The Lufthansa Heist – are JFK workers to blame?

On August 18, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of NY announced the arrest of six “current and former” cargo handlers at Terminal One at JFK airport for their involvement in a scheme to steal from the mail. And also to launder foreign currency valued at approximately $250k.

Not a particularly large sum. We know and acknowledge this. And of course these charges are but allegations at this point. But what this incident reveals about an apparent tendency to felonious behavior among a certain class of JFK employees is indeed sort of distressing.

Cargo and mail security at JFK, in other words, seems somewhat porous. Even, you might say, distinctly sieve-like. And as it turns out,the same may hold at both LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International. Perhaps even Teterboro and Atlantic City airports, (AC came under the Port Authority of NY’s control fairly recently, is not under the jurisdiction of Philadelphia’s own airport authority despite its greater physical closeness to the latter city.)

The following recent and similar instances of airport cargo handling criminality are not merely allegations, resulted in guilty pleas.

1) in United States vs, Hamilton et al, five defendants, all cargo handlers at Terminal One at JFK, pleaded guilty in June and July to charges they stole U.S. letter mail between April and November of 2014. Evidence used to attain admissions of guilt from the handlers actually included some approximately 500 pieces of mail four of the the defendants had both stuffed into backpacks and into their clothing.(No, these criminals were not rivals to Lex Luthor. Probably not even the fifth defendant)

2) In United States v. Ali et al, two other defendants. again at lucky Terminal One at JFK, pleaded guilty in March of this year to letter mail theft from (again, curiously, though not in congruence with the Hamilton defendants noted above) April 201 through August of the same year. The evidence in this case included the defendants actually being caught while stashing a bag filled with “liberated” mail into a car conveniently parked (for the purposes of all concerned, as it turned out) at JFK.

3) And in United States vs. Bamkhelewan et al, five defendants who’d been cargo handlers at LaGuardia (an airport almost always described as “close in” for the convenience of air travelers) pleaded guilty and were sentenced in November 2014 and February qn March 2015 on similar-sounding mail theft charges. These defendants, however, also widened the scope of their ill-gotten gains by stealing dozens of electronic devices from the mail, including smartphones, laptops, tablets and video game consoles, merchandising totaling at least $10,000 in aggregate value.

The JFK instances alone would even, on their own, be virtual cause, had all the various defendants known each other (but they don’t seem to), for a RICO-type prosecution.

Further, however, there are the well-known successful prosecutions, resulting in life terms, from 2010-2012 of Abdul Kadir, Kareem Ibrahim and Russell Defreitas. These worthies had in mind a rather involved scheme to blow up fuel tanks at JFK; Defreitas had in fact worked for a time at JFK and thus presumably knew the true lay of the land there well enough.

And then there is the, well, “crown jewel” of cargo-related crimes at JFK, the very, very, very well-known “Lufthansa heist” (so called because the money had come in on a Lufthansa flight) removal there from a vault of approximately $5 million in cash on December 11, 1978. This one served as the key plot element of the hit movie “Goodfellas” and also of two lesser-regarded made-for-TV films. It also devolved rather quickly, unlike both the cargo thefts referenced above and the Defreitas case plot which fortunately never attained explosive fruition, into violence. At least ten of the involved principals and their associates were, uh, “taken out” in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the remaining perpetrators to shore up their defenses against arrest and prosecution.

The roll call of crimes at JFK actually also includes busts of 22 in cargo-related thefts in 1994 and an additional 56 in 1998. Additionally, embarrassingly for the Port Authority which runs JFK, in 1994 the usually somewhat circumspect on such topics New York Times in fact referred to JFK as “the mob’s candy store.” Since then, however, the “mob,” meaning old line LCN members and their associates, has declined greatly in importance and membership. But crime itself at JFK, seemingly centered at good ol’ Terminal One, has continued, as those proceedings just from 2012 to the present clearly indicate.

(We, of course, also wonder what actual hiring practices are like for cargo handlers at JFK, and even whether if among them Terminal One is seen as a sort of plum assignment. As per, comparatively, what late 19th century usage of the term the “Tenderloin district” of lower Manhattan represented for crooked NYC policemen and pols in terms of opportunities for illegal gains compared to the pickings in other districts.)

Estimates of the value of cargo and mail handled through JFK annually, by the way, vary widely. But start at around $120 billion. According to the online trade publication Air Cargo News, JFK is in fact the busiest airport in the world in terms of cargo tonnage handled and its total value. Such valuations do not include the value of mail shipped through there.

For the most recent busts of August 18, however, little solid information is available as of this writing beyond the initial press release out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. But even that release includes both curious usage of language and some outright errors of fact.

Not all six of the accused, for example, are apparently “current and former” cargo handlers. Three, Greguy Janvier, Melbourne Black and Jamila Malika Allen, seem instead never to have worked as cargo handlers. Rather, they are, respectively, the brother, associate and alleged girlfriend of the accused Frantz Janvier, who was a cargo handler. Greguy Janvier, Melbourne Black and Jamila Allen are instead alleged to have laundered stolen monies at currency kiosks at JFk. The accused actual cargo handlers – Frantz Janvier, Machel Scarlett, Tracy Mellisa Sandy. seem to have especially favored as grist for their thefts mail which arrived from Japan via Japan Airlines (JAL), the national airline of Japan. This may be because of the well-known habit among Asians to send cash via mail as gifts to friends and relatives for such occasions as the New Year. (As per those “lucky” red envelopes seen all across NYC’s Chinatown both being purchased and exchanged around the Chinese New Year.)

The press release also notes, somewhat unsettlingly and interestingly, that over a period of four years Frantz Janvier, Scarlett and Sandy “agreed to steal mail from international flights arriving at and departing from Terminal One at JFK Airport.” Agreed with whom, a grammarian might wonder. Merely among each other? With some supervising criminal mind? To date, nothing further in the way of clarification has emerged from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Instead, there is this understandable but a bit high-sounding piece of rhetoric from Philip R. Bartlett, Postal Inspector in Charge of the USPS Inspection Service’s NY Field Office: “Let there be no mistake, Postal Inspectors will use every resource to bring criminals to justice for crimes violating the sanctity of the US Postal Service.” There is no explication of which resources (such as fellow employee informants or even undercover inspectors) might actually have been brought to bear in the investigation of this particular matter, however.

And yet, life of course goes on among the cargo handlers working Terminal One. Several of whom have displayed a felonious bent over the last few years. So it’s still sort of the same old song, as the Four Tops reminded us back around 1967. One the Port Authority should be tired of hearing by now.

And yet too, the pickings presumably still remain as inviting as ever out at JFK just as the skies reportedly remain friendly.

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