It was last August when residents in the greater Milwaukee area began suspecting that some of their mail was disappearing.
Specifically, greeting cards addressed to two Zip codes in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, seemed to never make it to their final destination.
What residents didn't know then was that a U.S. Postal Service worker was ferreting away mail. For more than nine months, a mail carrier named Ebony Smith was - by her own later admission - plucking out greetings cards and stealing anything with cash value - gift cards, cash or checks - she found inside.
As complaints mounted, USPS officials identified that the mail was going missing on Smith's route. Nearly six months after Wauwatosa residents first complained, investigators carried out a plan to see whether they could catch Smith in the act, as outlined in court documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin last week.
On Jan. 25, a blue envelope containing a greeting card and a $20 bill - addressed to a "Jill 'Birthday Girl' Moody" at a Wauwatosa residence - was placed in Smith's delivery route. Unbeknownst to the mail carrier, inside the envelope was also a transmitter that would indicate when it was opened.
Surveillance cameras that day first caught Smith "rifling through trays assigned to other delivery routes" and pulling greeting cards from those trays into her own, court documents stated. She then picked up all of the mail for her route that day and went on her way.
When she arrived at the address for the blue envelope, the transmitter inside went off, indicating that it had been opened. Postal Service agents who had been following Smith on her route quickly apprehended her, and realized that the $20 bill was no longer with the decoy greeting card. Smith soon produced a $20 bill from her purse whose serial number matched the one that had been inside the blue envelope.
Investigators searching Smith's car found more than 50 undelivered greeting cards, a Starbucks gift card, a roll of tape and letter openers in the driver's side door, court documents said.
Smith, who had started working as a USPS mail carrier in 2015, was taken to a branch manager's office. There, she waived her rights and confessed that she had begun stealing greeting cards - once or twice a week - after being assigned to the Washington Highlands historic neighborhood of Wauwatosa in March 2017. The thefts amounted to anywhere from $50 to $100 per week, she said.
Months later, investigators recovered a large quantity of undelivered mail from a Honda Odyssey associated with Smith. In total, they found 6,625 first class greeting card envelopes and 540 personal checks, all presumably stolen from USPS customers. The postmarks on the undelivered cards ranged from Mar. 3, 2017, to Jan. 13, 2018, court documents stated.
Smith, now 20, pleaded guilty last week to mail theft, as first reported by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The crime carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000, as well as an agreement to pay restitution. Her sentencing will take place at a later, undetermined date.
An attorney for Smith could not be reached for comment. In court records, Smith said she had stolen the cash to take care of her four children.
Jeff Arney, a spokesman for the USPS Office of Inspector General, said the Postal Service will attempt to deliver all of the outstanding mail, "or at least notify the mailer their mail may have been kept as evidence, if that's the case."
Arney declined to talk about how many or what sorts of complaints would trigger such an investigation, but advised anyone who believes they are a victim of mail theft to contact 1-888-USPS-OIG (1-888-877-7644) or file a complaint at www.uspsoig.gov.
"The vast majority of U.S. Postal Service personnel are dedicated, hard-working public servants dedicated to moving mail to its proper destination who would never consider engaging in any form of criminal behavior," Arney said in an email. "This type of alleged behavior within the Postal Service is not tolerated."
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
Get the latest election news, live updates and election schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on ndtv.com/elections. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram for updates from each of the 543 parliamentary seats for the 2019 Indian general elections. Election results will be out on May 23.