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Solve Crimes Through The Mail

by Kellie Pelletier

Volume 8, Issue 1
January–March 1999

The vital duties of the United States Postal Inspection Service is the focus of "Solve Crimes Through the Mail," an exhibit which opened October 16 at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. The exhibit is located in the museum's atrium and continues through April 2000. 

"Since 1776, when Benjamin Franklin appointed the first postal surveyor, the men and women of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service have been safeguarding the mail and combating postal crimes," says James Bruns, director of the National Postal Museum. 

The exhibit uses historic documents and objects, including confiscated booty, counterfeit lithographs, crime scene photographs and bomb fragments, to highlight the service's vital role in protecting the American public. 

"Solve Crimes Through the Mail" invites visitors to explore crime-solving methods used in recent cases from the files of the Postal Inspection Service. Visitors also will learn about the different types of crime the service investigates including fraud, crimes committed through the mail and crimes against the mail. 


Consumers lose millions of dollars each year through false advertising, fraudulent mail orders, bogus telemarketing schemes, and phony sweepstakes and lotteries. It is the responsibility of the inspectors to monitor and investigate mail fraud in order to protect the public. The exhibit highlights three types of fraud cases, and displays objects and evidence from each case. 

Counterfeit Salvador Dali and Joan Mir— lithographs, found by a team of postal inspectors in a New York warehouse, were among the objects recovered in a 1991 art fraud investigation. Thousands of these fake lithographs, acquatints and engravings were sold through the mail between 1985 and 1991. 

A Virginian was arrested in 1981 for using the mail to advertise and sell fraudulent medical diplomas and degrees from a university in the Dominican Republic. A fake medical diploma and transcript obtained through the mail are on display. 

Advertisements for "10 Hour Chocolate Wafer Diet"; and & "Slimming Insoles" are two examples of how criminals use the multibillion dollar direct mail industry to swindle people. The Postal Inspection Service obtained a Mail Stop Order in this case to put the operators out of business. They saved mail customers thousands of dollars. 

Crimes through the mail

The public relies upon the Postal Service for safe, quick and reliable delivery of materials ranging from bill payments to birthday cards to merchandise. Advances in technology provide criminals with greater opportunity to commit mail crimes and make the work of the Inspection Service more crucial. It is the job of the postal inspectors to stop the shipment of illicit drugs and to discover deadly mail bombs before they reach their victims. Inspectors use high-tech equipment and work with forensic scientists to solve crimes committed through the mail. 

The Parchman Prison Lonely Hearts Scam was halted by postal inspectors in 1992. Prisoners in Mississippi's Parchman Prison used the mail to swindle thousands of dollars from lonely "pen pals" through a phony money order scheme. Objects on view include correspondence between a prisoner and his pen pal, money orders and forged prison documents. 

Mail bombs—although extremely rare—are the most violent and deadly crimes committed through the mail. "Solve Crimes Through the Mail" presents objects and evidence to detail two mail bomb cases. Objects include tools used to construct mail bombs, debris specimens from detonated bombs and photographs of crime scenes. This case also highlights the key investigative role of forensic science in catching criminals.

Criminals often use the mail for drug trafficking. In 1997, postal inspectors seized 16,500 pounds of marijuana, 268 pounds of cocaine, 68 pounds of heroin, and 41 pounds of PCP and LSD from the U.S. mail. The exhibit features a false-bottom deodorant can and a hollowed book, both used to mail illegal drugs. 

Protecting the mail

Protection of the more than 600 million pieces of mail delivered each day and ensuring the safety of the more than 800,000 Postal Service employees are two top priorities of the service. The inspectors investigate robberies of post offices and postal vehicles, and violent crimes against letter carriers. 

On Oct. 11, 1923, the three DeAutremont brothers attempted to steal gold and registered mail from Southern Pacific train No.13 as it traveled through Oregon. The exhibit includes the detonator recovered by inspectors, as well as photographs from the crime scene and a wanted poster for the gang. 

A burned safe, a stolen imprinting machine and forged money orders are among the few remains from the 1997 Loretta, Va., post office attack. The inspectors on the case arrived on the scene to find the one-room building and most of the evidence burned. After examining the charred remains of the office safe, the inspectors were able to prove the fire was an attempt to cover up a major burglary. The inspectors broke the case, and 10 criminals were prosecuted and sent to jail for burglary and forgery of U.S. postal money orders. 

In 1980, the Postal Inspection Service received reports that bags of registered mail were disappearing from airplanes during flight. The inspectors solved this case with the help of one of the perpetrators, who fell out of the large trunk he had used to "mail" himself. During the flight, the stowaway would pop out of his trunk, stored in the cargo hold with the other mail bags, and steal registered mail. He would place the stolen booty that included gold bullion, jewelry, rare coins, narcotics and classified military documents, in smaller empty trunks mailed by his accomplices. The "Jack-in-the-Box" stowaway and his two helpers were found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison.