Aviation officers would be able to work.
The Mayor’s Response
“It’s just not what is in their scope of work to leave that airport,” said Gilbert Montano, Chief of Staff for Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry.
While the mayor’s office says it never signed off on the program, there are no records to indicate that anyone was discipline for the program, including Chief Katz.
“Isn’t this enough to fire somebody?” asked KRQE News 13’s Chris McKee.
“Mr. Katz is in a classified, protected, civil service position,” said Montano. “He has formal rights.”
The mayor’s office is promising accountability going forward and says that it is considering restructuring Aviation Police.
“What was happening in the past is not going to be happening in the future,” said Montano.
For now, those plans appear to include Chief Katz.
As for the “diamond runs”, those will be left up to the movies, once again.
Today, Aviation only provides security escorts to celebrities, including actors, actress and musicians. According to the city, those escorts only take place on Sunport property, from the gate to the curb. Most of those escorts are paid through a company called “the Confidential Group.”