When residents of Turlock’s Noble Lane went out to get their mail a few weeks back they made the grim discovery that once again their letters, cards, and bills had ended up in the hands of thieves.
Mail theft is a growing crime not only in Turlock, but in communities across the country. On average the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is tasked with investigating all crimes involving mail, arrests 10,000 suspected criminals on a variety of offenses with the largest being for mail theft and possession of stolen mail. Mail theft has become particularly prevalent in California, especially along the Highway 99 corridor from Bakersfield to Sacramento, which Rafael Nunez, the inspector in charge for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s San Francisco division described as a “hotbed of activity” and largely fuel by methamphetamine use.
Through 2016 and up to February the Turlock Police Department has had 224 reports of break-ins or damaged mailbox, said Turlock Police spokesman Sgt. Steve Rodrigues. Recently Feb. 14, the department took two women into custody on suspicion of stealing mail and are investigating if they are part of a larger theft ring.
Around 4:30 p.m. Feb. 14 the Turlock Police Department received a report from a witness stating two women had just been seen tampering with a mailbox in the 3100 block of E. Hawkeye Avenue. The witness was able to provide officers with a detailed description of the suspects and the vehicle they were using. Officers responded to the area and located the vehicle in the 100 block of Starr Avenue.
Officers made contact with the two women in the car — identified as Cynthia Gomez, 33, of Turlock and Jovan Deshay, 35, of Turlock — and subsequently arrested them on a variety of charges, Rodrigues said.
Gomez was arrested for attempted theft, conspiracy to commit a crime and violation of probation. Deshay was arrested for attempted theft and conspiracy to commit a crime.
"Turlock takes mail theft very seriously," said Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth. "We've created a solid strategy of deterrence and enforcement to combat these thefts. With this arrest, it demonstrates that this strategy is working and our great police officers will continue to apply pressure on those that steal from Turlock's residents."
To charge someone with mail theft they have to actually be caught breaking into the mailbox, or there needs to be compelling evidence that shows they were responsible for the theft. More often, people caught with mail not belonging to them are charged with possession of stolen property. Under Prop 47 if the value of the stolen mail is less than $950 it is considered a misdemeanor and the suspect is issued a citation.
Even when individuals are caught breaking into mailboxes or with stolen mail, the prosecution of such offenses has various hurdles to overcome. Mail theft is a felony crime in California, but under AB 109 it is an offense that requires convictions be served at county jails and not state prisons. Mail theft is also a federal crime, but federal prosecutors can’t go after each little theft because of a lack of resources.
The cluster mailboxes found in newer developments are often favorite targets of the thieves because they have a chance to steal a large volume of mail in one spot. They also become less secure after one or two break-ins. But the thieves will also target individual mailboxes in older neighborhoods and along rural road and collection boxes, even the ones right in front of post offices.
Outside of visible damage like pry marks it might not be obvious that a mail theft has occurred. Some of the thieves are using crudely made counterfeit keys that can open the community mailboxes and are taking only the mail they believe to have value and leaving behind other pieces. Residents might not notice the absence of important items and therefore not know they are a victim of mail theft.
The best way to curb mail theft is to make sure the mail is removed as promptly as possible after delivery and not to let it sit overnight in the mailbox, Rodrigues said.
Those who find themselves the victim of mail thefts are advised to report the theft to the local law enforcement agency and to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, even if the chance of catching the actual thief appears unlikely.
Anyone with information regarding this incident or other mailbox break-ins is encouraged to contact Detective Sergeant Victor Barcelos at 668-5550, extension 6705. You can also contact the Turlock Police Department’s Tip Line at 668-5550 extension 6780 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.