CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — More than a year of legwork by two Marines on Okinawa led to last week’s indictment of cargo handlers accused of running a San Francisco postal-theft ring.

Warrant Officer James Clark, the postal officer for Marine Corps bases in Japan, and Gunnery Sgt. Joe Ponte, an investigator with the Marine Criminal Investigation Division on Camp Foster, are credited with tracing the thefts that resulted in the indictments of 13 cargo handlers at San Francisco International Airport and the recovery of hundreds of thousands of dollars of stolen goods.

The investigation was a journey that began in late November 2003, Clark said, when Camp Foster post office workers noticed something amiss. “We started getting claims from customers that sounded the same,” he said. “They were receiving packages that appeared to have been taped again and the items that were supposed to be inside the packages were missing.”

After a year of extensive surveillance and investigation on Okinawa, the two determined the mail was being stolen before the packages reached the island. They flew to Tokyo to observe mail being unloaded at Narita International Airport by Nippon Cargo Airways, the only air carrier contracted to transport mail from San Francisco to Okinawa.

“The second day there we saw what we were looking for,” Ponte said: “Packages bound for Okinawa on pallets had already been opened.”

Three days later, in early December, they flew to San Francisco. They gave information they’d collected to U.S. postal and military authorities, who helped set up surveillance of mail coming into San Francisco International Airport.

“We spent the next two weeks running stakeouts at different transit points,” Ponte said. That led them to focus on cargo handlers with Nippon Cargo Airways subcontractor Aeroground.

“The first night of our surveillance there, we observed the cargo handlers looking to see what was in packages and then extracting the items, taping the boxes back up.

“We saw this one guy go out, taking stuff to the cars in the parking lot, and then going back to work,” he said. “Then we saw others do the same thing.”

The two videotaped what they observed and showed the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Clark and Ponte kept up the stakeouts for several more days. “We observed them selling the items they had taken right there in the parking lot,” Clark said.

On Dec. 26, the two flew back to Okinawa after giving their findings to postal officials and the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

“I was elated,” Ponte said. “I would have liked to have been around for the arrests, but there was a lot more investigative work for them` to do.” He and Clark said they’ve been told more arrests may follow.

Armed with warrants, investigators seized some of the property in cargo handlers’ homes and vehicles. Other items were recovered at local flea markets.

However, servicemembers and their families on Okinawa will have to wait before possibly seeing any of the items now being identified and tagged in San Francisco.

“It will take time,” Clark said. “After all, it’s now evidence.”

Can customs forms keep a secret?

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Cargo handlers in San Francisco had an easy way to tell what Okinawa-bound items were worth stealing.

They read the customs forms on the boxes.

But there’s an easy solution to that, said Warrant Officer Robert Clark, postal officer for Marine Corps Bases in Japan.

“If you don’t want to show the contents of the package, fill out a special form that goes inside the package,” said Clark, who was instrumental in investigating a group of cargo handlers in San Francisco who allegedly stole more than $200,000 worth of mail bound for Okinawa.

Stolen items ranged from laptop computers and digital cameras to Barbie dolls and high school class rings.

Most people fill out the simple green customs forms that then are glued to the outside of packages, Clark said. To conceal contents from prying eyes, he said, customers should fill out forms that go inside the packages.

PS Form 2976-A is a big, white customs form readily available in the lobby of all military post offices, Clark said.

“All you have to do is make an itemized listing of all of the contents in the package, place it inside the package and seal it up.”

The customer then fills out the white portion of the smaller PS Form 2976 with just the names, addresses and signatures listed and pasted to the outside of the package.

Clark said hiding the contents is especially recommended for laptop computers and computer accessories, digital cameras, DVD players and stereo equipment, and jewelry.

He suggested relatives in the United States go through the same process when mailing gifts and other items to servicemembers and their families.

— David Allen

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