The letter came in a box of Halloween decorations purchased at Kmart, but for a year Julie Keith never knew. It gathered dust in her storage, a haunting plea for help hidden among artificial skeletons, tombstones and spider webs.
Keith, a 42-year-old vehicle donation manager at a southeast Portland Goodwill, at one point considered donating the unopened $29.99 Kmart graveyard kit. It was one of those accumulated items you never need and easily forget. But on a Sunday afternoon in October, Keith pulled the orange and black box from storage. She intended to decorate her home in Damascus for her daughter's fifth birthday, just days before Halloween.
She ripped open the box and threw aside the cellophane.
That's when Keith found it. Scribbled onto paper and folded into eighths, the letter was tucked between two Styrofoam headstones.
If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever."
The graveyard kit, the letter read, was made in unit 8, department 2 of the Masanjia Labor Camp in Shenyang, China.
Chinese characters broke up choppy English sentences.
"People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer torturement, beat and rude remark. Nearly no payment (10 yuan/1 month)."
Ten yuan is equivalent to $1.61.
"People who work here, suffer punishment 1-3 years averagely, but without Court Sentence (unlaw punishment). Many of them are Falun Gong practitioners, who are totally innocent people only because they have different believe to CCPG. They often suffer more punishment than others."
The letter was not signed.
Shocked, Keith sat down as her mind reeled.
Wow, that's daring, she thought. She imagined the desperation the writer must have felt, the courage he or she must have mustered to slip the letter into that box. If caught, what would happen?
Like a message in a bottle, the letter traveled more than 5,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean. It could not be ignored.
Unsure of where to start, Keith turned to Facebook.
"I found this in a box of Halloween decorations" she typed beneath a photo of the letter. She wanted to spread the message.
The Facebook post sparked a slew of responses. Her friends had heard of labor camp horrors. But a letter from one of those camps? Never.
"I'm sure that person feared for his/her life to include that letter in the products, but it was a chance they were obviously willing to take," one friend wrote. "We take our freedom for granted!"
"What's weird to me is someone is actually thinking about, and praying something comes of this ... every day of their life since they sent it out," another wrote. "Makes me sad this even happens"
Some friends offered help, others asked for updates.
The anonymous letter evoked skepticism, too. Written largely in English scrawl, it was almost too bold of an act to seem plausible. Still, U.S. authorities on China took note.
"We're in no position to confirm the veracity or origin of this," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "I think it is fair to say the conditions described in the letter certainly conform to what we know about conditions in re-education through labor camps."
China's re-education through labor is a system of punishment that allows for detention without trial. Various reports allege followers of the banned spiritual group, Falun Gong, are sent to the reform camps – claims supported in the letter – but the facts are difficult to confirm.
Masanjia labor camp is located in the industrialized capital of the Liaoning Province in northeast China. A Google search of the camp yields pages of grim results.
"If this thing is the real deal, that's somebody saying please help me, please know about me, please react," Richardson said. "That's our job."
If truly created in a forced labor camp, the Halloween graveyard kit from Kmart's "Totally Ghoul" product line could bring a blow to the U.S. chain of discount stores.
Title 19, section 1307 of U.S. Code generally prohibits the importation of all items "mined, produced or manufactured" in any foreign country by convict labor, forced labor and/or indentured labor.
After the Oregonian informed the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the letter, ICE's Homeland Security Investigations began looking into the case, public affairs officer Andrew Munoz confirmed.
Sears Holdings Corporation, which operates Kmart, released a statement on the matter:
"Sears Holdings has a Global Compliance Program which helps to ensure that vendors and factories producing merchandise for our company adhere to specific Program Requirements, and all local laws pertaining to employment standards and workplace practices. Failure to comply with any of the Program Requirements, including the use of forced labor, may result in a loss of business or factory termination. We understand the seriousness of this allegation, and will continue to investigate."
Daniel Ruiz, section chief of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center's commercial fraud unit, said it would be difficult to predict the length of an investigation like this, which would involve American and Chinese authorities. Investigative findings would be released, he said, only if the agency takes action.
Julie Keith now checks the label of everything she buys, down to the Gingerbread house she purchased for the holidays. Her friends, she said, do the same.
"If I really don't need it, I won't buy it if it's made in China," she said. "This has really made me more aware. I hope it would make a difference."