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Charlotte man who hoarded stolen letters will now get his own mail in federal prison

For years, Erik Magana fed off the U.S. Postal Service in Charlotte. And like a vampire, he only worked at nights.

In April, he pleaded guilty to two offenses: aggravated identity theft and possession of stolen mail. But rarely has the U.S. criminal code proved so inadequate in capturing the actual nature of a crime.

According to court documents, the 34-year-old Charlotte man wandered the city after midnight to follow and steal the mail. His predawn break-ins to residential mailboxes date back to at least 2016, authorities say. His victims numbered in the thousands. Magana usually targeted the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, along with such toney bedroom communities as Davidson and Fort Mill, documents show.

His was the arm darting out of the driver’s side window of a dark-blue Mercedes. The next day, residents would find that the checks, credit cards, passports and other parcels that they had left in their mail boxes overnight had disappeared.

Some of the losses were particularly painful. When federal postal inspectors raided Magana’s east-side apartment in December 2018, they found a pair of purloined “Hamilton” tickets that had been mailed to the rightful buyer but intercepted along the way.

Among the contraband seized during a search of Magana’s car: a $233,000 refund check from the IRS.

The U.S. Attorneys Office in Charlotte place Magana’s earnings from his postal thievery at just under $550,000, mostly from forged checks and stolen credit cards. But prosecutors say that figure is at best a guess and only a fraction of his real damage.

Whatever mail Magana stole and didn’t need he dumped in neighborhood cul-du-sacs, court documents show.

Most of his take returned with him to east Charlotte. When mail inspectors finally nailed down Magana’s identity and planted a GPS device on his sedan, it led them to a modest dwelling off Eastway Drive. There, they say found an apartment buried, sometimes ankle deep, in a landslide of stolen and hoarded mail, streaming from kitchen to bathroom and beyond.

Much of it, according to the careful phrasing found in Magana’s court file, was “contaminated.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Caryn Finley explains:

“The government was challenged in ascertaining the names of all of the victims and the full scope of stolen checks because the defendant’s apartment was unsanitary,” she wrote in Magana’s sentencing memorandum.

Translation: The overwhelming majority of the stolen stuff had been “soiled by bugs, maggots or dog feces,” with the names and addresses of the rightful owners no longer discernible.

Nevertheless, authorities say they cataloged more than 1,300 victims. But prosecutors could not calculate what Finley described as “the far-reaching impact on thousands of victims who never received their mail.”

That includes the cost in lost time, money and mental health to repay the gas bill or to replace passports, checks and credit cards — not to mention, the Hamilton tickets.

Stolen mail is at the center of an almost retro crime wave now criss-crossing the country. For years identity thieves and financial predators found their victims online, using stolen personal information or credit card numbers to reap billions in illicit profits annually.

But with banks and consumers adding better safeguards criminals today are spending far more time going through some of the 190 million pieces of first-class mail the post office delivers every day — your mail. One increasingly popular urban method: mail fishing, in which a sticky tube is jammed down stand-alone mailboxes to snare as many as 20 letter at a time.

As is often the case with criminals, Magana’s assault on the postal service was undermined, in part, by his own sloppiness. Postal investigators first got wind of his identity when one of Magana’s cul-de-sac mail dumps included a receipt with his name, court documents show.

On Nov. 2, 2018, the government’s net pulled even tighter when one of Magana’s victims shot footage of an arm jutting out of a dark Mercedes and into his mailbox.

The resulting GPS device attached to Magana’s car showed that he shadowed the daily migration of mail like a lion tracks wildebeest, trolling his list of neighborhoods before sun-up almost every morning in search of the strays — the letters and parcels left in the box from the day before.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad sentenced Magana to 42 months in custody and ordered him to pay $7,300 in restitution.

In the meantime, he may need to file a change of address card with his local post office. Magana’s mail must soon be rerouted to the address of his federal prison.

Eden dad who saved family from fire, dies in car crash Saturday; kids injured but OK

EDEN — Miguel Bahena walked through fire for his family. Literally.

The 30-year-old father, who suffered major burns rescuing his family from a house fire just two years ago, died Saturday in a single-car accident that left his three small children injured but recovering well.

The specialty baker and playful dad had a passion for music and had celebrated his landmark birthday only three days prior to the accident that sent his southbound SUV off N.C. 87 near Crumpton Road around 4:45 p.m. Saturday.

State troopers said Bahena’s car went off the roadway to the right, then across to the left. When Bahena overcorrected, officials say, he went off the road again and collided with a tree. He died at the scene. Investigators said Bahena was not impaired or speeding at the time of the crash.

Children, Mason, 6, Anna, 3, and Madison, 3 weeks, were safely buckled in car seats, but were injured, according to a news release from the Highway Patrol.

Their grandfather Jeff Margensey of Eden was at Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem on Monday, visiting Mason and Madison, who were undergoing treatment for a broken arm and skull fracture, respectively.

Mason suffered a fracture to his upper left arm, while the infant, born Dec. 20, was said to be recovering well and had “just completed her third bottle’’ Monday morning, said Margensey, who expected the children to be released early this week.

Middle child Anna, originally transported to Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday with her siblings, was released the same day with only scrapes and bruises, Margensey said. Cone transferred Mason and Madison to Brenner’s on Saturday.

Son-in-law any father would wish for

“I was very proud of him because he was a great dad and a great husband to my daughter,’’ Margensey said, noting his daughter Hannah married Bahena eight years ago. “With his marriage and his children, he was just a wonderful son-in-law, and he will be sorely missed.’’

Reflecting on the May 2018 grease fire that consumed the Bahena’s Eden home, Margensey described his son-in-law’s courage.

“He went through the fire to get Mason. And he got burned. He carried Mason out around his waist, and Mason had some burns, but they got out. It was like a miracle.’’

Mason was treated for third-degree burns at Brenner’s in 2018 and has healed well, as did his father, whose face was significantly seared in the tragedy.

“He (Miguel) said all he could think about was to get everybody out of the house,’’ said Bahena’s friend and employer Chris Cusato, owner of Kalo Foods bakery in Stokesdale.

“He ran upstairs and told his wife and little girl (Anna) to get out. And the fire spread so fast. He went in to get Mason and Miguel was able to get him out.’’

The blaze destroyed all of the young family’s belongings and they lived with Margensey until they could re-establish a new household in Eden.

Kindness was a hallmark

“Miguel loved his family and his kids and was always showing pictures of them,’’ Cusato said through tears.

“He’s been with us for six years and he has got a wonderful personality … charming with a very sharp wit and extremely funny and talented,’’ she said. “ I felt like he was one of my kids. We got really close. Sometimes it was just me and him baking, and we talked about lots of things.’’

Endowed with a multitude of talents, Bahena performed quick calculations in the bakery and swiftly developed refined piping skills for icing cupcakes with rosettes and the like, his boss said.

Bahena was also known for his ability to play several instruments, Cusato said.

The gentle dad, who did not believe in spanking, sported a beard and mustache and a teddy bear countenance.

Dozens of photographs on his family’s social media sites are windows to happy times for the Bahena family. Snapshots chronicle fun times with the young family at The Polar Express theme park in the Great Smoky Mountains, days at the arcade, swimming practice, jolly Christmas mornings, Halloween exploits, and most recently — photos of the family embracing their newest member, baby Madison.

“We are going to miss him terribly, just terribly,’’ Margensey said.

A celebration of life service will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Eden with the Rev. Linda Nye officiating. The family will receive friends from 6-8 p.m. on Saturday at Boone & Cooke, Inc. Funeral Home.

Bahena was the son of Hugo Bahena and Anita Davis.

Bahena is also survived by Scott Mateo Lindemann of Florida; and his siblings, Monica Sanchez Natalia Bahena and Tony Bahena, both of Reidsville.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be directed to the Friends of the Eden Animal Rescue, 1027 Rhodes Road, Eden, NC 27288.

Data science is a growing field. Now, UNC-Charlotte will train students for those jobs.

CHARLOTTE — North Carolina’s first school of data science is scheduled to open this fall at UNC-Charlotte, expanding the current Data Science Initiative into a standalone institution.

The new School of Data Science will expand on the master’s program run under the existing initiative. Doug Hague, who served as the interim director of the Data Science Initiative, will become the executive director.

“As an urban research university, we are in a unique position to help bring the community forward by assisting with informed decision making and assessment,” Hague said in a news release.

The school is a collaboration across UNCC’s existing academic programs, including the College of Computing and Informatics, the Belk College of Business, the College of Health and Human Services and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Hague said the school plans to enroll around 100 undergraduates this fall and grow to anywhere from 350 to 500 students in the future.

Impasse continues over state budget, pay after brief session

RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans in the General Assembly fell short on Tuesday trying to overturn Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes on teacher pay and the budget, ensuring their spending impasse will extend into spring and perhaps longer.

On a party-line vote, the Senate failed to override Cooper’s veto of a measure that would have enacted pay raises for teachers, teacher assistants, school custodians and other staff at least at levels contained in the larger two-year budget Cooper also vetoed last June.

Senate Republicans would have needed one or maybe two Democrats to vote with them for the override. With Senate Democrats showing during the teacher pay vote they were united supporting Cooper, Republicans decided to call off a scheduled veto override vote on the broader budget during the brief one-day session.

Cooper and other Democrats have said the average educator pay increases offered by the GOP were feeble compared to what the governor sought.

“Today was a win for Senate Democrats, but more importantly it was a win for fighting for meaningful investment in public education, including raising teacher pay,” said Senate Minority Whip Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County after the session, which was completed in about three hours. Now the legislature won’t return to work until late April.

The level of teacher pay, the absence of Medicaid expansion and presence of corporate tax cuts in the budget measure led Cooper to veto the budget bill almost seven months ago, prompting a stalemate in which attempts at compromise sputtered. State government continues to operate despite the lack of a budget deal, thanks in part to several separate “mini-budgets” that were approved and included pay raises for state employees. Cooper signed most of them into law.

But K-12 educators and staff still don’t have increases for this school year given Tuesday’s override failure, save for experience-based raises already approved.

“We are not asking for anything that we do not deserve or that we can’t afford,” Erica Johnson, a teacher assistant and local North Carolina Association of Educators leader in Alamance County, said at a news conference Tuesday before the session began. “This is about choosing to treat educators with respect and dignity, or choosing to give corporate tax breaks.”

Had the teacher pay bill veto ultimately been overridden, K-12 instructors would have received an average 3.9% raise through mid-2021. Cooper wanted twice that amount.

Senate leader Phil Berger said after the session it’s possible the budget override could still happen later this year: “It’s my hope that at some point we will find a single Democrat that will stiffen their spine and stand up.”

But the override failures could serve as political ammunition during the fall elections in which all 170 seats are on the ballot, with the party winning majorities gaining the power to perform redistricting in 2021.

Four Senate Democrats actually voted for the final budget in June, before Cooper’s veto. But Democrats have rallied around Cooper, particularly since House Republicans rammed through a budget override vote in a half-empty chamber in September.

The governor, Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore and their surrogates have argued over why no budget agreement has been reached, accusing each other of failing to negotiate in good faith. Republicans have blamed Cooper for failing to let go of his demand to expand Medicaid as part of any budget agreement.

“Senate Democrats have now given their votes to Gov. Cooper, who likely has convinced them that somehow they would still get what was in the budget and he would get his Medicaid expansion,” said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. “Instead, they and North Carolina get neither.”

Cooper has said there was no Medicaid “ultimatum” and pointed to his willingness to negotiate teacher pay separately from the budget. Republicans should “end their partisan obstruction,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Tuesday.

Tuesday’s actions mean Republicans have yet to override any of Cooper’s 14 vetoes since early 2019, after Democratic seat gains following the 2018 elections ended the GOP’s veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Senate Republicans were unable to override another Cooper veto on Tuesday, this one on the legislature’s annual regulatory overhaul measure.

Lawmakers did manage to approve unanimously one bill Tuesday that gives an additional $2.4 million this fiscal year and next to cover a shortfall for scholarships for the children of wartime veterans. The bill now goes to Cooper, who is expected to sign it.