Idaho mail cases spark questions

With three people charged in January, including two postmasters, is post office theft a major problem?

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comFebruary 13, 2014 

  • FILE A COMPLAINT

    No idea what happened to your mail? File a complaint via a national hotline, 800-275-8777 (800-ASK-USPS) or through usps.com.

    Suspect theft by a member of the public? U. S. Postal Inspection Service: 877-876-2455, online at https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/ and by mail, 433 W. Harrison St., Room 3255, Chicago, IL 60699-3255. Also, you may voice a complaint at the local post office, or provide a letter — those complaints should be forwarded to the Postal Inspection Service.

    Suspect theft by a postal employee? Postal Service Office of the Inspector General, 888-877-7644 (888-USPS-OIG) and www.uspsoig.gov/hotline.

    Postal officials also recommend that you file a report with your local police or sheriff’s office.

A couple of years ago, Horseshoe Bend resident Leslie Dobson sent a birthday card with cash — two crisp $100 bills — to her nephew in Idaho City.

She mailed the card to an Idaho City Post Office box.

“They never did get it,” said Dobson. Though it’s the only time she had mail disappear, “I mail cash for Christmas and that sort of thing all the time in a card — but not to Idaho City anymore.”

Dobson never filed a complaint with the Postal Service or local law enforcement. It was too much trouble, she said.

Rumors about mail tampering and theft have swirled around the Idaho City Post Office for years — long before Postmaster Teresa Belau (pronounced “bay-low”) was charged with grand theft in January. But only a handful of complaints have been filed with the Boise County Sheriff’s Office, which forwards complaints to postal inspectors.

“You hear it around town but for people to call in and file a police report? It’s just not there,” said Boise County Sheriff Ben Roeber, whose office is just across Idaho 21 from the post office.

In a records search going back to 2001, Roeber found four reports of inbound mail not received by Idaho City-area residents between 2008 and 2012. The missing mail contained cash, gift cards and medicine.

Darin Solmon, a resident agent with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Boise, recalled informal grumblings about the Idaho City Post Office starting in 2007. One woman told him that a card that she sent went missing — and she spotted it in an unexpected place.

“She swore up and down that the homemade greeting card was on the postmaster’s desk,” Solmon recalled. The woman said Belau refused to let her examine it.

Solmon encouraged her to report it to police and file a formal complaint with the Postal Service, but it’s unknown whether she followed through.

“People need to file written reports, and they need to be sure they’re filing it to the right agency,” said Solmon, who investigates mail theft by the public. “Their investigation is only as good as the complaints. Fifty complaints from the same ZIP code, then they know they’ve got a problem.”

It’s not clear how many formal complaints have been filed regarding the Idaho City Post Office during Belau’s tenure.

The U.S. Postal Service has not responded to a Statesman request for the annual numbers of complaints about missing mail there.

THREE POSTAL WORKERS CHARGED

Belau worked at the Idaho City Post Office for 18 years, including 14 as postmaster. She held no prior positions with the Postal Service, an agency spokesman said.

Belau’s salary as postmaster was $60,000 in 2013, according to the DataUniverse.com database of U.S. Postal Service employee salaries.

She was placed on unpaid administrative leave in August.

As of Jan. 23 she was no longer employed by the Postal Service. An agency spokesman declined to clarify whether she quit or was fired.

Belau will be arraigned before Judge Patrick Owen at 10 a.m. Thursday in Boise County 4th District Court. Her Boise attorney, Brad Poole, declined to discuss the case Tuesday.

Why isn’t she facing federal prosecution?

U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said several factors are considered, including the amount of money involved.

In other recent cases, Mari A. Mort is accused of stealing more than $1,000 over a three-year period while she was a postal clerk in Grangeville. She was indicted by a federal jury on two counts of misappropriation of postal funds and making a false statement to a postal inspector.

And former Malad Postmaster Bradley D. Hunter faces a slew of charges in state court, including grand theft, false report to cover up a theft, possession of a controlled substance and driving without privileges.

“This type of alleged behavior within the Postal Service is not tolerated and is a rare occurrence,” John Masters, U.S. Postal Service special agent in charge for Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Southwest Washington, said in a written response.

He noted that the Postal Service has 522,000 employees, the largest civilian federal workforce. More than 160 billion pieces of mail are delivered annually.

TEST MAILINGS

Two different postal agencies investigate mail tampering and theft.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service handles suspected theft by the public, while the Office of the Inspector General investigates suspected theft by postal employees and contractors.

A complaint from a customer who sent packages from the Idaho City Post Office last March led to a visit in April by a special agent from the Office of the Inspector General.

Gregory Johnson sent some test mailings from Idaho City to a box in Utah, he said at Belau’s preliminary hearing last month. The Statesman obtained a recording of the hearing.

The packages went through fine, he said.

But in May, Johnson received a complaint from a customer who had mailed two Target gift cards to an Idaho City resident.

“The individual did not receive them, and they were able to determine that the gift card was used in Boise,” Johnson said. The store was unable to provide any images of the person who redeemed them.

Two test mailings in June arrived without issue. But in July, Johnson mailed two greeting cards, one containing a gift card and one that had no other contents. The envelope that contained the gift card didn’t arrive.

This time, Target was able to provide a photo of a blond woman using the card in a Boise store. Johnson said in court that he believed the woman resembled Belau.

On Aug. 29, Johnson and another agent met with Belau in Idaho City. During a recorded interview with her, they asked her about the Target card.

According to Johnson, Belau said she took the greeting card into her office, used a letter opener, took out the gift card, glued the envelope back together and placed it back in the mail stream. Later, she said, she used the Target gift card to make personal purchases, he said.

Johnson said he asked Belau whether she knew anything about the items the customers reported missing in March and May, and said she confessed to taking those items, too.

“She said that those were the three times ... and that that was the only three times,” he said.

RURAL POST OFFICE

The Idaho City Post Office is on Idaho 21 near the town’s main drag. The office is generally staffed with two people, according to Brian Sperry, a Denver-based Postal Service spokesman, and serves about 1,000 addresses in the Idaho City area — most of which are P.O. boxes.

In a December Idaho World newspaper story headlined “A new friendly face at the Idaho City Post Office,” Michelle Audette, then-officer in charge at the post office, assured readers that their packages would get to their destinations. The public was invited to an open house that offered coffee and treats.

“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t get there,” Audette told The World. “But you have to look back and understand, it didn’t get there before, and that’s a big concern. Well, I can tell you now it’s not going to be a problem any longer.”

Several people interviewed for this report hadn’t had problems with their own mail, but knew of rumors.

Rhonda Jameson, a toy store owner in Idaho City and part-time teacher in Boise, said she heard speculation about mail getting steamed open and re-closed.

“Can anybody prove anything? No,” said Jameson, who knows of two people who got private boxes in Boise to avoid using the local post office.

MISSING SHOW TICKETS

It’s not hard to find specific cases, including one that’s run through the community rumor mill over the past five years.

A former elementary school teacher, who has since moved to Alaska, ordered tickets to “Walking with Dinosaurs” at a venue in the Valley.

The tickets never arrived in the mail, so the woman brought her ID and credit card to will call.

“When they went to seat us, there were people in our seats,” Cathy Walker said in a phone interview from her home near Fairbanks. “The lady in our seats said the postmaster gave them to us as a gift.”

One of the people who ended up with the tickets separately confirmed the incident to the Statesman, but declined to say more.

Walker said she wasn’t completely surprised that her tickets were apparently lifted from the mail. She recalled getting mail that appeared to have been opened and reclosed.

“Things like that had happened to everybody in Idaho City,” she said. “People’s gift cards were always missing, birthday money.”

Walker said she did call the Postal Service.

“They said I’d have to file a police report, and at that time in my life I didn’t care to go through all that,” she said. “That just seems like an awful lot to do.”

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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