Targeting rich neighborhoods, man stole 1,300 people's mail

This undated booking photo provided by the Mecklenburg County, N.C., Sheriff's Office shows Erik Magana, of Charlotte, N.C., who authorities said stole mail from at least 1,300 victims' mailboxes and then fraudulently deposited checks. Magana was sentenced to more than 3 years in prison on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, for mail theft and identity theft. (Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office via AP)

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.

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