Eo Lawrence waited days for a pension check that never came. She had lots of company, because mail in her San Gabriel neighborhood has become a favorite target for thieves.
Postal vehicles in the city have been burglarized six times since October, three times in Lawrence's neighborhood alone.
At the same time, there have been 23 thefts from postal vehicles in the San Gabriel Valley. The break-ins have occurred in Alhambra, Azusa, Covina, El Monte, La Puente, Pomona, Pasadena, Rosemead, South Pasadena, Temple City and West Covina. But San Gabriel has been hit three times more often than the other areas, postal officials say.
Lawrence's neighborhood, an enclave of senior citizens near the San Bernardino Freeway, is the type of delivery area that investigators say the thieves target.
Steve Schneringer, a postal inspector, said crackdowns against mail theft in South Los Angeles and other areas may have sent thieves to the San Gabriel Valley.
"It's like ripples in a pond," he said.
There were 87 thefts in Los Angeles County between October and mid-May, down from 164 for the same period last year, Schneringer said. He said investigators believe that the ringleaders recruit illegal aliens from Mexico to carry out the thefts.
Fifty-eight people, all illegal aliens, have been arrested for stealing mail or for providing bogus identification in trying to cash checks, Schneringer said.
Mail theft is punishable by five years in jail and a $2,000 fine per piece of mail stolen. In many cases, Schneringer said, those who have been convicted have been deported.
Postal Service officials estimate that the thefts have netted thieves at least $2.5 million this year.
The amount of cash stolen in the San Gabriel Valley has not been determined, but officials are sure the number of thefts is rising. Most of the thefts are thought to be the result of organized crime rings that target letter carriers on specific days when pension, welfare and Social Security checks are mailed, Schneringer said.
While the carrier is on rounds, thieves break into postal vehicles and steal trays of first-class mail. In a few instances the mail, minus the checks, has been recovered in dumpsters.
"It's as easy as breaking a window," Schneringer said.
Two men believed to be connected with the rings that have stolen mail in Los Angeles and Orange counties were arrested last week in Costa Mesa. Luis Maldanado, 27, of Los Angeles and Florencio Padilla, 26, of Long Beach were arrested Wednesday in connection with the theft of 500 pieces of mail from a postal vehicle.
The arrests were made after a witness telephoned police, said Costa Mesa police Sgt. Sam Cordeiro.
Authorities say mail theft has become an escalating problem throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties in the past five years.
In hard-hit San Gabriel, Lawrence, 75, and her neighbors experienced their first mail theft in February. It happened again in May and June.
"It's been done so many times, you expect the mailman to be in on it," Lawrence said. "Something should be done, because this is ridiculous. "If I catch 'em, I'm going to break their legs."
Like some of her neighbors, Lawrence has started having her checks deposited directly into her bank.
Easy to Cash
Schneringer said the stolen checks are cashed with surprising ease.
The thieves, referred to as mules, most often give the stolen checks to their ringleader to have them cashed by retailers, who can easily be fooled by forged documents, Schneringer said. The businesses then become victims because the issuing agencies try to recover the money from them after tracking down the checks.
"The people who cash the checks, they're the ones who pay for it in the end," he said. "They've (the thieves) bankrupted three banks in Mexico."
Unhappy with the response from postal officials, who have asked residents to keep an eye on vehicles while the carriers are away, Lawrence and a few of her neighbors fault the officials for not stopping the thefts.
A Guard Urged
"I think they should have a guard," she said. "Somebody should ride shotgun."
Schneringer said having guards shadow each of the county's 8,500 letter carriers is "inconceivable."
In response to the problem, dead-bolt locks have been installed on all mail vehicles in the San Gabriel Valley, the last of the delivery areas to receive the beefed-up locks. But the thieves counter by breaking widows.
In South Los Angeles, for years the hardest hit part of the county, the Postal Service has equipped its vehicles with wooden strongboxes to frustrate thieves. Schneringer said money has been requested for similar equipment in the San Gabriel Valley fleet.
But the most effective method of cutting down the number of thefts, Schneringer said, is greater vigilance from the community and the stores that accept the checks.
"We need people to be on the lookout," he said. "Not to get involved (with stopping a break-in), but to get us IDs. That's the only way we can stop them."