I-TEAM helps local family following soldier's death

Necklace with Army specialist's fingerprint gets lost in mail

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Life without 23-year-old Zach DeBeau is still difficult for his family. The Army specialist from Mandarin died suddenly in May from a heart condition, leaving his family to find ways to remember and celebrate his life.

But while battling their grief, Zach's family became locked in a new battle -- one with the United States Postal Service -- to track down a lost, priceless keepsake. That's when the I-TEAM stepped in to help.

News4Jax first met members of Zach's family when he was buried in Jacksonville on Memorial Day.

"Good soldier. Good brother. Good son," said Chris McCallum, Zach's brother. "He loved his sports, he loved the military."

WATCH: Car clubs rally to honor Jacksonville soldier

To make sure Zach's legacy lived on, his family ordered a silver necklace from the Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home in Mandarin -- engraved with Zach's fingerprint and name. Three necklaces were made, and one was sent to his 21-year-old widow living Washington state, where Zach’s Army unit is. The necklace never made it to its destination.

Ron Rollo, Zach's stepfather, tried to mail the package from inside the post office on Sunbeam Road by using a self-serve kiosk.

"To me, it's a mystery of what happened to this item," Rollo said. "As far as we know it was never scanned in. It just completely disappeared as if it was never placed into that kiosk."

But Rollo has the receipt, which was printed from the self-service kiosk. It shows he paid $7.85 for priority mailing, with the standard $50 insurance.

When Rollo learned his stepson's widow never received the necklace, Rollo thought at the very least, he'd attempt to claim the insurance. The necklace was valued at $300, with its sentimental value not included.

Rollo tried to claim the insurance twice, but received two separate denial letters. He was then told by the Postal Service he could file one last appeal to USPS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"There was no record of the package entering the mail stream," the first denial letter -- dated Aug. 10 -- stated.

Twenty days later, the Postal Service sent another denial.

"The Postal Service has not changed the original decision to deny your claim," the second letter stated. "We have no verification of your method of mailing."

Rollo tells the I-TEAM, a post office manager explained to him a package is not actually scanned where the package is dropped off. It doesn’t get scanned until it reaches the main sorting facility in Jacksonville, which is located off Kings Road -- 14 miles away from the Sunbeam Road Post Office.

"When the post office puts it back on my shoulders to prove to them that I placed this package to the mailbox or to the kiosk receiving bin, I'm looking around for cameras," Rollo told the I-TEAM.

Both Rollo and the I-TEAM counted 14 security cameras at the Sunbeam Road post office: 13 inside and one outside. But Rollo says, when he brought the cameras up to the manager, he was surprised to be told none of the cameras work.

Rollo says, according to the manager, the single functioning camera records a live feed with no saved footage, which Rollo feels is a major security loophole.

"It's not about $50 at this point. I might not ever see this little pendant again, but to me it's just about the integrity of the post office," said Rollo. "Surprised is, I think, the biggest thing that I get out of this. Surprised that the cameras don't work and that there is no tracking from one facility to the other."

Per protocol when media deals with an agency such as the United States Postal Service, the I-TEAM went straight to its media communications department for answers. We requested interviews, but were given this official statement.

"The information we received indicates the cameras at this (Sunbeam Road) post office are operational. Security cameras are utilized in our facilities to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees, as well as postal property and assets."

The I-TEAM investigated further and discovered that roughly half of all complaints made to the Postal Service are about lost packages.

According to their most recent annual report conducted by the Office of Inspector General, USPS received almost 4 million complaints: 2 million were about items customers didn't receive. However, even though so many customers complained, only 15 percent filed a search inquiry requesting an official search.

That audit also states the low number of inquiries could be because post office employees routinely told customers to wait up to 30 days before submitting those inquiries, which the Office of Inspector General says is not in a customer's best interest.

It's recommended USPS customers do the following:

  • Save your receipt 
  • File immediately. As soon as you know a package didn't arrive at its destination, file a claim. Every hour and every day counts.
  • Consider buying additional insurance, especially if the item can be replaced by simply buying a new one.

Rollo did do nearly everything that's recommended. He did save his receipt, and he did file his first complaint immediately. However, he didn't opt for the additional insurance, just the standard $50 -- which is automatically included with priority mail.

But once the I-TEAM got involved and asked for answers from USPS, it did approve his final appeal. An envelope came to Rollo with an insurance check for $57. But, there was no letter attached, no apology and no admission of any wrongdoing.

And in what Rollo considers a twist of fate, Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home contacted the family one day after interviewing with the I-TEAM. A representative says a duplicate order for the necklace had accidentally been placed, and has now given those three extra necklaces to Zach's family - at no charge.

Rollo credits the I-TEAM for bringing closure to the entire family and ending its battle with USPS. But he still wants a change to be made at the busy Sunbeam Road Post Office so this doesn't happen to anyone else.

"Something needs to be done about the protocol for the packages and there has to be more accountability.  Give the consumer the ability to scan the package while it’s going into the kiosk or put some signs up that this is an unsecure kiosk and that there is no guarantee that your package is going to make it to Kings Avenue," he said.

Of Jacksonville's 22 post offices, the I-TEAM found the Sunbeam Road location had the most Google reviews: 109. Most of the reviews are negative, with complaints about lost packages and bad customer service, giving the post office 1.5 out of 5 stars.

As for the original lost necklace, The I-TEAM found there is a Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta. In fiscal year 2014, it received 88 million lost or undelivered items. Just 2.5 million of those items, or less than 3 percent, were actually returned to the rightful owners. And the remaining 85.5 million unclaimed items? Donated, auctioned or destroyed. If fate will step in again and lead to the discovery of the original lost necklace is yet to be known.

How to file a claim or appeal with United States Postal Service

To file a claim of loss or damage with the United States Postal Service, you can do it two ways:

  • You can file online at https://www.usps.com/help/claims.htm.
  • You can file by mail, but first you need to call 1-800-332-0317 (hit option 9) to request to have Form 1000 mailed to you. Once you get it, fill it out and mail back to the address indicated on the form.
  • In order to file that claim for loss or damage, the USPS requires proof. According to USPS: “If a claim is filed because some or all of the contents are missing or damaged, the addressee must retain the mailing container, including any damaged articles, all packaging, and any contents received. Upon written request by the USPS, the addressee must make this proof available to the local post office for inspection, retention, and disposition in accordance with the claims decision. Failure to do so will result in denial of the claim.”

    In order to prove value, USPS says: “Either the mailer or the addressee must submit acceptable proof to establish the cost or value of the article at the time it was mailed.” Otherwise, the claim cannot be processed. USPS lists the following example of proof to determine accurate value.

    • A sales receipt, paid invoice or bill of sale, or statement of value from a reputable dealer.
    • Paid repair bills; if the claim is for partial damage, estimates of repair costs or appraisals from a reputable dealer. Repair costs may not exceed the original purchase price.
    • Receipt or invoice for the costs incurred to buy a surety bond required to reissue a lost item.
    • Receipt or invoice of costs incurred for the reconstruction of nonnegotiable documents.
    • A copy of a credit card statement or other documentation indicating the amount paid.
    • For Internet transactions conducted through a Web-based payment network that offers payment services through a stored value account, provide a computer printout of the online transaction identifying the purchaser and seller, price paid, date of transaction, description of item purchased, and assurance that the transaction status is completed. The printout must clearly identify the Web-based payment network provider through which the Internet transaction was conducted.

    It's up to USPS Accounting Services to uphold a claim in full or in part, or deny a claim in full. But, you do have a right to appeal a denial. USPS says, "A customer may appeal a claim decision within 30 days from the date of the original decision at www.usps.com/domestic-claims. Customers who did not file their claim online must send written appeals to Accounting Services." That address is: 

    Accounting Services
    US Postal Service
    PO Box 80141
    St Louis MO 63180-0141 

    For more information from USPS, go here.

    About the Authors: