Mail Chauvinists

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"I always wanted to be a federal agent," he explains about his career trajectory. "I always wanted to work for a well-known, well-respected, law-enforcement agency."


"Well," Alvarez clarifies, "in the law enforcement field, it is well-known."

As lengthy as its history is, the inspection service certainly doesn't have the name recognition of the FBI or the U.S. Marshals Service -- a cachet those agencies achieved in no small part through television series and movies.

"If we're not the oldest federal law-enforcement agency, we're one of the oldest," boasts Enrique Gutierrez, the assistant inspector in charge, whose office is a few doors down from Alvarez's. "The [U.S.] Marshals and us are always arguing."

The roots of the Postal Inspection Service can be traced to Colonial times. Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin created the position of surveyor to help regulate and audit postal operations. Those employees were renamed special agents in 1801. The Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations was established in 1830 as an investigative branch of the Post Office Department. Today's service can be traced directly back to 1880, when Congress established the position of chief postal inspector and renamed special agents inspectors.

It remains, however, a small agency of about 1900 inspectors -- compared with about 12,000 FBI agents. Florida has 112 inspectors who work out of the state's nine offices. Still, the spectrum of crimes over which the service has jurisdiction is broad. Inspectors enforce more than 200 federal laws, including the mailing of bombs, burglaries, child pornography, narcotics shipments, counterfeit stamps and money orders, destruction of mail, on-line fraud involving misuse of mail, extortion, identity fraud, and money laundering.

Bring up the name of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, however, and you're likely to get a puzzled look. Gutierrez jokes, "The public asks: 'Oh, do you measure how much glue's on the back of a stamp?'" Indeed, for many years, the agency was known as the "Silent Service," he explains. "Many people to this date don't know we exist. That may have been OK for 200 years, but quite frankly, it doesn't work anymore. Anthrax changed our perspective. We need the public's help. We have to make people know who we are and, especially in these troubled times, who they can turn to."

Anthrax affected the postal service nationwide, but South Florida was an epicenter of sorts because the first case was discovered here. In early October, Robert Stevens, a 63-year-old photo editor with American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, died of exposure to anthrax. When the first investigators on the scene suspected that the anthrax might have been delivered through the mail, the inspection service was called in. "Unfortunately, we don't have a clear piece of evidence that it did come through the mail, but it's assumed," Alvarez says. "We don't have a real smoking gun in the AMI building. If it did come through the mail, it was destroyed, unlike the letters delivered in New Jersey and D.C."

Soon after the AMI contamination, a 24-hour command center was set up in the Miramar headquarters' conference room. "We all became 'prohibitive mailing inspectors,'" Alvarez says. "Every inspector in this office was assigned to the anthrax case in some way or another." Some inspectors profiled letters, literally standing in mail-sorting centers and looking for letters similar to those sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. Inspectors responded to about 1600 calls of possible anthrax contamination. None proved bona fide, but a couple of dozen cases were hoaxes and have led to criminal prosecution.

"There was a massive learning curve," Gutierrez explains. "We're very used to our comfort zone, things like bombs." Bomb-disposal protocol calls for moving it outside the building and disarming or detonating it. "With anthrax powder, one of the worst things you can do is walk out with it and spread it," he says.

"We look at the world differently since 9/11 and anthrax," Gutierrez concludes. "The lenses were changed in our glasses, so to speak." Amy Ashley has missed the entire anthrax investigation; she was fired just days before the first infection became public. Despite a lengthy career with the postal service, her experience went unused. Alvarez and Gutierrez declined to comment about Ashley's case for this article. Alvarez told New Times that all inquiries must be submitted in writing to Thomas J. Blum, the Atlanta-based deputy managing counsel for the postal service. Blum did not reply to questions faxed to him.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson