City Paper is not for tourists
Don Smith, a longtime Mount Pleasant resident, arrived home one evening shortly before Thanksgiving to discover a box on his front porch. The box was the shipping container for a turkey costume Smith had ordered for his 18-month-old son, Patrick. But something had gone horribly wrong. The box was open and packing peanuts were scattered about. The turkey costume, it appeared, had flown the coop.
Smith called 311, and 10 minutes later, a D.C. police officer arrived at the scene. Smith says that the officer asked him if he had received any restaurant fliers that day. Smith had, in fact, noticed a stack from the Taste of India restaurant lying right next to his empty package. On the basis of this evidence, the officer made a guess as to the perp’s identity—it seemed likely that the person who had left behind the Taste of India fliers was probably the same one who had heisted Smith’s turkey costume.
Two weeks later, Smith installed an iron gate across his porch in the hope of stopping what postal workers and residents say is the particularly brazen and often inventive style that Mount Pleasant bandits use when stealing packages. According to police Inspector Diane Groomes, one common MO of thieves is to pretend to hand out fliers in order to enter yards or property without arousing suspicion. Another is to simply tag along after delivery people. “Thieves will follow the FedEx truck,” says Jason Crawford, who lives on Ingleside Terrace and claims that his neighbors have seen the phenomenon.
Tamia Cox, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, recounts the technique of one particularly savvy gang—a mother and kids who pull off home-delivery heists along one of Cox’s routes, which includes Lamont, Monroe, and 18th Streets. “She walks down the street with the kids, and one of them will go up and knock on the door,” Cox explains. “If no one answers, then they take the package.”
Letter carrier Marquett Gross says he has also caught this woman in the act. The first time he witnessed her trying to nab a package was at 17th and Lamont Streets NW. He stopped her, but because of the kids, he didn’t call the police. “I didn’t want to see her get arrested and the kids get taken,” he says.
His mood changed, however, when he saw her again on the 3100 block of 18th Street stealing a package he had just dropped off. “She thought I had my back turned, but I saw her out of my peripheral vision,” Gross says. He told her to stop and made sure the package stayed put. He now carries a camera so that if he sees her again he can take a picture and give it to postal police.
Both Gross and Cox say they are very careful to leave packages in places that are minimally visible from the street. “I look for a good place to put them,” Cox says. “You have to use your best judgment.”
Starting in 2003, UPS used its best judgment and stopped leaving packages at doorsteps in Mount Pleasant. According to UPS spokesperson Malcom Berkley, “All packages must be signed for.”
But because FedEx still leaves packages in the neighborhood, thieves still have ample bounty. According to FedEx spokesperson Lourdes Peña, the company hasn’t seen any increase in theft, but couriers are “very careful where they place the items in those situations where they are required by the shopper to drop them off.”
Nevertheless, Crawford had two packages taken from his property in September. One contained a CD, and the other was a box of personal effects such as sunglasses and flip-flops that were being returned to a tenant who’d left them behind on vacation. With the package containing the CD, “they took the whole thing,” Crawford says, but with the box of personal effects, the thieves were nice enough to leave behind the empty box and packing materials.
According to Gross, very often “you can walk down the 1800 block of Lamont to the alley and find open FedEx boxes.” He usually brings them back to their owners if they still have an address or anything left in them.
Dominic Sale, a local safety advocate in Mount Pleasant, says that the problem isn’t confined to packages. Last November, Sale changed the delivery method of his copy of the Economist because it was being stolen so often. “You can’t leave anything out,” he says. “If it’s not chained down in Mount Pleasant, it will be stolen.”
The bold bandits aren’t easily put out of business, especially as Mount Pleasant continues to attract wealthier residents and more high-end items are delivered to doorsteps. Faced with front-porch filching, some neighborhood residents have figured out that the best way to combat theft is to set up their own postal service. “The best solution…is to know a neighbor who’s often home, and direct packages to be delivered to their house instead. We’ve got a couple ‘satellite post offices’ on my block,” wrote one resident on a Mount Pleasant e-mail discussion group. Another resident was so upset over the theft of her box of children’s clothing that she was hoping to arrange “a sting operation.”
It wasn’t quite a sting operation, but on Dec. 31 at around 3 p.m., two police officers caught up with an alleged package pirate, Gracios Hughely, on the 1500 block of Irving Street. According to the police incident report, David Dorsey, the rightful owner of the package in question, had seen Hughely walking away from his house on the 1700 block of Hobart Street with a brown box in hand. When Dorsey followed him, Hughely threw the already empty box to the ground. Dorsey recovered it, and, sure enough, it had a partially peeled-off label showing his name and address. The police later confronted Hughely, who was carrying one pair of L.L. Bean sunglasses, which were eventually traced to another package, and Dorsey’s AC/DC CD.
According to Groomes, most package thefts in the area are pulled off by a few individuals, and one good collar should make a significant dent in the problem, at least “until the next character pops up.”
In the wake of his son’s turkey-suit snatching, Smith turned to his neighbors for leads. “If anyone sees someone trying to fence a child’s turkey costume, please let the police know,” he wrote to a Mount Pleasant e-mail group on Nov. 18. No suspects were ever apprehended, and the costume never did turn up, but luckily, Smith’s wife was able to rush-order a brand-new turkey costume. It arrived just before Thanksgiving, and that time, no one poached it. CP