Man found in California airport ceiling previously convicted of armed bank robberies, smuggling

A San Diego man accused of triggering a security lockdown at John Wayne Airport and later found hiding in a terminal ceiling was previously convicted of armed bank robberies in Orange and San Diego counties, and for smuggling people across the U.S.-Mexico border, court records show.

In 2013, John Howard Hecker, now 51, was arrested in a Santee, California fast-food restaurant parking lot after local police identified him as the man with a Nazi tattoo on his neck seen robbing banks in Seal Beach and Carlsbad, according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.

And federal court records show Hecker was arrested at the San Ysidro border crossing in 2008 with five people hidden in the back of his SUV.

On Tuesday, prosecutors in Orange County charged Hecker with one count each of theft and vandalism, both felonies, for the airport incident. He was also charged with trespassing at an airport, a misdemeanor.

Hecker was being held at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange without bail. He was scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday, but it wasn’t clear if he did, or if he had a lawyer. The District Attorney’s office did not return a request for comment.

The apparent break-in at the airport on Friday, Aug. 20 touched off a nearly three-hour search that brought O.C. Sheriff’s Department deputies and a helicopter, forced numerous passengers to evacuate and left a line of aircraft stranded on a tarmac.

Sheriff’s officials said Hecker was seen wearing a white jumpsuit for airport workers that they believe he may have donned after breaking into the facility. He was also seen driving an airport vehicle across runways, before disappearing. A crisis negotiator and deputies could later be seen trying to coax Hecker out of the ceiling inside the airport.

A Sheriff’s spokeswoman declined to say whether officials know why Hecker broke into the airport. Detectives have interviewed Hecker, but officials would not reveal what he said about why he was there, citing an ongoing security review at the airport by federal authorities.

Court records show Hecker’s involvement in serious crimes over the course of the last 15 years before the John Wayne Airport break-in.

The complaint in the federal case accused Hecker of driving an SUV over the border in San Ysidro from Mexico at around 3 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2008. Border patrol agents asked Hecker if he was transporting anyone; he said he wasn’t. The agents looked inside the SUV and found five people hiding under a blue tarp.

Hecker was convicted of an immigration violation in that incident and sentenced to one year and three months in prison, and three years of probation.

He later struggled to follow the terms of his probation — he was arrested three more times from 2009 through 2012 for probation violations, including drug charges and traveling outside of where he was supposed to be. His final arrest put him back in jail for 10 months.

His attorney at the time described Hecker’s attempts to maintain his probation. He sought work as a welder in 2010 and got a job with BAE Systems.

“Mr. Hecker borrowed a welder’s helmet from an acquaintenance (sic), and showed up at the shipyard ready to work hard,” his attorney wrote in a 2019 filing. “The BEA (sic) human resources department was impressed with him, as well as with his prior experience as a welder, and offered him a job on the spot.”

Jail records for his most recent arrest described Hecker as a laborer, but more detailed information about his current employment was not available.

After his release in 2013, Hecker was arrested again in Santee, California when police identified him as the suspect in two bank robberies, one in Seal Beach and another in Carlsbad.

The Carlsbad police department told Patch at the time that they identified Hecker as he walked though a fast-food restaurant parking lot. Seal Beach police had described him after a May 27, 2013 robbery of U.S. Bank inside a Ralphs in that city. The man was said to have a Nazi tattoo on his neck, two SS bolts.

He was also accused of stealing a pick-up truck in Seal Beach. The next day, police said, he was seen robbing the Navy Federal Credit Union in Carlsbad.

“Frankly, he’s not the only guy with SS bolts on his neck, but there aren’t that many,” Seal Beach Police Sgt. Ron La Velle told Patch at the time.
A spokeswoman for the San Diego County D.A. said Hecker was convicted of two counts of second degree robbery and a drug charge. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Orange County officials have not said when Hecker was most recently released.

Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, confirmed the agency is conducting a review of the Friday incident. She said the review would “look at a timeline of events and the associated responses” from law enforcement agencies and airport staff. She did not give an estimate for when the review would be completed.