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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.

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