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Two envelopes start couple's nightmare

It is a memory that dogs Rick O'Callaghan's days and haunts his nights.

He is working "patch-up" at St. Petersburg's main post office, dealing with mail that arrives without destination or return addresses and mail damaged by post office machinery. His job is to find out where the mail came from or where it is supposed to go and take steps to get it to one place or the other.

He remembers two envelopes in particular from Jan. 23, 1996. If it seems peculiar that he remembers two among thousands from so long ago, it is because these two pieces of mail changed his life.

One had only a post office box number. The other was red and addressed to Maggie Lauren. O'Callaghan opened them _ he acknowledges this much _ looking for clues to the identities of the senders or intended recipients. The first envelope contained a $5 bill. The red envelope contained a card and two $10 bills. But there were no hints about where they came from or where they were going. O'Callaghan, 43, says he tossed these envelopes and others into a box for mail he could not forward, called a "nixie" bin.

He had no idea the envelopes were bait.

Postal inspectors handcuffed him and hauled him away in full view of friends, co-workers and his wife, Rosemarie, who was working at a patch-up table nearby. She also was taken into custody.

"I said I wanted to call my attorney; they said no," O'Callaghan said. "I asked for a union representative. They said they were all busy."

The inspectors searched O'Callaghan's clothes. They removed the cuffs and ordered him to disrobe for a strip-search. His hands were held under an ultraviolet light to detect whether he handled the money stashed in the two planted envelopes, cash booby-trapped with powder invisible to the naked eye.

The inspectors found none of the money and only a trace of the powder, a quantity that might have fallen from the envelope when O'Callaghan opened it. Nevertheless, they took his badge and escorted him from the premises. After working nine years for the Postal Service, he was fired from his $35,000-a-year job.

Rosemarie, 37, eventually was fired, too, from a job that paid $33,000 a year. She had opened an envelope, addressed only to Steve Johnson. It contained a $6 check, payable to the bearer. There were no clues to ownership, so she tossed the envelope into the nixie bin with the check tucked inside.

This was where the nightmare began.

It continued last summer with a federal indictment charging O'Callaghan with embezzlement and opening mail not directed to him. No trial date has been set.

It put the O'Callaghans and their five children, ages 3 to 12, on public assistance for several months.

And it continues Tuesday, when a judge is likely to approve a foreclosure on their house in north St. Petersburg. It probably will be sold in the next 30 days.

"It's a nightmare," O'Callaghan said last week. "I face prison, the loss of my house, the loss of my family. This is my life unraveling before my eyes."

It wasn't the first time the Postal Service dismissed Rick O'Callaghan.

In June 1994, he injured his back. A doctor gave him eight days sick leave to recover. He was dismissed after a postal inspector hiding amid cars across the street from the O'Callaghan home videotaped Rick on the final day of his leave driving his children to school and lifting an infant out of the car.

"The post office charged fraud," said Brian Bursa, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represented O'Callaghan in his legal fight to regain his job. "He had a choice of going to arbitration or through the Merit Systems Protection Board, an administrative procedure available to some federal workers. Rick chose the MSPB.

"The administrative law judge said, yes, perhaps if he could drive and pick up the baby, he should have returned to work, but what he did was not a firing offense and he should get his job back with back pay."

When he was fired again in 1996, O'Callaghan decided to go again before the MSPB.

The only accusation against him was that he opened mail in violation of "the sanctity of the seal." The judge did not believe he didn't know he wasn't supposed to do that and upheld the dismissal.

The missing cash did not become an issue until a grand jury handed up his indictment.

He insists he did not take any cash and that, in fact, the missing $5 bill eventually turned up in an office in the postal facility. The two $10 bills still are missing.

He also says he was never told not to open mail as a last resort.

"My training for damaged mail was a supervisor dumping a drawer of it in front of me, telling me if I wanted to work damaged mail, I should be sure that drawerful wasn't there when he got in in the morning," O'Callaghan said.

Last summer, after Rosemarie had been out of work for 16 months, an arbitrator found that the Postal Service had no grounds to fire her. The hearing record shows that even Rosemarie's supervisors acknowledged there is no training on how to handle the patch-up job, that employees simply ask each other for advice when questions arise.

"It is not unreasonable to believe that by opening the envelope and looking for an address, she was expediting the delivery of the envelope to the person for which it was intended or the return of the envelope to the person who placed it in the mail," wrote the arbitrator, Linda Byars.

Byars ordered that Rosemarie, who has nearly eight years' service with the Postal Service, be reinstated with full back pay, benefits and step increases.

"It's ironic," Bursa said. "If Rick had gone the arbitration route instead of going back to the MSPB, he would have gotten his job back, too, because he and Rose were accused of the same thing."

The decision in Rosemarie's case came July 5. She resumed work two weeks later. Today, four months after the arbitrator's decision, Rosemarie hasn't seen her $45,000 to $50,000 in back pay.

"I was told I would be paid in an expeditious manner," she said. "It's been, what, maybe 120 days. Is that expeditious?"

Although O'Callaghan mows lawns and does whatever other jobs he can find to help support his family, he and Rosemarie have fallen 16 months behind in their mortgage payments, arrears they could make up instantly if the Postal Service would pay up.

When the O'Callaghans ask postal officials about her check, they say they are told, "We're doing the best we can."

A Postal Service spokesman in Atlanta said last week, "These things take time."

The U.S. Postal Service, the nation's largest civilian employer, does not have the best reputation for employee relations. At least 65 post office employees have been killed or wounded in the past 15 years by other employees disgruntled over their treatment by supervisors and co-workers.

So indelibly is post office gunfire imprinted on the American consciousness that the term "going postal" has evolved to describe incidents in which employees resort to workplace violence in retaliation for real or imagined on-the-job mistreatment.

A 1994 study found that while postal employees make up 26 percent of the federal civilian work force, they filed 42 percent of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Marvin Runyon, appointed postmaster general in 1992, pledged the adversarial relationships between employees and their supervisors would end. But achieving that has been harder than it sounds. The Postal Service employs 800,000 people, more than a third of them, like Rick O'Callaghan, military veterans.

Military life is dominated by authoritarian, seniority-conscious, ask-no-questions management, and a study by the General Accounting Office concluded that this is the same sort of autocratic management style pervasive in the Postal Service. It is a style that makes the O'Callaghans believe Rosemarie hasn't been paid because spiteful supervisors are holding up her check until the family loses its home.

Joseph Breckenridge, spokesman for the Postal Service's regional office in Atlanta, denied that even before he was asked.

"If you are thinking that somehow we're dragging our feet, we are not. We are not!" Breckenridge said. "It's not a simple question of how many days times how much. We have to calculate how much overtime she might have worked. We have to document everything. Then it goes to a central office that services the entire Postal Service."

Rosemarie's $33,000 salary and overtime, plus the few thousand dollars Rick earns with his lawn service, support the O'Callaghans and the five children in their house plus two children of Rick's from a previous marriage. The monthly payment on their house is $979. The missed payments total more than $15,500.

The O'Callaghan family's predicament drew little sympathy.

Asked if the process could be expedited for a family about to lose its home, Breckenridge replied: "I don't know why they should be tossed out of their house. She's been working since July. She's been collecting a paycheck."

O'Callaghan shakes his head.

"And they wonder why people go postal," he said.

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.