Drugs and fraud keep Boise-based postal inspectors on their toes

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comJune 26, 2014 

A few packages on a desk at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service office in South Boise were set aside because postal employees thought they were suspicious.

A note on one mailed from Fruitland to an address in Clemmons, N.C., said, "Smells like coffee. Possible drugs?"

A package from Colorado intercepted on its way to a Boise address had a strong skunky odor, while another rejected by its Nampa addressee had a texture of mushy coffee grounds.

Yet another package, bound for Arizona, sounded as if it contained bottles of pills.

Part of Postal Inspector Darin Solmon's job is to contact the senders and recipients of these sorts of mystery packages. He'll let them know their mail was deemed suspicious and inquire about the contents.

"Eighty percent don't call back," Solmon said.

If inspectors don't get a response in 30 days, then they can do an administrative seizure and dispose of the package. Abandoned packages are sent to the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta.

The Fourth Amendment means postal inspectors can't open first-class letters and packages without a search warrant. But one way they can get one is to bring in a drug detection dog to sniff a stinky package. If the dog indicates there are drugs inside, that can provide probable cause to get a warrant, Solmon said.

Solmon said he's noticed an increase in drug mailings over the past year, particularly of marijuana. The legalization of recreational pot in Washington and Colorado isn't helping.

"Everybody thinks it's OK to send a pound (of pot) to Uncle Bob in the mail," Solmon said. "We're getting swamped."

He said a Washington woman recently sent a box of marijuana cookies to her sister, a Treasure Valley attorney. It was intercepted, and the local attorney wasn't pleased to hear from the postal inspector's office. The case remains under investigation.

Solmon said many pot packages get flagged by postal workers.

"They call us and say, 'I've got a package that smells like baby skunks,' " he said.

INSPECTORS HANDLE VARIETY OF CRIMES

Solmon, a 42-year-old Burley native, is one of just two resident agents with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Boise. They are armed federal agents.

Their office is in a regional mail processing and distribution facility at 2201 S. Cole Road, which handles about 3 million pieces of mail each day. On Monday, that mail included numerous pallets of boxes filled with baby chickens, whose chirps were drowned out by the din of a surprisingly massive and intricate web of processing equipment.

The two inspectors are responsible for all of southern Idaho, and they regularly travel throughout the region. They investigate a wide range of crimes including mail theft, financial scams, white powder incidents, threatening mail, child enticement/exploitation, and drugs and guns in the mail.

Last weekend, the inspectors were notified of white powder found in a bin and on mail at the post office in the tiny eastern Idaho city of Firth. The building was evacuated and the substance tested - it was baking soda.

Solmon, who has a master's degree in forensic science, has unique professional expertise in white powder investigations. In the early 2000s, he was assigned to a team of primary investigators in Washington, D.C., looking into the source of anthrax in the mail. More than 20 people were sickened by anthrax-contaminated letters, and five died.

In early January, the Boise-based postal inspectors investigated the reported robbery of the Malad post office. That led to the arrest of Malad Postmaster Bradley David Hunter.

"He faked an armed robbery. He said a guy came up with a gun while he was out smoking a cigarette," Solmon said. "After two or three days investigating it, the stories weren't matching up."

Hunter began dodging the inspectors, who knew he had a warrant out of Utah for a parking ticket. When a traffic stop was done on that warrant, investigators found marijuana and pills in Hunter's car - and that led them to obtain a search warrant to check his house for drugs.

"When we got into the house, we didn't find any more drugs. But we did find 200 pieces of mail," Solmon said. They were nearly a year old.

It turned out the former postmaster got the mail when a couple of carriers called in sick. Rather than deliver it himself, he just dumped it at his house.

The faked robbery had nothing to do with that pile of mail - it was to cover up the theft of a high-value item, Solmon said.

Hunter pleaded guilty to grand theft. He was sentenced to five years in state prison, including two years fixed.

LOTTERY SCAMS

Mail fraud is taking up more of the local postal inspectors' time.

One of the biggest recent problems is a scam where recipients are told they've won millions in the Jamaican lottery.

Prize winners are told they must send money to claim their prize, and many are coaxed into wiring money to Jamaica. One North Idaho woman has sent $385,000 in the hopes of claiming her lottery prize, Solmon said, and another sold her house and depleted her savings. Those who fall victim to these scams are often more skeptical of the U.S. government than strangers in Jamaica.

"Our problem is getting people to stop," said Solmon, who has been kicked out of people's homes and told to stay out of their businesses.

Work-at-home schemes are also a big problem now, with people out of work falling prey to criminals looking for help in mailing stolen goods. Be wary of jobs advertised online that require you to mail items to Ukraine, Russia or West Africa, postal inspectors say.

When these scams involve online romances, they're called "lovers" or "I love you" schemes. If your boyfriend asks you to send a few computers to Nigeria, that's a red flag.

The Postal Inspector's Office in Boise has investigated cases of local residents mailing Corvette tires to Ukraine.

"If you're laundering goods through your home, then postal inspectors are going to show up at your door," Solmon said.

MORE DRUGS IN MAIL

In April, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate Appropriations Committee that a "shocking" amount of drugs is being shipped through the mail.

During fiscal year 2013, postal inspectors intercepted 9,100 parcels containing marijuana - a 20 percent increase in seizures over the previous year, a Postal Service official told U.S. News & World Report.

Jeremy R. Leder, a Spokane-based Postal Service public information officer, said he could not provide the Statesman with fiscal 2013 data because that annual report has not yet been released. He was also unable to provide any regional data.

Solmon estimated that his office seized 30 to 40 suspected drug packages last year, with about a dozen of those resulting in in-depth investigations.

"We do the best we can. We're not perfect," he said. "We're not going to catch everything, and we're not going to work everything."

SAFETY CONCERNS

He noted that one of the main reasons the agency investigates drug cases is to ensure the safety and security of postal employees and customers. These cases are often prosecuted by counties because Idaho's drug laws are relatively punitive - possession of 3 ounces of marijuana is a felony. And local law enforcement is often involved and sometimes takes the lead.

Two recent examples of drugs-in-the-mail arrests:

• In December, an 18-year-old Star man was charged with having a package of marijuana (1.3 pounds) mailed from California to a relative's home in Garden City. Police detectives - not Solmon's office - intercepted it, and Alexander Christian Gruber was arrested after a traffic stop.

Gruber received up to five years in prison. The judge retained jurisdiction and sent him to a prison-based program intended to address underlying issues for criminal behavior.

• In May, a 21-year-old Boise man picking up an allegedly pot-filled package at the post office was arrested and charged with felony marijuana trafficking, according to Boise police.

Postal inspectors obtained a search warrant to open the package sent to Andrew R. Ralson. They said they found 3 pounds of marijuana inside. A search of Ralson's home uncovered another 7 pounds of marijuana, as well as other illicit drugs including ecstasy and possibly LSD, police said.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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