Residents of tony West University Place aren't used to being victims of crime sprees. That's something that happens in Houston.
West U cops ordinarily clock speedsters driving over the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit on the inaptly named Buffalo Speedway, work household thefts or handle the occasional stickup of an unsuspecting resident.
But after more than a year of investigation and dozens of reports of check theft and forgeries, West University Place cops believe West U residents are being victimized by U.S. Postal Service employees working a check theft and sale scam that has racked up thousands of dollars in losses.
Postal service officials acknowledge a major investigation is under way, but they appear hard-pressed to say if they are making any progress in the case. "The station covering this area has 100 employees," says U.S. Postal Inspector Richard LaBoda. "We are trying to find out where the mail goes missing." But, he says, tracking is difficult, even with "more than one" inspector on the case.
"We have a postal employee that is stealing these checks and selling them in gay bars in the Montrose area," says Detective Lt. Eddie Harrold. In one case cited in the City of West University monthly bulletin, a resident was notified by a local post office that he could come to the station to pick up his checks. He did so, four days later. That same day, his bank notified him it had received five checks from the new series. The West U resident determined one book of checks was missing from the order.
A bank president is among the victims whose checks were stolen and then forged. The individuals who have bought and used the stolen checks appear to be highly selective and very effective. They have cleaned out bank accounts, buying high-dollar computer equipment, electronics, expensive jewelry, fancy furnishings and, in at least one instance, colostomy bags, say West U law-enforcement officials.
"I think it is mostly in (zip code) 77005 they are targeting," says Harrold. "These guys can wreak havoc on your credit, and it is up to the individual to straighten it out." Law-enforcement officers in Southside Place and nearby Bellaire say they have not experienced a similar surge in check thefts or forgeries.
What gives the crimes a twist, outside the high number of cases, is that at least 70 percent of the victims have mail slots through the door, not mailboxes. In most of the nearly 50 cases reported, residents never received checks ordered from their banks, one of the reasons that Harrold and his partner, Detective Ken Macha, suspect an inside job at the postal service.
Efforts by the Press to reach any check-theft victims who were willing to talk about their experiences were unsuccessful. Police say individuals arrested for passing the checks have said the going price ranges from $500 per box to $250 for a set of 25 checks, but the bad guys have not identified their sources. "They take the checks, fresh stolen checks, go get a driver's license with the person's name on it and put their photo on it. Then they have carte blanche," Harrold says. If the thieves move quickly enough, when a clerk runs the forged check through a check-verification service, it hasn't been reported stolen yet.
Macha and Harrold have arrested and charged three individuals with forgeries since May 1997. One of them served time, was released and was recently arrested a second time on similar charges. Part of the problem, says Harrold, is that a first offense for forgery is a state jail felony with automatic probation. A second offense is a third-degree felony.
One of the more colorful of Harrold's targets was James Briggs, a drag queen also known as Kitty, who was arrested in May 1997 and convicted of forgery. Harrold fingered Briggs because of his habit of allegedly using forged checks while shopping for colostomy bags at Houston medical-supply houses.
After Harrold alerted medical-supply companies, a cooperative owner wrote down Briggs's car tag numbers and notified the detective. Once Harrold located Briggs and put him under surveillance, it took three days just to determine his real name. Briggs had a penchant for "$300-a-night hotels," Harrold says.
"We have spent many, many hours of overtime on this," he says, including setting up surveillance and traveling out of state. Many of the checks, some of them for as much as $6,000 each, have been passed in Louisiana.
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Forgery cases are notoriously hard to work because it is difficult to link a suspect to a crime. But Harrold and Macha have pursued the cases so vigorously the Department of Public Safety crime lab has asked them to back off.
For a while, Harrold was doing his own fingerprint work, raising prints off stolen checks in hopes of matching them with a suspect. Then he would ship bundles of samples off to Austin to try to get an identification. Recently, he got a letter back from the lab asking him to just send in the samples and forget trying to raise the prints. He says lab workers felt pressured to work his case when the prints were already there.
Yet the officers concede that arresting and convicting individuals accused of forging the checks is a stopgap measure. "Until we can find a source, we will continue to have a problem," says Harrold. But jurisdictionally, West University's hands are tied. Mail theft is a federal crime. "We cannot put up surveillance inside the post office," he says.
The question is, how much effort has the U.S. Postal Service put into the case? With 10,000 to 15,000 pieces of mail reported missing or stolen every year, 48 pieces "is not a great amount," says LaBoda. But, he acknowledges that "when it gets to be boxes of checks, that's important." The victims, awash in charges for items they never bought and looking at severe dents to their credit ratings, would tend to agree.