Last Tuesday, a man allegedly walked up to a mailbox in Lindenwood carrying a bottle that was tied to a shoestring and covered in a sticky substance. As inspectors from the U.S. Postal Service watched, he dropped the bottle inside the box, police said, still holding the string and then pulled it back out with mail stuck to the outside.
Authorities said the suspect, Pablo Fernandez, was doing what has become known as mailbox fishing. People often use a contraption covered in rat trap glue — whether it’s a bottle, a carton of juice, or a bundle of CD’s — to snag the mail and take whatever valuables might be inside.
Fernandez, who police said was caught fishing in a mailbox on the corner of 84th Street and 155th Avenue, allegedly admitted to a second incident at 83rd Street and 153rd Avenue. He was charged with petit larceny and possession of burglar’s tools, among other things.
While he was being questioned, authorities said Fernandez told them there were hundreds of people doing the same sort of thing, not just in the Howard Beach area, but around the five boroughs.
“I think as we’re wading into this we’re finding out a bit more,” Capt. James Fey, commanding officer of the 106th Precinct, said at last Wednesday’s meeting of the 106th Precinct Community Council.
In some instances, authorities have caught thieves altering checks that were fished from the mailboxes, forging new amounts and signatures onto them.
Postal Inspector Rich Gutierrez said the phenomenon is relatively new to the New York City area, having spread from the West Coast, where brazen thieves have in some instances resorted to stealing entire mail trucks to get their hands on the contents.
“A lot of people like the convenience of collection boxes on the street corner,” Gutierrez told residents at the council meeting. “And we have a situation where there is a lot of mail sitting in boxes overnight. Unfortunately, the bad guys have figured that out. They’ve figured it out to an alarming rate.”
Perhaps supporting Fernandez’s claims, postal inspectors have noticed a rash of mail thefts throughout New York City, as well as Suffolk and Nassau counties in Long Island.
Hoping to stem this wave, Gutierrez said the Postal Service is implementing certain changes in its procedures, including shoring up the security of the boxes.
Post offices are also trying to collect the mail more often, including on Sundays, which has become a favorite day of thieves because mail has built up over the weekend.
But like authorities have seen on the West Coast, the criminals aren’t limiting themselves just to mailbox fishing expeditions.
Gutierrez said the Postal Service has seen mail being stolen from its trucks, as well as from carts that mail carriers push around.
“They see parcels and take the parcels,” the postal inspector said.
He said investigators have additional leads on some of the recent thefts but asked residents to remain vigilant and report to police anything that might seem suspicious.
Responding to questions from residents about the possibility of making penalties stricter for someone caught stealing mail, Fey said it’s possible that laws will be changed or courts will begin to react more harshly if these issues continue to progress.
“The easy part is to get them in, to be honest,” Gutierrez added. “The tough part is getting people to negotiate.”
In other news, Fey reported crime in the precinct was down over the past month in almost every category, compared to the same time last year.
The lone exception was homicide, as there was one recent murder on 131st Street.
Police say the killing did not appear to be a random act of violence.
No arrests have been made, but police are pursuing various leads, Fey said.
Fey also announced that Capt. John Ganley, the former executive officer of the 106th Precinct, has been transferred to the 103rd Precinct to handle the executive officer role there. That is the same precinct that Fey worked in before he took over the 106th in March.
“Our loss is their big gain,” Fey said.
Ganley’s departure comes just over a month after Deputy Inspector Jeffrey Schiff, the former commanding officer of the South Queens command, was transferred to take over the 105th Precinct in Queens Village. Ganley arrived at the 106th in late 2013 shortly after Schiff did.
In other news, Howard Beach resident Barbara McNamara was voted the council’s new recording secretary after Frances Scarantino resigned from the post last month.