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Scales of justice will weigh 7 pieces of stolen junk mail

On that day in January, postal inspectors had set their trap. From a hidden ceiling perch in the Pinellas Park post office they watched, binoculars in hand, waiting for letter carrier William Santiago to steal mail.

Then, they say, they saw Santiago do it. They scrambled into action. They summoned Santiago to an office to confront him.

And they recovered the stolen loot: A Victoria's Secret catalog mailed to a non-existent address. And a copy of True Story magazine addressed to a dead woman.

That was the testimony in federal court Tuesday, as the former carrier went on trial, accused of stealing seven pieces of junk mail. If convicted of the three counts of embezzlement, he faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.

The testimony marked a collision between two worlds: Many people's casual attitude toward unsolicited catalogs versus the focused perspective of postal inspectors protecting what they term the "sanctity of the mail."

Postal inspectors profess zero tolerance for any mishandling. They say bulk business mail _ so-called "junk mail" _ ought to be delivered even if the recipient doesn't want it, to honor the Postal Service's contract with the sender.

But Santiago's defense attorney told jurors his client did nothing that by any ordinary stretch of the imagination is criminal.

"He did not know that what he was doing was wrong," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Anthony Martinez. "Seven pieces of junk mail _ that's what this case is all about."

What Santiago does admit is taking undeliverable catalogs, pasting a blank label over the address and writing his own post office box number on the label.

A dozen or so elderly Pinellas Park residents who used to have their mail delivered by Santiago, and who drove to federal court in Tampa on Tuesday to support him, wonder if the government doesn't have better things to do than prosecute a case like this.

One former customer testified Tuesday that she urged Santiago to relieve her of catalogs she had received and did not want. The most dramatic testimony, though, came when Santiago, a 52-year-old Vietnam veteran who had logged 27 years in the Postal Service, took the stand to defend himself.

"I did nothing wrong _ the junk mail was going to be destroyed," he said in a thick, slow voice. "I rerouted it to my P.O. box."

When it came time for cross-examination, the prosecutor pressed hard. Santiago hadn't followed the proper procedure for undeliverable bulk mail with the Victoria's Secret catalog, had he? asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachelle DesVaux Bedke.

No, Santiago admitted, he hadn't.

Ginny Jenness, 77, said she and her neighbors at the Vendome Village retirement center in Pinellas Park found Santiago to be friendly, conscientious and honest. He knew the customers on his route by name, she said, and always made sure the mail got to the right person. Santiago resigned just before he was to have been fired in March. Santiago's latest replacement, Jenness said, hasn't been up to the same standard.

"My neighbor gets a check every quarter _ she knows when it comes," Jenness said. "Last week he (the new carrier) put it in my slot. We've become our own letter carriers."

The jury is scheduled to hear closing arguments at 9:30 this morning.