updated 4/15/2005 10:00:16 PM ET 2005-04-16T02:00:16

Thirteen cargo handlers at San Francisco International Airport were charged Friday with stealing $200,000 worth of computers, cameras and other goods from mail bound for U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan, authorities said.

The 13 defendants, employees of cargo staffing company Aeroground, were arrested Thursday and Friday and appeared in federal court on charges of stealing and conspiring to steal U.S. mail, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco said.

“We will not tolerate abuse of our mail system, and we will make every effort to ensure that postal customers and our postal system are protected and not compromised,” said U.S. Attorney Kevin V. Ryan.

Attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. The 13 men, who range in age from 19 to 52, did not enter pleas during their brief court appearance, said Cynthia Caporizzo, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Contractor handles mail for Okinawa
The defendants handled mail at the airport for an airline contracted by the U.S. military to deliver mail to Okinawa, Japan. San Francisco-based Aeroground would not comment about their status with the company, said spokeswoman Jordan Goldstein.

Since November 2003, soldiers based in Okinawa reported more than 570 incidents of not receiving mail or getting mail missing items such as laptop computers, digital cameras, DVD players and video game consoles, according to the complaint. The winter holiday season saw the highest number of reported losses.

After hearing about the reports, U.S. Postal Service inspectors, assisted by military investigators, conducted surveillance at an airport-loading facility where they allegedly observed workers hiding items under their clothes and taking them to a nearby parking lot. They also noticed the cargo handlers carefully reading customs declaration forms that detailed each package’s contents and value.

Items removed, packages retaped
After taking out the goods, the cargo handlers would tape up the packages and send them on to Japan, where soldiers would discover items missing, according to the complaint. Some packages never arrived.

Many of the stolen items were then sold, sometimes at flea markets. One undercover postal investigator bought 15 items from one of the defendants, Caporizzo said.

If convicted, the cargo handlers could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Aeroground, which employs 1,100 workers at 25 cargo terminals at nine international airports, has cooperated in the federal investigation, according to Goldstein.

“This has never happened in the history of Aeroground,” Goldstein said. “Aeroground takes these allegations very seriously, and that’s why we’re cooperating with the investigation.”

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