Customs men tally 146 years' experience

By John Cousins

Nearly 150 years of foiling smugglers' best-laid plans has ended for three Tauranga customs officers who have all retired at the same time.

Charlie Jennings, Selwyn Wakefield and Kevin Goddard farewelled careers in which they developed an intuition for people and things that didn't quite "fit".

Their joint departure this week has temporarily emptied the Sulphur Point Customs office of a third of its staff.

All three men began their careers straight from school and liked the job so much they stuck with it for a combined total of 146 years.

Lining up for their picture at the Sulphur Point container terminal, Mr Goddard happened to notice the name of the ship docked alongside, The Endurance. "It sounds like us," he said.

He notched up eight years' service in Tauranga watching the borders at the port and Rotorua International Airport.

Most of his career was spent in Auckland, including at the international airport in the 1970s when the notorious Mr Asia syndicate sent drug couriers through Customs.

The syndicate's success led to reforms in which Customs' focus shifted from the smuggling of luxury items such as watches, that attracted heavy import duties, to ranking people and items by how much risk they posed to New Zealand.

Mr Goddard recalled when he was up to his elbows in jam after a drug smuggler tried to ship a container of jam cans from Nepal that also contained 1000kg of cannabis resin.

The smuggler was so broke he couldn't afford to ship the jam from Auckland and was sleeping rough with a friend when police did a routine check. The friend, wanted on a warrant, was so eager to take pressure off himself that he spilled the beans about the jam.

Mr Wakefield, based in Tauranga for 24 years, will never forget the search of a ship hours before it was due to sail to Australia after suspicions that it could be harbouring an escaped prisoner. He found the man hiding in an empty cabin.

Mr Jennings, who joined the Tauranga office in 1967, remembered a scam in which a seaman used an elaborate system to thwart attempts to differentiate between legitimate personal items and smuggled electronic goods. It ended with successful prosecutions.

The introduction of Japanese used-car imports in 1987 ushered in its own set of problems for Customs officers whose job included checking if odometers had been wound back. Mr Jennings found some stereos in the crew's quarters and then discovered gaps in the cars where stereos should have been. In a successful bluff, he told the captain the ship would be held in port until they had completed a complete search. Later they were called back and shown a cabin with stereos "all over the place".

The three had a joint farewell this week at the Tauranga Citizens' Club.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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