LOS ANGELES, Calif. — A former Delta Airlines baggage handler pleaded guilty today to a federal charge stemming from a smuggling scheme in which backpacks of heroin and cocaine were carried through an employee entrance at Los Angeles International Airport and onto eastbound flights.

Ruben Mendoza, 35, of Los Angeles entered his plea to a felony charge of conspiracy to enter an airport area in violation of security requirements, which carries a potential sentence of up to five years in federal prison.

A second ex-Delta baggage handler, Ulysses Bluntson, pleaded guilty to the same charge last month.

According to a plea agreement filed last week, Mendoza and others conspired to bring backpacks of drugs into LAX without being detected and onto cross-country flights.

Mendoza admitted in the agreement that on May 30, he hid a backpack, that had been carried into LAX through an employee entrance by a second baggage handler, inside a suitcase that had previously been inspected prior to loading onto a Delta flight.

A third man boarded the flight and, upon landing in the destination city, collected the checked baggage containing the drugs, according to the document.

“It’s not clear how long this had been going on,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams said outside court at a previous hearing. “These were commercial flights, open to the public, that were unwittingly being involved in drug transactions.”

A federal grand jury indictment issued in July charged Mendoza, Bluntson and Peter Contreras with six felony counts, including conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs, conspiracy to enter restricted airport areas, distribution of heroin, and aiding and abetting.

Prosecutors allege that in May, Contreras and a co-conspirator met with a man they thought was a drug distributor, but was actually an undercover agent, who was seeking to send about 11 pounds of cocaine to Boston.

A day later, Mendoza brought a backpack containing sham cocaine provided by the agent, plus about 12 pounds of actual heroin of undisclosed origin, through an LAX employee entrance to avoid security screening.

Mendoza, while working as a baggage handler, then placed the backpack into the checked suitcase of a co-conspirator, who boarded the flight and collected the luggage in Boston, according to the indictment. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 23, 2014.

Bluntson is set for sentencing Nov. 21, and Contreras faces trial in February.

Fred Shuster | City News Service