“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.”