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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 20, 2006

Soldier relieved to be cleared in theft probe

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

1st Lt. Charles Neumann: "You don't even understand the weight that's off my shoulders."

Photo courtesy of Charles Neumann

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1st Lt. Charles Neumann participated in a May 2005 raid of an Iraqi contractor's trailer in Baghdad in which about $750,000 in U.S. dollars was seized. The Hawai'i National Guard soldier was investigated after $50,000 was discovered missing, but he has since been cleared.

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First Lt. Charles Neumann was pretty amazed when a raid in Iraq turned up about $750,000 in cash.

He was incredulous when he came under suspicion in the theft of $50,000 of it.

The Hawai'i National Guard soldier, who came back from Iraq about six months ago, found out in June he has been cleared and his career and reputation have been restored.

The case involved more than a year of worry by Neumann, 33, some questionable investigative tactics in Iraq, an outside-the-chain-of-command request to the Pentagon, and trust by a commander that helped exonerate the married father of a 4-year-old.

"Oh, man, you don't even understand the weight that's off my shoulders," said Neumann, an 'Aina Haina resident. "Sometimes I know I get stressed and I'd snap, and they (my family) didn't know why, and it was just like, 'I got a 50-grand charge hanging over my head.' "

According to an e-mail from Neumann's brigade commander in Iraq, the real thief was a Mainland investigator with the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, also known as CID, who was caught with $48,000 in one of his accounts. He has since been charged with six felony counts.

The CID agent's boss, a lieutenant colonel, was retired from the Army with an official reprimand in his file, the e-mail said.

The movie-plot intrigue began in May 2005, when Neumann and about 25 other soldiers raided an Iraqi contractor's two trailers at Camp Victory and an adjoining U.S. base in Baghdad.

A series of big bases ring Baghdad International Airport, and the Iraqi was a jack of all trades an interpreter and a shopkeeper who sold cell phones, satellite TVs, watches and DVDs.

"He was like a go-fer, too, for the military guys," Neumann said. "Say I need drywall plaster and I can't get it. He would tell a guy and he would bring it in to him."

But the Iraqi, a man in his mid-30s, had been fired as an interpreter and was living and working illegally on base.

"Our intent was to pretty much apprehend the guy and kick him off the base," recalled Lt. Col. Ken Hara, commanding officer for Hawai'i's 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry, at Camp Victory.

The raid of the man's two trailers went as planned. What wasn't planned was the discovery of all the cash: Three quarters of a million dollars, much of it in U.S. $100 bills.

"It was all over," Neumann said. "In glass shelving. On the floor. In cigar boxes. In three different backpacks. In safes. In trash bags. Under his bed."

The National Guard soldier said it "was amazing. I was shocked. It's a dump, and you are opening up bags and bags that can make you a millionaire."

CID investigators were there from the start, and the temporarily seized money was tallied by Hawai'i National Guard soldiers.

Hara, who back in Hawai'i is both the battalion's commander and the Guard's training and operations officer, wondered if the money was fueling the insurgency, and if the cash U.S. troops paid to the Iraqi man was being used to pay for attacks.

"We thought it was pretty much end of story (for us), and everyone was high-fiving," he said.

Several days later, though, Hara was notified by Col. Richard Hooker, his higher command with the 18th Airborne Corps, that CID believed $50,000 was missing, and he was to cooperate in an investigation.

Thirty minutes after that, CID personnel arrived and started searching the bunks and rooms of Hawai'i Guard soldiers involved in the raid.

At first, the investigation seemed to focus on two Hawai'i soldiers involved in the counting, Hara said.

Then it shifted to Neumann.

Neumann, who was born in Hawai'i, went to high school and college in California and joined the Guard in 1991, started asking questions about the CID agent, a Chief Warrant Officer 4, who had handled some of the cash.

"That's when everything started coming on me when I implicated their CID agent," he said.

Neumann was "titled," meaning he was under investigation in the theft, and he said CID agents searched his living quarters five different times. Agents told him his bank accounts back home would be checked.

Two of the CID agents who took part in the investigation also were involved in the money counting, Neumann said.

Hara thought there was a conflict of interest.

CID operates differently from line units, and with different rules, Neumann said. "On their uniforms, they don't wear name tags. They're like ghosts," he said.

The CID agent who was later charged had seemed agitated during the money counting, and other witnesses saw him take a blue backpack with cash to a truck, Neumann said. He later contacted Neumann, saying the money count was $50,000 over what it really had been.

The money loss might never have been verified were it not for meticulous record-keeping by the detained Iraqi man.

Hara said the man had sequentially numbered U.S. $100 bills and a bank receipt for it.

When the man was released, he demanded the missing money.

As the blame shifted to Neumann, Hara stuck up for him.

Hooker, the brigade commander, met with Hara "and he flat out said, 'Ken, is this guy clean?' And I said, 'I guarantee it, sir,' " Hara said. "He said, 'Well, it'll be your career or my career and our butts on the line.' "

Hara said he had worked with Neumann all the way from Kuwait on up to Iraq.

The lieutenant worked largely on the base in detainee operations, was the medical platoon leader and sometimes was battle captain.

"I knew he didn't take the money," Hara said.

Neumann felt like he was being framed.

CID investigators told him he could go to Leavenworth penitentiary for 20 years on charges including larceny, conspiring against U.S. forces and aiding insurgents. He thought it was an attempt to make him confess.

"You could tell me I'd hang from the gallows, but the point is, I didn't take the money," he said.

That's when he got a break. The provost marshal of Multinational Corps Iraq, a colonel, sent a message up to the Department of the Army provost marshal at the Pentagon. "His words pretty much were, 'This (investigation) looks bad,' and he concurred with me," Hara said.

CID internal affairs was tasked with re-opening the investigation. When word got back to Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who at that time led all coalition forces in Iraq, it led to another meeting for Hara and Hooker, this time with Vines.

"All rifles were pointed downrange at me, and he (Hara) stuck up for me, and the 18th Airborne Corps colonel (Hooker) stuck up for me," Neumann said. "... They put their necks out there, just with mine, and all they had to go on was, 'Sir, I didn't take the money.'

"In the end, my word was good, and now it came out. God, I'm so happy it came out."

Officials said the CID agent may only have been charged at this point with the crime, and did not release his name.

Neumann has been officially "untitled," and he's started a new job with the Guard as a supervisory environmental manager.

Hara received an e-mail June 14 from Hooker, the 18th Airborne colonel. It said, "Thanks for your courage and persistence on behalf of your officer and troops. This was painful but I think we played it right and we won in the end, while an innocent man has been cleared."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.