Early morning on Nov. 1, Manhattan Beach patrol officers kept their eyes on a particular car maneuvering slowly and suspiciously throughout neighborhoods around 8th Street and John Street near downtown Manhattan Beach.
Noticing both equipment and moving violations, officers shortly stopped the car just a few blocks away and conducted a search with the driver’s consent.
What initially looked like a run-of-the-mill car stop quickly became more complicated when officers found — along with methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia — 11 pieces of outgoing mail scattered inside the car, all belonging to Manhattan Beach residents and none of the three out-of-town suspects.
“Mail theft and identity theft have been around since I started at the department 20 years ago,” Manhattan Beach detective Jeanette Meers said.
The stolen mail belonged to a total of five people, who were sending out checks to pay their bills, Meers said.
During the search, police found evidence to suggest exactly how the three men had stolen the mail from outgoing mailboxes: four rectangular metal plates with a long string attached, wrapped in duct tape and covered in an unidentifiable, sticky substance. Meers said she believes the suspects slid the thin metal plate through the mail slot and pulled it back out to retrieve the mail stuck on the gel.
“I do recall seeing some regular mail that was stuck,” she said. “Obviously the patrol officers stopped them before they were done.”
At 5:02 a.m. that morning, officers arrested the three suspects — Fidel Gomez, Jr., 37, of Torrance; Gregory Robert Davis, 42, of Gardena; and Raul Rodriguez, Jr., 55, of Gardena — for grand theft, possession of a controlled substance and paraphernalia, and driving with a suspended license.
As indicative as the evidence was, the court ultimately found it insufficient to file charges for the mail theft, Meers said, because the patrol officers didn’t catch them in the act and there was no way of knowing which of them was responsible for it.
“It would’ve been a different story if the stolen mail were in a certain person’s backpack,” Meers said. “But because all of it was in and around the car, we don’t know. For possession, it’s got to be clear who has it. What I don’t want is to disparage anybody in the justice process. If they don’t confess and you don’t have any other means to prove they did it, then you’ve got nothing.”
But that’s not to say it was all in vain, Meers explained, because police immediately notified all the victims about their stolen mail and advised them to void their sent checks.
“Because the patrol officers got the suspects, all those people are now not going to be victims of fraud from their checking accounts,” she said.
Stealing mail is a common method of identity theft, as it often contains vital personal information—such as social security numbers, dates of birth, bank account information or credit card numbers—as well as prepaid debit cards and, as in this case, freshly written checks.
“The [mode of operation] is this: Someone goes out and steals mail, and they take it to someone who knows how to counterfeit checks, open fraudulent accounts or make counterfeit credit cards,” Meers explained. “So the goal is always to find the person the suspects were potentially going to take these to.”
Back in May, Manhattan Beach detectives busted 44-year-old Shawn Berry, the Hawthorne man behind a vast identity theft operation in Los Angeles and the South Bay after finding notebooks full of victims’ names, social security numbers, dates of birth as well as U.S. Treasury checks and stolen mail during the third raid of his residence.
Police suspected that people would bring stolen information to Berry’s residence, after which he would fraudulently file victims’ taxes online and open prepaid debit cards in the victim’s name. Police confirmed 30 victims but believed there were hundreds more.
Cases of identity theft often take several months to a year to crack because such operations, intricately and cleverly constructed, usually involve a number of conspirators. As such, the investigation on the Nov. 1 case will be ongoing, she said.
To avoid becoming a victim of mail theft, Meers advised that mail should be sent out inside the post office or directly handed to the letter carrier.
“And get a shredder,” she added.