BY SUSIE CURRIE — A criminal probe into missing mail in Hyattsville has uncovered a stash of letters, bills and packages hidden on one mail carrier’s route. The undelivered mail was concealed in a parcel locker in the new Arts District Hyattsville development on the west side of Baltimore Avenue, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
In a two-paragraph letter dated August 27, hundreds of households learned that “mail was recovered by the [U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General] on August 16 & 17, 2012, sealed and contents intact. This mail is being delivered to you without further delay.”
Little else has been made public, as the investigation is ongoing. But OIG Special Agent Lisa Aiken did confirm that it centers on one employee “who is no longer on the route” – or, it would seem, on the payroll, although Aiken declined to elaborate on that or any other aspect of the case. So did Hyattsville Postmaster Prince Jones, Jr., who signed the letter.
Sources say that the unidentified female letter carrier had been with the USPS since at least 2008, working for most of that time as a floater who rotated among different routes on the regular carriers’ days off.
This spring, she took over a route from a longtime carrier who transferred. Soon afterwards, residents began to complain of missing mail – including packages with tracking numbers that showed they had been delivered.
“So many customers called in, the supervisors knew something wasn’t right,” said one employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. The matter was referred to the OIG, which investigates fraud, waste and misconduct in the USPS.
A month-long surveillance revealed that she was depositing part of her workload into a cluster box on the route. These boxes, which allow for centralized delivery to several addresses, are common in newer developments and include parcel lockers for larger items.
It was in one of these lockers, at Arts District Hyattsville, that the missing mail was found. Aiken said that most, if not all, of the recovered mail has been delivered.
Although residents worried that theft was involved, some USPS employees suspect that longer hours and short staffing were contributing factors.
“On paper, we have the people,” explained one longtime mailman in Hyattsville. “But maybe they’re injured, so they’re on light duty.” Then the other carriers have to split the route, which can add hours onto their day. There are about 600 stops on a typical route, said USPS spokesperson Andrea Burrows.
When routes are “empty,” as at least two local ones are, there’s no full-time carrier assigned, and overtime becomes the norm. Faced with hundreds more addresses to visit – and yet another day of soaring heat and humidity – and it’s possible the reason went beyond greed.
“Plus, there’s pressure to be back at a certain time,” said the mailman. “I think she just couldn’t handle it.”
Inspectors are expected to investigate reports that some mail intended for local residents also ended up in a dumpster in Southeast Washington, which would have been on the carrier’s way home.
For one woman, an area college professor who requested anonymity, the letter was the latest installment of a summer-long mail saga.
“We had our mail held for two weeks in July and when we returned, it wasn’t delivered,” she said. “Regular service simply resumed – two days after we had asked it to.”
Her first stop in tracking down the missing mail was the Gallatin Street post office. It wasn’t there, but the window clerk gave her two numbers to call at the USPS facility at 6511 Baltimore Avenue, where Hyattsville mail is sorted and processed.
Calls there weren’t returned, so next she tried the main customer-service line.
“According to the computer, it should be at the Baltimore Avenue address,” said the representative. He put in a request to locate the mail, and it arrived the following Monday, a week after the requested date.
“We also have an ongoing problem in which our mail is never picked up. Ever. Anytime I want to mail something, I have to take it to a mailbox,” she said.
Elsewhere in the city, Jeanne Canavan had a similar problem as she bumped up against the deadline for registering her daughter for kindergarten. “I put the school forms in the mailbox with the flag up,” she said. “And that night, they were still there – along with our delivered mail.
“So I put them out the next day – again with the flag up – and the mail didn’t come at all that day.”
When she went to Gallatin Street to file a complaint, she recalls, the man in front of her in line was there for the same reason.
Longtime resident Lisa Walker didn’t get a letter – or, apparently, a recent water bill.
“I got a notice that my water was going to be shut off because I didn’t pay my bill. So did my neighbors,” she said. “I called WSSC and paid by credit card, and all was fine. Still, it’s hard to know what was missed.”