Federal air marshals assigned to protect commercial flights across the U.S. were furtively pulled from their assigned flights so they could meet for sexual trysts, get better routes or travel to cities they preferred, according to documents and interviews with current and former employees.
What began as an internal investigation into allegations of harassment and threats stemming from a spat between ex-lovers has expanded into a criminal inquiry focused on the Federal Air Marshal Service’s dispatch hub in Herndon, Virginia. More than 60 federal employees are under scrutiny as investigators look into whether flights considered at risk of hijacking or a terrorist attack were left without marshals on board, sources with knowledge of the investigation told Reveal.
At the center of the inquiry is Michelle D’Antonio, 48, who worked for the service for more than a decade until she was placed on administrative leave in December 2013. As a program specialist, she was responsible for coordinating delayed, missed or canceled flights and providing other logistical support, giving her access to sensitive government databases.
Instead, current and former employees say, she used her position to look up personnel files, identification photographs and flight schedules to pinpoint air marshals she was interested in meeting and possibly dating.
“She’s a ‘badge bunny’ – a woman who likes to date anybody with a badge,” said Lisa Duron, the newlywed wife of a San Diego-based air marshal, Roy B. Duron, who has acknowledged that he had a four-year affair with D’Antonio.
Armed air marshals ride on designated U.S. and international flights as part of the United States’ front-line defense against hijackings and terrorism. On average, more than 28,000 commercial flights crisscross the U.S. daily, flying out of 450 commercial airports.
Air marshals typically operate in pairs and cover relatively few flights, with priority given to those deemed “high risk.” Such a designation reflects potential threats, long-distance routes that require large fuel loads or important passengers. The air marshal service expanded rapidly after the 9/11 hijackings, growing from a few dozen plainclothes marshals to a few thousand. The exact number is kept secret.
The service has requested $816.7 million for its 2016 budget, up $16.5 million from this year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That includes about $100 million for travel and related costs.
Many of the agency’s top leaders and managers, including several former directors, joined the air marshals after careers in the U.S. Secret Service, which itself has been embroiled in scandal, from security lapses to agents soliciting prostitutes. To current and former air marshals, the ongoing investigation is another blow to the agency, which already has dealt with allegations of sexism and other misconduct.
“I wouldn’t believe this could occur in a government agency, but it has,” said Sonya Hightower, a retired air marshal in Orlando, Florida, who is aware of the ongoing internal investigation. “When our managers look in the mirror, no one is looking back. … What kind of Mickey Mouse place is this?”
Edward Archuleta, a special agent with the Transportation Security Administration’s Office of Inspection in San Diego, said he could not confirm or deny any investigation and referred a request for comment to his supervisor, Regan Fong, who did not return calls.
“We cannot address the existence of an investigation,” the TSA said in an emailed statement. “However, TSA maintains a rigorous code of conduct for all of our employees, especially law enforcement personnel, and pursues appropriate accountability for violators of ethical standards and the law.”
For now, the investigation appears to focus on D’Antonio, the former flight coordinator, and her relationships. Hightower said it wasn’t a secret that D’Antonio gave some people preferred treatment by manipulating flight schedules.
“I think she put the offer out to quite a few (federal air marshals) and managers, literally acting like a travel agent,” she said. “I think a lot of people were aware she was doing some of these things, but no one wants to comment on it. If everybody’s getting hooked up, nobody’s going to say anything.”
At other times, D’Antonio was known to seek out air marshals, unannounced, at a hotel or an airport, and may have engaged in unauthorized use of government databases to do so. On June 14, 2012 – D’Antonio’s birthday – she approached air marshal Sidney Roberts as he waited to board a government-assigned flight from San Diego to Washington, D.C., according to a sworn affidavit related to Roy Duron’s restraining order.
“Ms. D’Antonio told me she had noticed I was on the flight and had changed her flight so she could be on the same flight,” Roberts wrote. “When Ms. D’Antonio said she had noticed I was on this specific flight I understood it to mean she had accessed my schedule.”
Through her attorney, Mark Schamel, D’Antonio declined to comment. The Justice Department has said it is interested in speaking with D’Antonio, he said. Schamel said he had an initial conversation with an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego.
Kelly Thornton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in San Diego, said the office had no comment.
“We don’t comment on whether an investigation exists or its status,” she said.
Government representatives have spoken to D’Antonio, Roy Duron and another program specialist, Kelly C. Shutts. The extent of Shutts’ involvement or what investigators suspect she did is unclear.
Lisa Duron said her husband was told to report to the nearest TSA office on Feb. 13. After the meeting, Duron told his wife that he could not talk about what was discussed, which she considered “a bad sign.”
Roy Duron, 45, joined the air marshals in January 2002 after stints in the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Army. He has been on administrative leave since April 11 and declined to comment, saying he is not authorized to speak publicly.
Shutts, who resigned last year, acknowledged in an email that she had spoken to an investigator.
“I am trying to put this behind me and move on,” she wrote, declining to comment further. Shutts’ attorney, Nancy Brent, also had no comment.
Darelle Joiner, a former air marshal who oversaw the operations center from 2002 to 2005, briefly supervised D’Antonio and Shutts and said both were “consummate professionals around me.”
Asked about the current allegations, he said: “If I had heard of it, I’d definitely have taken action. Anything remotely against the rules – I would have sounded the alarm.”
Lisa Duron estimated D’Antonio had changed her husband’s flight schedule at least 20 times over four years between 2009 and 2013. The relationship between D’Antonio and Roy Duron was consensual for the first six to nine months, Lisa Duron said, but later he felt trapped, worrying that D’Antonio would expose their affair, which could cause him to be cut off from his son.
The Durons, then still engaged, later filed temporary restraining orders in early January 2014 against D’Antonio. Both eventually were dismissed.
In San Diego County Superior Court testimony related to Roy Duron’s restraining order, D’Antonio said she and Roy Duron saw each other on average three to four times a month for three years and had sex. They met around the country, including in Hawaii; Los Angeles; Seattle; Virginia; Atlantic City and Newark, New Jersey; New York City; Boston; and Philadelphia.
Sometimes D’Antonio paid for Roy Duron’s trips when they weren’t work-related, she testified.
Text messages, submitted as evidence in D’Antonio’s defense against the restraining order, are filled with flirtatious, suggestive and sometimes graphic exchanges between Roy Duron and D’Antonio.
“Roy Roy Roy … Do you know what day it is?” D’Antonio texted in October 2013.
“Hump day!!!!” Roy Duron responded, adding, “What if it’s broken?”
“Shelle knows how to get it working. No worries,” she texted back. “The lube and bag o fun are already packed.”
“Lmao,” he retorted.
“Laugh now funny boy,” she wrote back.
Social media played a role in Lisa Duron’s knowledge of her husband’s relationship with D’Antonio. The two women had a 4.5-hour conversation via Facebook in December 2013, after Lisa and Roy were engaged. Lisa Duron worked for the TSA as a transportation security inspector and had been on a work detail to the air marshals, she said.
In that Facebook exchange, D’Antonio says she wanted to let her know that her fiancé was a cheater. Lisa Duron continued the electronic conversation, she said, because she was trying to get more information from D’Antonio.
To prove that she was Roy Duron’s lover, D’Antonio sent through Facebook naked photos of him.
At one point, D’Antonio, calling herself “Roy Duron’s Other EGirlfriend” – a title she later confirmed in a court filing was her pseudonym – wrote that she didn’t want their conversation to get back to another TSA employee.
“Then people will watch what I do at work and that could be bad … people will watch to see if I am doing favors for him,” D’Antonio wrote.
Lisa Duron asked her if she did do favors, which D’Antonio denied.
“Put him in contact with … people who do it … Help him. Make things easier without being directly involved when he’s flying,” D’Antonio wrote.
The internal investigation began soon after the relationship between D’Antonio and Roy Duron collapsed. After D’Antonio had learned that Roy Duron was engaged, she started making what Lisa Duron described as harassing phone calls to her.
After her Facebook conversation with D’Antonio, Lisa Duron notified the air marshal service, and the couple filed restraining orders, stating they feared for their safety and were blackmailed, according to internal TSA emails and court records. As an example, they point to an email D’Antonio sent to Roy Duron in December 2013.
“I’ve always said I don’t want to hurt you but this situation is not my doing. I think I’ve come up with a way to avoid hurting your son,” D’Antonio wrote to Roy Duron. “I really do care for you with all my heart but when people are hurt deeply in vulnerable, tender places they react … and harshly.”
A San Diego County Superior Court judge dismissed Roy Duron’s restraining order on the grounds that he hadn’t proved D’Antonio was a threat and awarded attorney’s fees to D’Antonio. Lisa Duron said her request was dismissed without prejudice because she wasn’t allowed to submit evidence from the ongoing internal investigation.
Agency’s history of misconduct
In his 2014 book, “Unsecure Skies,” former air marshal Clay Biles chronicles problems at the agency, including supervisors abusing flight assignments for their personal benefit. Biles said he had heard rumors while still on the job about some air marshals getting preferential treatment. But after he left the agency, he heard more specifics: that women at the operations center manipulated schedules for air marshals to have sex, assigning them to routes that required overnight stays.
He said a corrupt internal culture was allowed to fester within the air marshal service.
“It was an endless cycle,” he said. “Nobody was reporting this stuff.”
The male-dominated agency long has suffered from allegations of sexism, cronyism and other misconduct. It also has racked up public embarrassments over a number of snafus, from a controversial gun-buying deal that tainted a now-former director to charges of discrimination and bigotry recorded on a mock “Jeopardy” board in a Florida office that ridiculed air marshals who were African American or gay.
In a high-profile case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, a whistleblowing air marshal prevailed in his claim that the agency fired him for telling a reporter about a plan to cut costs that he feared could threaten public safety.
But the latest situation, if proven by the investigation, is “a potential nuclear explosion,” according to K. David Holmes Jr., a former assistant administrator for inspection at TSA.
Hightower, who now represents former co-workers through the Air Marshal Association, questioned why management failed to follow internal security precautions, such as better supervision, that could have headed off such behavior.
“They want to talk about all these layers of security at the airport. Where were the layers of accountability (at the operations center)?” she asked. “We’re supposed to be rooting out terrorists and we don’t know what’s going on in our own backyard?”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.