The sleuths behind the stamps


Inspectors: Most people know little about the clandestine U.S. Postal Inspection Service, but the agency is trying to become more visible.

June 27, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

SANDPOINT, Idaho - Living in the backwoods of Idaho, alongside the moose and grizzly bears, gives one time to pause, reflect, write a book, maybe two, perhaps even educate the public about a business it knows little about but depends on every day.

Howard Petschel is on his second book, making it his crusade to tell the story of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. It's his former employer and the clandestine agency responsible for ensuring that the nation's mail service is never abused and runs like the well-oiled machine citizens expect.

Petschel's first book, "Spurious Stamps," published by the American Philatelic Society, an international organization for stamp collectors, offers an alternative image to the friendly faces behind the counter or cheerful letter carriers on the street.

The nation's 2,000 postal inspectors are federal law enforcement agents who carry guns, have arrest powers comparable to those of the FBI and cherish their tough-on-crime persona.

Cracking mail fraud cases and breaking stamp counterfeit rings might seem less glamorous than waging shootouts with drug kingpins or hunting terrorists.

High-profile cases

But postal inspectors, often behind the scenes, have been involved in such high-profile cases as the 17-year effort to nab Theodore Kaczynski, the "Unabomber."

Any alleged crime that remotely involves the mail is within their jurisdiction, inspectors point out.

In the 1980s, the inspection service cracked several insider-trading schemes on Wall Street. Deals were made mostly over the wire, but confirmations were sent in envelopes.

Petschel's book documents cases in which inspectors worked undercover to nail schemers and crooks. He recounts crimes dating from the 1895 counterfeiting of 2-cent George Washington stamps to the villains of the Mafia.

"I look at this as judicial history of the United States," says Petschel, who began his postal career carrying mail in St. Paul, Minn. "These are stories basically nobody knows about. I apologize if we don't have the sex and gore."

The agency's history begins in the 18th century. Some say it was born as early as the 1730s. Another possibility is 1772, when Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin, unable to regulate postal functions throughout the colonies on his own, created the position of "surveyor" to do the job. Congress empowered the agency in its current form with an act passed in 1880.

In its early years, postal inspectors were chasing bandits trying to steal pieces of mail from horses, stagecoaches, trains and steamboats. Today, the agency often nabs people conducting schemes over the Internet.

Inspectors are responsible for investigating about 200 types of federal crimes, including assaulting letter carriers, sending bombs in the mail, distributing child pornography, counterfeiting stamps and transporting narcotics.

Identity fraud, which falls under the service's purview, has become prevalent of late. That's when thieves steal bank statements or pre-approved credit card applications from mailboxes and "become" the victims, ordering their credit cards and spending their money.

Dan Mihalko, an inspector for 21 years and now the agency's director of congressional and public affairs, says the service was involved in the pursuit of the "Unabomber" starting in 1978.

When Theodore J. Kaczynski was arrested in Montana, it was a postal inspector who wrapped the cuffs around his wrists. Other enforcement agencies got more public pats on the back.

"We've just been satisfied to go about and do our work for 250 years," Mihalko says. "Any time the FBI is involved, they get the publicity."

The agency, long nicknamed the "Silent Service," has been making an effort recently to become more visible, he says. It even consulted with Showtime, the cable network, to make two television movies about it.

"The Inspectors" was released in 1998, and the sequel, "Inspectors 2: A Shred of Evidence," came out in March.

"If you think of how postal employees have been portrayed, it's Cliff Clavin from `Cheers' or Newman from `Seinfeld'" Mihalko says. "That's not what we wanted."

Postal inspectors undergo 16 weeks of training at agency headquarters in Maryland, including courses in firearms use, criminal laws, rules of evidence and physical fitness. Each is issued a 9 mm automatic pistol, and some are trained to use machine guns for cases warranting them.

Thousands of arrests

The agency employs 900 forensic specialists and analysts, maintains crime labs across the country and makes about 10,000 arrests a year. Its conviction rate on cases that go to trial is 98 percent.

The service is also responsible for protecting the 800,000 postal employees in 40,000 U.S. Postal Service facilities nationwide, and securing its $63 billion in annual revenue.

Petschel joined the inspection service in 1970 and was quickly dispatched to Dennison, Texas, running a one-man bureau responsible for five counties. In 1973, he began a 10-year stint in Chicago.

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