San Diego: America's Mail-Theft Capital

“Honey, honey, don’t run! Please, honey, stay there!” The girl strains forward and yells from the back seat of the patrol car. But as the officer door-knocks, Honey bails through the living room window into the bushes, into the hands of waiting police. He’s cuffed and pushed back inside the house like a balky shopping cart. Honey’s moll settles her head on the seat back and loses interest in his plight. Twenty minutes later a detective leaves the house with several plastic grocery bags. Honey and his entourage emerge. The officers peel off toward their cars like Blue Angels breaking formation. One calls over his shoulder to the others, “We gotta hold ’em for the postal inspector.” Then the small drama in Normal Heights moves on.

Dave Fast works in the postal inspector’s office on E Street, downtown. “It’s really a misleading name. People think postal inspectors just check packages to make sure the stamps are on them or something like that. But we’re detectives. Federal agents. Even though we serve at the behest of the Postmaster General, we don’t answer to anyone in the Postal Service; we more or less do our own thing. We’re here to protect the mail, property, and personnel.” They provide security guards for certain post offices and maintain several postal police cars armed with shotguns.

The tall, graying Fast has the build of an ex-football player, a casual demeanor, and the jaded wit common to law enforcement, to people who see us at our worst and keep secrets for a living. He came to the inspection service in the ’60s after a stint as an undercover Army intelligence officer, though most inspectors are former postal carriers, supervisors, or post masters. A few of the 20 or so local inspectors are in the office this day, men and women, and they appear as unremarkable as a small-town bowling league. No uniforms, no suits, no shades, no attitude.

“We’re not that kind of agency,” says Fast, pleased. “You get a real variety in the inspection service.” You need a college degree in any discipline to apply, then three months’ training in law, postal regulations, firearms, and field procedures like hand-to-hand combat and felony car stops, with refresher training three times a year.”

It was members of the now-200-year-old service who rode hard after stagecoach robbers in the Old West and tracked down fraud artists and swindlers who flourished after the Civil War. Today’s inspectors, one of them notes, “can do more damage to a criminal operation with a telephone and a computer than with a firearm.” But this same inspector says that during his career, he’s been assaulted, shot at, and stabbed, and people have tried to run him over with their cars.

When we put a check, a birthday card, a box of Christmas cookies in the mail, we are sure, or more sure than not, that it will get where it’s going uneventfully. We never imagine that somewhere along the route, the envelope, the box could be nestled next to drugs or chickens or child pornography. But because the Postal Service (and other delivery services) are in the business of moving things quickly, and because first-class mail is secure from search without a warrant, these are the transportation methods of choice for certain criminals. And mail theft is often the first step in identity theft, check washing, and other crimes. Even Internet and boiler-room scams, not under the Postal Service’s immediate jurisdiction, will eventually involve the mails, so postal inspectors will be involved.

“As long as a crime has a nexus to the mails,” Fast says, “we can be called in on the investigation. Say a police officer makes a traffic stop and sees a lot of mail on the seat next to the driver. If it has other people’s names on it, then there’s suspicion of mail theft.” Or, say, Honey’s moll is arrested with stolen credit cards. They take her back home for a search and find Honey watching TV next to some drugs and a pile of stolen checks. A Spring Valley man is currently accused of defrauding bidders on the eBay Internet auction site; victims’ checks went through the mail, so inspectors were involved in the investigation. Fast recalls a con man who used classified ads and hand-to-hand cash payments, leaving no paper trail. Because two of his victims received their newspapers by mail, the inspection service made its case.

No area of the country is associated with any particular type of postal crime — except perhaps San Diego. For a while in the mid-’90s, “We were the mail-theft capital of the U.S., bar none,” says Fast emphatically. He leans back in his chair, looks toward the ceiling, and raises both arms in the air, as if to fend off the mere thought of the crime spree. “This was theft from the blue collection boxes, and it was all based on drugs and counterfeit keys. It started in 1991 and peaked in ’94. We identified two major mail-theft gangs in ’95, and by ’98 every blue collection box in the four-county area, 7500 of them, had a new locking mechanism.” The Postal Inspector’s office in San Diego also covers Imperial and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

Fast pulls out a ring bristling with keys. He flips through and finds one that is hand cut and filed from a piece of sheet metal. “This is a counterfeit key, and at one time it would open any collection box in the county.” Since the 1920s, when they bought out the Arrow lock company, the post office has manufactured its own locks and keys. “But they were flat, easily counterfeitable,” Fast says. “The criminals would go to a collection box in the middle of the night, get a crowbar and pop it open, then take the back plate off the lock mechanism and literally trace the outline of the key that would fit it. Then they started selling the keys to all the tweakers in town. Crystal meth users are our mail-theft people. There may be a few others here and there, but the vast majority of our mail-theft cases are white tweakers.”

Fast is circumspect about investigation techniques. He taps his computer and smiles, saying, “This is probably the most important tool we use.” It connects them to databases, networks, and tracking systems. “We do big spread sheets for a lot of fraud cases and mail-theft cases — all the times and the people and places that were hit — to uncover patterns of activity and match names and to connect up members of gangs. We follow up leads, interview people, look for evidence. We’re always asking, ‘Did you save any of the envelopes? Do you have any checks?’”

But no law-enforcement officer will discount the value of a suspicious nature and a dose of good luck. “One of the inspectors working mail theft was off duty,” Fast recalls, “and he was going to visit some friends in, oh, I think Rancho Peñasquitos someplace. It’s about 6:15 in the evening, he’s driving along, and he sees a female letter-carrier opening a collection box. He thinks, ‘Gee, it’s a little late for this run. That box should have been tapped a couple of hours ago. Oh, well, they’re running behind.’ But then he realized there wasn’t a postal truck anywhere to be seen.

“So he pulls up and starts making small talk with the woman, trying to see what kind of key she was using. It was a counterfeit. She finally says, ‘Well, I gotta go.’ He pulls out his badge and tells her she isn’t going anywhere. She runs, he grabs her, she pulls out a pen and tries to stab him, he pins her to the ground, and she’s screaming bloody murder that she’s being raped. All the neighbors come out, and he shows them his badge, so they call the police, and they take her away.

“It turns out she was part of a loose-knit gang that involved a former letter carrier and her husband, a former police officer who was in the business of making counterfeit keys and selling them to all his tweaker friends. The wife would loan out her letter-carrier uniform. One of the girls involved in this gang was Kelly Starke; she stole a woman’s identity, then ended up on Oprah Winfrey’s show apologizing to the victim.

“Now that we’ve made it virtually impossible to get into these collection boxes,” Fast says, “they’re going back to the neighborhoods and taking mail from residential boxes.” He recites the Postal Service mantra: Don’t leave outgoing mail in your mailbox; pick up incoming mail right away; pick up new checks at your bank…. “We can’t have agents posted at every residence,” he says.

But they do have high-profile agents on the street on “check day,” the first of the month. “We want every crook in the city to know there are federal officers out there. We also enlist the aid of local police and follow the carriers around to make sure they’ve locked their vehicles and generally look out for them.

“Back in ’96, we had a gang that came up out of Guerrero specifically to steal checks on the first of the month. They would run them through the banks in Mexico, and the checks would make their way back to the banks in the U.S. sometimes not for a year or a year and a half after the theft. We had some good tips from street informants and arrested the whole gang, about 17 people. They were very surprised to see us. They’d stopped stealing checks and were on to something else by then, so they thought they were home free.”

Most of the postal inspectors’ cases also involve other local or state police agencies and task forces or federal agencies such as the Customs Service, Border Patrol, or the FBI. The U.S. Postal Inspectors Office has agents permanently stationed in Interpol centers in Germany, Hong Kong, and Colombia. “But we don’t call up other police departments and ask if they’ll take a case over,” says one local agent. “We follow people wherever they go. If you’re the crook and you go to American Samoa, we go after you.” Shades of Butch Cassidy and Sundance, who were chased by postal agents all the way to Bolivia.

“We’ve traditionally been called the Silent Service,” observes Fast. It goes back to the days when the post office didn’t want to alarm its customers with high-profile operations. “If you’ve read about an arrest in the paper, and it would say the arrest involved the FBI and other federal agents? Well, we’re often the other federal agents.” But the inspection service recently cooperated with Showtime Networks to produce a made-for-TV movie, available on home video, The Inspectors, starring Lou Gossett, based on a real case in Alaska. Both Fast and local inspector Phil Garn worked the original case.

About 80 percent of the service’s cases begin with a customer complaint. But mail processors and letter carriers are also valuable sources. A carrier who delivered mail to the home of a couple of outsized bodybuilders noticed they often received packages from a Mexican pharmacy with a post office box in the South Bay. The carrier thought it was worth looking into. After some investigation and a stakeout of the post office box, postal inspectors and local police arrested an Ensenada pharmacist who was selling steroids, Rohypnol, and other controlled medications through the mails.

A medical doctor involved in Hepatitis B research wrapped a frozen vial of active serum in newspaper, then in a flimsy box, and mailed it to her colleagues at a Canadian hospital. By the time the vial reached an intermediate post office on its way to Montreal, the serum had thawed and leaked onto the wrapping, exposing two mail handlers to the disease. It’s legal to ship such items, but only under very specific conditions.

It’s also legal to send live, recently hatched chicks short distances through the mails if you follow postal and Department of Agriculture rules. “One day this clerk from [the central post office on] Midway calls me and says, ‘Inspector Fast, we have the strangest shipment.’ And in the background you could hear all this racket, cluck-cluck-cluck. We went over and found these fighting cocks in cages — you could see them through the slats — with their combs cut off and their feet prepared for fighting.” They’d been mailed from Arizona, destined for Chula Vista. They got as far as the Midway facility before anyone blew thet whistle.

Tom Hofius has worked miscellaneous and external crimes since 1980. “They’ve ranged from something simple like a nonmailable item to multiple homicides, fatal accidents, large-scale accidents involving trains and planes — because virtually every commercial airline flight in the United States is carrying U.S. mail.”

Hofius says the inspectors’ office routinely recovers ten times its budget in fines and seizures each year. Houses, boats, cars, commercial inventories, “anything that can be proven to be related under the forfeiture statutes. Contraband sent through the mails is destroyed. Explosives, weapons, dangerous compounds, huge quantities of narcotics. I have some cases of wine in my office right now.”

Dave Fast jerks his thumb over his shoulder and says, “See that big wall safe there? It’s full of marijuana. We keep it as evidence, then it’s taken out and burned somewhere in an open pit up near Long Beach. Some days guys come in my office, and they go into the safe, and the smell comes out, and it permeates my office. If I don’t leave, after a while I’m floating around. We have these vaults all over this building.”

The Office of the Postal Inspector is in the downtown facility that consumes the block from Eighth and E to Ninth and F. Its face on E Street is freshly painted in shades of cream, gold, and a green-tinged blue. Handsome art deco relief panels across the façade depict the pride of the post office in the year the station opened, 1936 — its modern transportation systems: car, train, boat, and plane. The first regular airmail service had begun the year before. The building’s somber interior is cut by slanting shafts of light from the tall windows — all marble and granite and brass, soaring ceilings and echoes. A plaque announces that the building, designed by William Templeton Johnson, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Phil Garn’s office is, like many others in the inspector’s unit, a welter of paper and cartons and file folders. Videotape players and monitors are stacked on a large black metal rack. A row of tall file cabinets is securely locked. The door to his office is securely locked. The entire inspectors unit is securely locked, in the depths of Templeton’s building, with warning signs and intercoms and peep holes. Garn’s beat is drug crimes and child exploitation. From his wiry frame, Garn exudes the kind of energy seen in endurance athletes — runners or bikers or swimmers.

“When I first started this assignment in 1994, most of our drug cases in San Diego were college-age kids in the Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach areas. They were sending a pound or two of marijuana to their friends on the East Coast. They could buy a pound here for $400 to $600, and that same pound is now at least $1200, if not $2000 back east.

“We would look at a lot of factors and find where these kids were. We would be getting a lot of express mail out of a residential neighborhood. Things like that would tip us off. And we would find the money coming back. Then we would make a controlled delivery, get inside, and find drugs, packing materials, old express mail receipts, and they’d go off to jail.”

But Garn confirms what other agents say, that postal crimes today more often involve large groups of people or organized gangs and much higher stakes. One current case, says Garn, “involves an organization that has mailed literally tons of marijuana, five or ten pounds at a time, out of San Diego. This is more typical of what we’re finding now. We did an interdiction last month where we looked at all the outbound and inbound parcels, and we got over 540 pounds of marijuana in one week.”

Garn, too, is cautious about discussing the agency’s investigation techniques. “Well, we look at a lot of things. We occasionally do use dogs. We don’t routinely X-ray packages. We do have profiles of shipments we’ve developed over the years. But criminals read our search warrants, so they know what we’re looking for. We’ve had to articulate that to the magistrate. So they change their profile. We used to see a lot of the U-Haul-type boxes heavily taped up. Now the loads are getting smaller. Usually they’ll be sent to the home of somebody’s girlfriend or mother or someone who’s not really involved in the operation, who maybe gets a few dollars for accepting the package. And when we seize this small amount of marijuana or $5000 from these big organizations, they’re only caught with that small amount, and for them that’s just the cost of doing business.

“Often they’ll use different services. They may start out with us, we interdict some packages, so they switch to UPS or Federal Express, then they may come back to us. They can’t flood one shipping organization all at once.” Narcotics task forces have jurisdiction in cases involving private delivery services.

Garn’s tone is matter-of-fact as he describes the endless cat-and-mouse with drug dealers. What brings him back to full attention is the subject of child exploitation and child pornography. He’s studied in detail the whole sordid world of the perpetrators and their psychology, the victims and their families. When he discusses the subject, he is alternately cop and college professor.

On his desk he fans out magazines and cheap paperbacks, many of them from Europe, full of pictures of naked children. A photo album contains snapshots of young boys, perhaps the pedophile’s neighbors, in various obscene situations. A “nudist” magazine features only children in provocative poses. Scrapbooks of children’s underwear ads. Adult pornography with children’s heads pasted on. Garn’s file cabinets contain stacks of child pornography on videotape. All these have been intercepted in the local mails or found in related searches. Again, the perpetrators like the security and anonymity of the Postal Service; the Internet leaves footprints. “When you look at these pictures,” Garn says, “you’re looking at a photo of a crime scene. The children are all victims, even if they participated voluntarily. Young children can’t make that kind of informed choice.”

Garn says the techniques developed to arrest and prosecute child predators are based on some simple facts. “It’s need-driven behavior, and it’s learned, most likely at a young age,” he emphasizes. “It’s high risk, it’s insatiable, and it’s life-long. If we arrest a man who’s 50, he didn’t just start collecting pornography and molesting children at that age. These people are very smart and usually well traveled, well educated, extremely manipulative. Very good at covering up; they’ve been doing it all their lives. When they appear in court, they look immaculate. Very polite and respectful, but they have two faces.

“But the need-driven behavior is so strong that if you throw something out there, they will go after it, even though the average person would think they would have to be idiots to do it. That’s why Charm School worked so well. We were offering them something that was irresistible.”

Charm School was a technique developed in San Diego, since adopted in other jurisdictions. Inspectors placed classified ads in “swingers” publications soliciting, in thinly veiled terms, a mentor and teacher to “initiate” a young boy or girl. Replies were forwarded from a controlled post office box to the inspectors’ office in San Diego. Garn, posing as a fellow pedophile, would begin a personal correspondence with each one. Garn produces a file of letters from a man with large, flowing, artistic handwriting. Their tone is friendly, almost cocky, and they allude to the pleasure of “educating” the child in the ad. Says Garn, “One of the men we caught, when I interviewed him, said he knew when he answered the ad that he would either have the experience of a lifetime or he’d be arrested. He knew the risk, but he did it anyway.”

The inspectors’ office worked more than 100 cases from Charm School. Project Special Delivery, begun in 1994, netted thousands of leads and is still the largest child-porn bust ever made. It began with a misaddressed videotape and ended with the inspection service and Justice Department taking over several businesses in a reverse sting. One of them was Overseas Male, a child-porn video production and distribution company based in San Diego and run by Troy Frank, a pedophile who spent most of his time at his bayview villa in Acapulco. Through business records and customer orders, the two-year investigation identified a network of small operations and individual dealers and buyers that stretched across the U.S. and into Mexico, Canada, and Europe.

According to Garn, the arrestees included “four clergymen, two Boy Scout leaders, one Big Brother, seven schoolteachers, a retired Army officer, several active and former police officers, an attorney, a history professor, doctor, electrical engineer, computer programmer, and a school counselor. The perpetrators are not who the public thinks they are. Not somebody who’s retarded or the old man in the park or somebody who’s a child abductor. There are maybe 200 or 300 child abductions in the U.S. every year. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of child molestations in the U.S. every year.”

Garn says they often encounter tremendous parental guilt, denial, and misunderstanding of child exploitation because the perpetrator is so often known and trusted by the family. As an example, he cites a local case in which a grandfatherly neighbor, a frequenter of Little League games, was arrested for molesting a young boy. “The victim came forward,” Garn says incredulously, “made a consensual call to the guy, the guy says, ‘Don’t tell your parents. I’ll never do it again,’ and still the parents wouldn’t believe it happened. They ended up collecting money for the perpetrator’s defense fund.

“There aren’t many people doing proactive child-abuse investigations,” Garn says. “Maybe 15 or 20 postal inspectors, 10 or 15 customs agents, and a couple of FBI agents, plus a few local and state officers. A few of us in the Postal Inspection Service have been doing the undercover letter-writing for so long that we have some recognized expertise. For every Project Special Delivery or other big reverse sting that we do, we’ve probably done a hundred or more cases where it has just been individual letter writing.”

Back in his office, Dave Fast is considering the scope of his experience in 30 years with the Postal Inspection Service. “It’s difficult to think of anything in our daily lives that doesn’t have some connection at some point to the mails.” Which reminds him of the woman who got a moving-company estimate to truck her household goods from San Diego to the Midwest, determined it was cheaper to ship them parcel post, boxed up everything but the large appliances, and mailed them to her new home. And a builder saved money on supplies when he bought a load of cinder blocks here and mailed them one by one to his construction site in Alaska. “Not crimes,” Fast offers, “but not the kind of thing we encourage.”

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