A wide-ranging investigation into mail thefts spanning several counties and involving thousands of victims has resulted in federal indictments against 21 defendants including five for thefts that took place in the Bakersfield area.
In addition, five others have been arrested for Kern County-related mail thefts and are awaiting prosecution, authorities said Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian K. Delaney said there's been a widespread problem regarding mail theft, and "Operation Mailbox" was begun after authorities received numerous complaints regarding mail stolen by a variety of methods.
Speaking at a press conference held at the U.S. Post Office on Pegasus Drive, Delaney said the methods used include "fishing" for mail from collection boxes, prying open boxes in post office lobbies, breaking into postal delivery trucks and counterfeiting postal keys.
Postal Inspector Jeff Fitch said the indictments are the result of targeted enforcement -- including sending more resources to trouble spots -- and "old-fashioned police work." Kern County sheriff's deputies and Bakersfield police participated in the operation.
The five defendants indicted in the Bakersfield area thefts used several techniques. They "fished" for mail with devices they made from shoestrings, pennies and sticky rat traps, according to the indictment.
The rat trap is attached to the shoe string, and the thief then inserts the device trap-first into a collection box. They then pull the device back up and see what's contained in the envelopes sticking to it.
Mayra Alejandra Soria, 29, and Mateo Manuel Santiago, 24, both of Bakersfield, and Los Angeles residents Eric Alberto Herrera, 26, Brisa Celeste Castillo, 32, and Elisee Torres-Pacheco, whose age wasn't given, were charged in the Bakersfield-area thefts. They used the "fishing" devices on post office collection boxes inside the Wasco Post Office and elsewhere.
Some of the defendants served as lookouts while others stole the mail, the indictment says.
They also used a post office mail key to which they weren't entitled, according to the indictment. They obtained third-party and financial information from the stolen mail, including account numbers, checks and money orders.
The indictment says the defendants also used chemicals to "wash" checks and money orders. They then rewrote them and fraudulently cashed them or deposited them into bank accounts held by co-conspirators.
If convicted, Soria and Santiago face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and Herrera, Torres-Pacheco and Castillo face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Arrests were also made in Fresno and Sacramento. To date, the operation has resulted in the identification of 2,115 victims.