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A thief who broke into hundreds of D.C. mailboxes allegedly stole more than just Christmas cards.

There are some things you just get used to while living in D.C. Things like potholes, surly service at CVS, and, of course, the country’s slowest mail service. Most of the time, when I come home from work and find my mailbox empty, I assume that the mail is just piled up again on some back lot out at Brentwood, the city’s postal headquarters. At moments like those, I conjure in my aggrieved mind a picture of employees watching The Jerry Springer Show rather than processing my Christmas cards.

But now I find myself in the odd position of having to give the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) some credit. Not only is it not responsible for the disappearance of a lot of my mail, but it seems to have tracked down the man who allegedly stole it.

Two weeks ago, I got a letter from a postal inspector informing me that I might have been the victim of “identity theft” and mail fraud. According to the letter, the postal inspector recently apprehended one Melvin Thomas Jones Jr. In his possession, they alleged, were hundreds of pieces of other people’s mail—including some of mine.

On May 25, Postal Inspector Christopher Cherry was out on 5th Street in Shaw interviewing some other mail-theft victims. According to an account in federal court filings, one of the interviewees pointed to a man walking down the street and said something like “Hey, that’s the guy right there!” Cherry chased the man across the street, arrested him single-handedly, and carted him off—not to jail, but to a far scarier place for questioning: the Brentwood post office.

Watching my tubby mail carrier plod to my front stoop, I find it hard to imagine someone running in USPS blues. But as Cherry explained later at a community meeting where he was discussing identity theft prevention (“Buoy a shreddah,” he advised in his Massachusetts drawl), this is not your mother’s postal service. A former Massachusetts correctional officer and Capitol police officer, Cherry is fit, armed, and frighteningly earnest about protecting the nation’s mail. He notes proudly that it was the Postal Inspection Service that brought down Michael Milken.

Cherry is tight-lipped about Jones, citing the ongoing investigation. He did inquire, though, whether I had suffered any loss as a result of my mail theft, because any criminal sentence Jones may receive if convicted will be based on the total dollar amount stolen. I couldn’t imagine anyone getting too far with my maxed-out credit cards or the $8 that usually sits in my checking account. But I checked, and later I dutifully reported that I hadn’t noticed any suspicious video rental charges rolling in on my account.

Other locals weren’t so lucky. Nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge started missing mail at her D.C. home at the end of last year. Then, in March, her purse was stolen in New York and she had to have all her credit cards replaced. The new cards, which were being mailed to her, never showed up at her house. She thought maybe they had just gotten lost—until the credit card company called her and said someone was trying to charge $3,000 on her maxed-out account. In the end, the culprit was able to charge only $10 at Safeway before the card was canceled.

Tallmadge’s mail continued to disappear, so she finally hired a welder and spent $600 having a special mail slot built into her security door to keep suspicious fingers out of her correspondence. After Jones was arrested, Tallmadge learned that the suspect allegedly had stacks and stacks of her mail—catalogs and everything—in his possession. He had allegedly been trying to apply for new credit cards in her name. He even had her Social Security number. “It was really awful,” says Tallmadge. Officials told her that Jones was allegedly feeding a $1,000-a-day heroin habit with his mail projects and had gotten his hands on more than $100,000 by grabbing the mail of more than 100 D.C. residents.

As it turns out, my alleged burglar has made something of a profession out of stealing mail. According to court records, Jones, a longtime addict and former D.C. Department of Housing driver, is the kind of nuisance criminal who routinely confounds the justice system. He has been in and out of prison for the past 20 years on various counts of forgery, check kiting, bank fraud, and, most recently, mail theft. But none of his crimes have ever been violent, so Jones has rarely served much time.

In 1997, Amtrak police arrested Jones for trespassing in Union Station, and according to records in U.S. District court, Jones was carrying a briefcase full of letters from the boxes of 150 D.C. residents. Police later searched his mother’s McCullough Courts apartment, where they found a treasure trove of missing mail, including checks, credit cards, bank statements, and bank deposit slips belonging to residents of tony Northwest neighborhoods. They also found several fake ID cards with Jones’ photos—and other people’s names—on them.

While postal inspectors investigated the case, Jones apparently decided it would be a good time to take a little trip to Atlantic City. His luck didn’t last long, though, and he was arrested there a short time later for writing bad checks. He was sent back to D.C. to face the federal mail-theft and bank-fraud charges.

After pleading guilty to six counts of stealing roughly $17,000 through unauthorized credit card purchases and checks he cashed on other people’s accounts, Jones spent some time in the D.C. Jail, where he fell back on yet another identity. As it turns out, Melvin Jones is actually the Rev. Melvin Jones, a former youth minister at the United House of Prayer for All People at 6th and M Streets NW. In jail, Jones set to work preaching the Good Word and persuaded a whole host of ministers that he was headed back to the straight and narrow.

Those ministers, including Bishop S.C. Madison of the United House of Prayer, petitioned the court for Jones’ early release. In a letter to the judge, Apostle H.L. Arbertha praised Jones, now 43 and a father of six, for having been a Boy Scout and for having attended Sunday school as a lifelong member of the House of Prayer. A retired minister, the Rev. James O. West Jr., met with Jones every Friday while he was incarcerated, and he sang Jones’ praises to the judge, citing his performance with the jailhouse choir and his personal conversion of some 15 other inmates. West said Jones had great “spiritual qualities and potential.” Even the jail’s health educator wrote in, saying Jones had dutifully completed courses in “gun violence, drugs, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, smoking and alcohol” and was a model prisoner.

Thanks to all those good words, Jones was given early release, four days before Christmas last year. All told, he served barely more than 10 months of a 27-month sentence. Despite his choirboy image in prison, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court, Jones got right back to business once he got out.

On May 16, a resident of the 1700 block of S Street NW called the Postal Inspection Service to report an altercation with a man who had allegedly stolen his mail. During the altercation, the man, later identified as Jones, dropped two black wallets and a black binder full of booty. Among the items recovered, according to the criminal filing, were numerous driver’s licenses, check-cashing cards, Tallmadge’s two Visa cards, a Lerner New York credit card, an L.L. Bean credit card, a Video Warehouse card, and a $423.40 royalty check from Cambridge University Press made out to a certain Professor Huntington.

Cherry arrested Jones 10 days later. According to an affidavit filed in federal court, before he took off running down 5th Street, Jones threw down a black checkbook that included another pile of his mail collections. My favorite item is probably the BJ’s Wholesale Club membership card. (I guess even accused mail thieves need bulk toilet paper.) Jones also allegedly dropped a Sprint PCS phone, a Best Western key card and security-box key, an American Express card, and a D.C. ID photo, all collected from other people’s mailboxes.

Postal inspectors also discovered that Jones had opened a post office box in Baltimore that was set up to receive mail in the names of all the people whose credit cards and checking accounts Jones had access to, including Tallmadge’s.

After Jones was arrested on mail-theft and fraud charges in 1997, U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn refused to release him into a community drug-treatment program as his lawyer had requested. Penn thought Jones would use the opportunity to skip town. The magistrate judge this time around wasn’t so savvy. Judge Allen Kay sent Jones to the Hope Village halfway house pending trial. On June 6, Jones simply walked away. He hasn’t been seen since.

The Rev. West is dismayed to hear that Jones had been rearrested. “He’s a very talented young man,” he notes.

Pondering his words, I decide to take Cherry’s advice. Maybe I’ll buy a shredder. CP