TAMPA — Mail carriers rank among the nation's most trusted workers. They brave snarling dogs and inclement weather. But beneath the rain-resistant, snow-sturdy exterior, some are crooks.
In the past five years, 2,848 U.S. Postal Service carriers, clerks and truckers have been convicted of charges relating to mail theft. In Florida alone, they stole cash, checks, gift cards, diamond rings, computers, gaming devices and a microwave oven.
One such case led postal clerk Angela LoBianco Hernandez, 28, to a Tampa courtroom on Nov. 21 to answer for keeping an iPad after accepting payment for its safe delivery.
"I blame nobody for this but myself," she told U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo, who put her on probation for three years.
Tampa mail clerk Marguerite Woodson pleaded guilty Nov. 18 to pilfering up to $1,500 from Nielsen survey envelopes. Carrier Shalanda Johnson admitted in October to stealing a Walmart gift card on her Sulphur Springs route. New Tampa carrier Corey Gordon estimated that he took as many as 20 gift cards before he was stopped in the spring.
On a bigger scale, recently filed court records suggest that a postal employee — not yet publicly named — was at the heart of a 2012 heist that left hundreds of Pinellas County retirees without their Social Security checks.
Small numbers of carriers have even conspired with stolen identity tax refund filers, defrauding the government while drawing a government paycheck.
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Sticky-fingered employees represent less than 1 percent of the postal workforce of 625,000.
The other 99 percent contribute in ways ordinary and extraordinary. They save choking babies, pluck cats out of sewer grates and rescue dogs from house fires. And they manage to deliver the mail without stealing it, an important quality in a nation on track to spend $126 billion on gift cards in 2014 and $100 billion on e-commerce this holiday season.
Postal Service carriers serve 153 million addresses and most take pride in providing outstanding service, said Debra Fetterly, a spokeswoman for the agency in Florida, where there are 33,558 postal workers.
"Unfortunately, there are a very small number of postal employees who abuse the public trust placed in them," she said.
The public takes notice.
Michael Toscano, 62, recently mailed a greeting card from a Pasco County post office to an expectant niece in San Diego, enclosing a $100 American Express gift card. The greeting card arrived, its envelope already open, but the enclosure did not.
Now he wishes he had bought insurance. "My trust in the post office has been thoroughly shaken," he said.
Fetterly said misconduct is thoroughly investigated.
Rachelle Bedke, criminal chief for the U.S. Attorney's Office, has heard the excuses offered up by postal workers. Some say that drug addictions or financial difficulties led them to steal.
"I think we've seen an uptick in these kinds of cases recently because there have been tough economic times in recent years, and the letter carriers have access as a result of their position," she said.
Postal employee theft convictions doubled after the 2008 global economic crisis, according to a Tampa Bay Times review of internal theft data from the Postal Service inspector general.
In the federal calendar year leading up to Sept. 30, 2009, convictions climbed from 341 to 680. The next year brought 720. Only this year did they dip below 400.
"I have taken cards with cash in them because I have been hard up for money," Citrus County contract carrier Mark Louis Stocking told investigators while admitting to the theft of $40 to $60 per week for several months in 2013.
Carlos Rodriguez, a contract highway route driver once assigned to Central Florida, said he rifled through packages and threw away items he didn't want. He was caught last fall taking an Xbox planted by federal agents after complaints on his route.
"The reason I did what I did was to make some extra money and see if I can get some good stuff," he told investigators.
He was ordered to pay restitution of $4,479.
Judges put both men on probation, a common punishment in such cases. Postal workers typically don't have serious criminal records that might drive up sentencing scores. And prosecutors are typically able to prove only a portion of the thefts.
But workers lose jobs that pay well, jobs requiring no more than a high school diploma. Hernandez, the iPad thief who clerked in Arcadia, earned $50,251 a year.
"The loss of this job is a huge punishment," federal prosecutor Matthew Jackson acknowledged to the sentencing judge, who set up a payment plan for Hernandez's $540 restitution order.
Some steal like no one will notice. They wind up on store surveillance video spending other people's gift cards. They deposit other people's checks into their own bank accounts.
Lakeland carrier Franklin C. Barnes didn't bother to shed his uniform or mail truck for a meeting in a clinic parking lot, where he negotiated a commission for stolen checks.
The buyer was an undercover law enforcement agent.
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In May, a former Eagle Scout, soldier and second-generation letter carrier took an elevator to the 15th floor of the federal courthouse in Tampa to learn how far his life had fallen.
John Peter Vreeland, 40, of Tampa had pleaded guilty to mail theft and accepting bribes after redirecting about 60 fraudulent tax refund checks to a conspirator who paid him $3,000. He lost his $56,507 job.
In court, he called his actions a "huge mistake" that cost him a career, benefits, insurance, retirement money and even friends. He said he would never again engage in illegal activities.
"Sometimes, people perplex me," senior U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara responded. "Here you are, you had a good upbringing. Your father is a retired postal worker, correct?"
"Yes, sir," Vreeland said.
"He must be extremely disappointed in you, as well as your mother. Am I correct?"
"They are," Vreeland said.
The judge put him on probation for five years, ordering six months of house arrest and 100 hours of community service.
Vreeland paid the government the $3,000 he had collected.
In court, prosecutor Amanda Kaiser said the sum didn't reflect the government's full loss.
She recalled that Vreeland's co-conspirator, Eric J. Howard, who is serving five years in prison, had admitted to more than $1 million in tax refund fraud.
But she wasn't sure how much of it was attributable to Vreeland's mail route assistance.
And why not?
"Mr. Howard had checks from other postal carriers," she said.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]