LOS ANGELES — Paul Ciancia, the alleged gunman who paralyzed much of Los Angeles International Airport in a Friday shooting spree, could have turned the nation's third-busiest airport into a massive killing zone had it not been for the quick response by airport police, officials said Saturday.
In a criminal complaint, U.S. District Attorney Andre Birotte charged Ciancia, 23, with murdering a federal officer and a separate charge of committing violence at an international airport. An affidavit said Ciancia — who could face the death penalty — fired a .223-caliber assault rifle at point-blank range, killing Transportation Security Agency officer Gerardo Hernandez, wounding two other TSA officers and two civilians.
FBI Special Agent David Bowdich officials said Ciancia walked away from Hernandez after shooting him in a pre-screening area at the airport, then went up an escalator in Terminal 3 before returning and shooting again.
Ciancia remained hospitalized Saturday after being hit four times and wounded in the mouth and leg. The FBI said he was unresponsive and they had not been able to interview him.
As FBI and Los Angeles police wrapped forensics work, Bowdich, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin and LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon said the victim toll could have been much higher had LAX police not shot and wounded Ciancia within minutes, thwarting him from firing more than a few rounds before he was shot four times.
"The heroics of the officers cannot be understated,'' said Bowdich, who noted that the suspect had more than 100 rounds of ammunition.
"They saved untold lives,'' says Bonin, whose district includes LAX, which was close to fully operational Saturday afternoon after 1,550 flights — 724 arrivals and 826 departures — were diverted or canceled Friday, impacting thousands of passengers.
Gannon says LAX officers reacted swiftly, going "downrange" looking for the suspect, who was tracked to Terminal 3's food court. The Los Angeles Herald identified the cops as Police Sgt. Steve Zouzounis and officer Brian Lopez.
"They didn't hesitate for one moment,'' Gannon said. "To say it wasn't a traumatic incident for them, I'd be lying, but they handled it with the utmost professionalism."
Gannon said more than 200 LAX and LAPD personnel sharpened crisis skills last month during a training exercise in an abandoned terminal at Ontario International Airport, 40 miles east of L.A. With recent mass shootings such as those in Washington's Navy Yard, Gannon says his force was motivated. "It doesn't take much to want to handle an incident if it occurs in your own backyard,'' he said.
A federal law enforcement official said that the Smith & Wesson assault rifle used in the attack is believed to have been purchased legally from a Los Angeles-area arms dealer. The official also said authorities were investigating whether a roommate unwittingly drove Ciancia to the airport the morning of the attack.
Investigators recovered a rambling note from the bag the shooter allegedly was carrying, which detailed an intent to "kill" TSA officers, said two federal law enforcement officials familiar with the message's contents.
Bowdich said the handwritten note made it clear that the suspect intended to kill "multiple" TSA employees and to "instill fear into their traitorous minds."
The officials, who are not authorized to comment publicly, told USA TODAY that the note was written in a way that suggested the author expected to lose his life.
One of the officials described the incident as a suicide mission.
In recent days, one of the officials said, Ciancia's New Jersey family had become worried about his emotional state and called local police, who relayed their concerns to Los Angeles authorities. The official said LAPD reportedly were in contact with the alleged shooter's roommates, who indicated that he appeared to be OK.
Terrified LAX witnesses said the suspect specifically asked them whether they worked for the TSA.
Leon Saryan told ABC News that the gunman approached him and pointed a long-barreled weapon at him.
"I was cowering in a corner, he looked at me and he said, 'TSA?' I shook my head no, and he kept on going," Leon Saryan said. "I just prayed to God. That's all I did. I just prayed."
Hernandez, 39, was a behavior-detection officer tasked with spotting suspicious activity and identifying potential terrorists, TSA Administrator John Pistole said. Pistole offered condolences to Hernandez's wife and children Saturday, spending about 30 minutes at the family's home. Pistole said the agency would review its policy on officer safety.
TSA officers are "the first line of defense" in airport security, he said, pledging that the agency would do everything possible to make sure Friday's tragedy was never repeated.
Contributing: Scott Bowles in Los Angeles, Bart Jansen and Natalie DiBlasio in Washington, D.C.; Bill McMichael, The Wilmington News Journal; and the Associated Press.