Thieves are breaking into community mailboxes across Menifee, creating a challenge for police and residents.
Photo by Kristi Jo Aguirre

This story has been updated from the original version, which appears in the January edition of the Menifee 24/7 newspaper available, free at locations around town.

It has been more than a year since Katy Russell’s worst encounter with mail theft in Menifee, but the memory is fresh in her mind – especially because of incidents that are increasing in her neighborhood and throughout the city.

Russell peeked out a window of her home in the Menifee Lakes community one afternoon in December 2015 to see why her dog was barking. She saw a woman looking back at her, holding a UPS package she had just stolen from Russell’s front porch.

Russell gave chase, taking her barking dog with her. Down the street, the woman jumped into a car. As she tried to get at the woman before the car sped away, Russell fell, dislocating her shoulder and elbow. A police report was filed, but the stolen items were never recovered.

"I had just watched the same people take a bunch of stuff from across the street that was left out for Goodwill," Russell said. "I was home to get the delivery, but UPS didn’t ring the bell. I didn’t see her walk up because of a column on my porch.

"Unfortunately, my home has been the victim of mail theft multiple times. This year it’s just been from the mailbox, as far as we know."

This is an extreme example of what is going on in Menifee but only one of many cases being reported to the Sheriff’s Department, the Post Office and on social media.

Captain Brandon Ford, chief of the Menifee Police Department via the Perris Sheriff’s station, said final reporting of local thefts in 2016 has not been completed, so there is no accurate number on mail thefts in Menifee. But it’s no secret the problem is widespread throughout the state, and Menifee is no exception.

More than 60 residents responded in a 24-hour period to Menifee 24/7 via Facebook, relating stories of multiple thefts, mostly from community mailboxes that were broken into. It’s a problem of which local officials are well aware, but one that may be impossible to stop without public diligence to deter thieves.

Ford said that the small percentage of recovered stolen mail usually comes as a result of the arrest of suspects for other crimes. Catching them in the act of stealing mail – which often occurs in the middle of the night – is very difficult.

"Throughout 2016 and already this year, we have made arrests of people in possession of stolen mail," Ford said. "It is worth noting, people found in possession of stolen mail were generally discovered subsequent to an unrelated case, like a narcotics investigation, warrant service and/or a routine traffic stop.

"In addition to investigating mail theft and related crimes like identity theft, we have been proactively sharing target hardening principles with the community via public service announcements, promoting neighborhood watch principles, and crime prevention through environmental design."

The Sheriff's Department on Jan. 17 announced the recovery of more than 800 pieces of mail from 267 victims -- including some from Menifee -- following an arrest of two men in Mead Valley. Returning that mail takes time, Ford said, because it is considered evidence. And it's obvious to law enforcement and city officials that there's a whole lot more mail theft still taking place out there.

Menifee Mayor Neil Winter recently met with Shane Seitz, Menifee Postmaster, to discuss the issue. Winter said that, like many other residents, he had trouble reaching the Post Office by phone. Postal workers are working overtime, he said, now that many residents are required to pick up their mail at the Post Office because their mailboxes are broken.

After waiting in a line of about 20 residents waiting to pick up their mail one recent day, Winter shared the concerns of residents with Seitz.

"Things are so bad, they can’t keep up," Winter said. "Their storage area is filled with broken mailboxes. We agreed that mail theft is not just a seasonal crime anymore. This is becoming a source of income for people. So many people are ordering things online to be delivered, thieves are hoping to find items that have just been delivered in the mail for a snatch and grab."

Many residents have expressed frustration with the Post Office, either for a lack of response or a response telling residents that they or their Homeowners Association are responsible for replacing broken mailboxes. During a 2013 public forum when mail theft started to increase, Seitz said the Post Office would attempt to replace as many community mail boxes as possible. But budget cuts in the interim and the dramatic rise in break-ins have made it virtually impossible to do that, Winter said.

"I told Shane they need to eliminate the outbound mail slot in the boxes," Winter said, referring to new mailboxes that would either be installed by the Post Office or purchased by residents pooling their money.

Winter also suggested the purchase of mailboxes that are encased in reinforced steel. He admitted, however, that thieves can find a way in to virtually any kind of locked box – not to mention mailboxes along rural roads that are not locked.

Susan Lane lives on Barnes Lane and her mailbox is located on Murrieta Road. She said mailboxes located some distance from homes and not within plain view of homes are especially vulnerable.

"I called the Post Office and they said there’s nothing they can do," Lane said. "It was around Christmas when they broke into all of our mailboxes in the area and unfortunately my sister mailed my son a $25 gift card to Gamestop and it was stolen.

"The same thing happened last year. We have a locked box we purchased at Lowe’s and they still broke into it with a screwdriver. We rigged it so they couldn’t bust it open. Then this year it looks as if they took a crowbar and bent up the slot where the mail goes so they could reach in and grab the mail with their hand."

Some residents with their own mailbox have purchased a box with higher security features, an alarm, or have placed security cameras in the area.

"We’ve had mail theft at least six times this past year, and three of those we know of were in December," said Chris Logan, who does not have a locking mailbox. “We have an alarm in ours so if we’re home, we’re alerted any time someone opens the box.

"We reported it to police. The last time it was 2 a.m. and I called the non-emergency line. A squad car drove down the street about 10 minutes later, but the guy was long gone."

It has been frequently reported that Menifee’s police force is well short of the county guidelines. Menifee has about 15 officers on duty per day, split into three shifts. Using that police force to patrol areas and deter mail theft is an enormous challenge.

Voters passed Measure DD as a sales tax increase in November to fund public services, but it is unclear how much of that tax revenue will be used to hire more Sheriff’s deputies for the city.

"The limited resource we have to devote to missing mail is in direct competition with the limited resource available for higher priority crimes,” Ford said. “Often, the most serious state crime known at the scene is the vandalism to the mailbox itself. Another problem is the ease and speed with which the crime can occur. Any mailbox anywhere in the city has the potential for being targeted."

Identity theft is a problem that goes right along with mail theft.

"I got my mailbox broken into and it’s not the first time,” said Citlali Angeles. “I actually had to put my credit on fraud alert because they were charging my credit cards."

Sometimes residents don’t even realize some of their mail has been stolen until much later. A resident who asked to remain anonymous lives near Bridgeport Lane in an area of West Menifee near Ridgemoor Elementary School had her mailbox broken into.

"We got a notice in the mail of suspicious activity being used on one of our credit cards," she said. "That’s when we realized that someone had gotten hold of our credit and purchased a couple things at Toys R US and at Popeyes.

"We went down to the Post Office to put our mail on hold until the boxes get fixed. It’s been a couple of weeks now and the boxes remain the same. When I told the lady about the mail box, she said they were not going to fix it. I went to the Post Office off McCall and Bradley. I filled out a temporary hold on my mail, which is only good for one month. She told me I’d have to pick up my mail at the other Post Office on Hahn Road."

Placing mail on hold or having to pick it up at the Post Office is of course a major inconvenience but is unavoidable in many cases while residents try to determine whether they can afford a replacement box, get funding from their HOA or somehow get a replacement from the Post Office.

"Our HOA said that it’s our personal mailbox and it’s our responsibility," said Michelle Deatherage, who lives in the Mariposa community north of Newport Road and west of Menifee Road, where several mail thefts have occurred. "We are not allowed to put one in our front yard, so our only option is to collect money from other residents and buy or fix it, or continue to pick up our mail at the small Post Office, where it takes 15-20 minutes to get our mail. This is unfair.

"The cops have done nothing and have said they have to catch them in the act. I feel violated someone has taken all our personal belongings and has stolen our opportunity to have the luxury of getting our mail. The cost is about $100 per resident, which is hard for some, including myself, with no guarantee it won’t happen again."

Lisa LaRusso, who also lives in the Mariposa community, understands Post Office staff is overwhelmed with additional work load and is having trouble remaining patient.

"The Post Office isn’t able to keep with the amount of mail they have to sort, so our mail is being delayed 2-5 days on top of the inconvenience of having to even go there," she said. "They claim they are hiring more staff."

Christina Giugliano expressed similar concerns.

"Ours was broken into before Christmas," she said. "Going to the Post Office to pick mail up is a major inconvenience. I finally made it, during Post Office business hours, after a week and the Post Office has no mail for us. A week of no mail? Something is not right. We have no information on when or if the box will be fixed."

Some residents have suggested the Post Office go back to delivering everyone’s mail at a box directly in front of their house or through a mail slot in their door. That is not likely to happen, Winter said.

"There is no way the USPS can afford the time and cost to go back to door to door," Winter said after meeting with Seitz. "I know a lot of the old-school homes in Sun City still have the mail slots in the doors. But on Potomac they have community boxes that are the new style, and every one except one was ripped open recently."

Winter said he is trying to arrange a meeting with Seitz and Ford to discuss how the organizations can work together. Meanwhile, both Winter and Ford say residents can help the situation by banding together through Neighborhood Watch groups and following guidelines that was recently distributed in a public service announcement.

That PSA, which is available in its entirely here on menifee247.com, includes the following tips, among others:

- Don’t leave mail in your mailbox overnight. Pick it up promptly after delivery.

- If you’re expecting checks, credits cards or other negotiable items and can’t get to the mailbox right away, ask a friend or neighbor you trust to retrieve your mail.

- Work with delivery companies to schedule deliveries when you are home.

- If you don’t receive a check or other valuable mail you’re expecting, contact the issuing agency immediately.

- Start a Neighborhood Watch program with your police department’s assistance.

Anyone requesting information about Neighborhood Watch should contact the Sheriff’s Department at 951-210-1000.

"Our citizens are our most important partners in the fight against mail theft,” according to the PSA being distributed by the Sheriff’s Department. “Between credit card solicitation, holiday gift mailing and the tax filing season, the opportunities are ripe for criminals. With that in mind, your police department would like to remind everyone of ways to reduce identity theft and prevent mail theft."

Winter also emphasized the importance of diligence by residents in increased presence and surveillance to deter criminals – many of whom may benefit from Prop. 47, which reduced theft of less than $950 to a misdemeanor in many cases.

"The citizens have to mobilize," he said. "This may be an indication of the state bill. People are risking getting a misdemeanor, which makes it easier for them to do more crime. It’s like they’re watching their budget to stay under $950."

Russell, the woman who was injured chasing a criminal a year ago, said she and her neighbors have become more proactive in guarding against mail theft.

"Our neighborhood, Menifee Lakes, has come together to look out for each other and have neighbors pick up mail and packages when we aren’t home," she said. "I live in between the two entrances with a cross street right in front of our house, so we see a lot of action."

David Mejia has also become more vigilant in his neighborhood.

"I found this suspicious SUV roaming around my neighborhood," he said. "I got in my car in attempt to get pictures of the license plates, but the SUV sped off because the driver was aware of me following them."

"Even with a serious crime, it takes 5-7 minutes for the police to respond," Winter said. "By then, these folks are gone. Neighbors are starting to get to know each and work together because of this."

Ford urged residents to help police defend the community against mail theft.

"Everyone needs to work together to make us as small a target as possible," he said. "As part of a Neighborhood Watch, residents can have a designated person pick up the mail for everyone from community boxes. Every community has that trusted person."

Otherwise, residents can consider an alternative, such as a paid postal box at the Post Office or businesses that offer such services.

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