Stolen Chugiak ballots draw attention to frequent mail thefts

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 11:54

The theft of around 50 Anchorage municipal election ballots from Chugiak mailboxes in a theft spree last week has triggered an ongoing investigation by federal postal inspectors and Anchorage police.

After months of reports about Amazon packages, passports and birthday cash swiped from Chugiak mailboxes, neighborhood crime watch apps and social media pages were abuzz with mail theft reports starting early Friday morning, March 16. Residents posted photos of entire clusters of emptied mailboxes left agape as well as patches of discarded mail and ballots littering various streets.

From the Tablelands neighborhood on the inlet side of the Glenn, to Settlers Drive on the mountain side, as far north as Mirror Lake Middle School to as far south as Chugiak High School, mail thieves made their rounds and blazed a brazen paper trail.

“They hit all over that night, from one end of Peters Creek to the other,” said Ed Lehman, one of two residents who turned in a pile of ballots and stolen mail to the Chugiak post office.

Lehman first noticed mail strewn on the slushy ground outside his home on Live Alder when he opened the blinds Friday morning. A little later he filled a couple plastic grocery bags with mail dumped along Voyles Boulevard, the main road in and out of the inlet side of Peters Creek. He personally delivered what he could and returned the rest to the post office. While inside he noticed another heap of soggy discarded ballots on the counter.

“This is a joke,” Lehman said of the city’s first ever election by mail. “This shouldn’t be happening.”

City officials scrambled to send replacements to affected Chugiak residents Monday morning and to reassure the public that votes can’t be stolen, election officials are on top of this, and the April 3 election is secure.

Municipal clerk Barbara Jones, who reported the theft to federal postal inspectors and APD, said this is the first case of stolen ballots she’s ever heard of anywhere in her five years working with elections.

“We’ve had quite a few calls about this case, but we’re not overwhelmed,” she said Monday. “We got the ballots from the Chugiak post office and issued 54 replacements by 10 this morning.”

Though she acknowledged they are concerned about possible stolen ballots that may not have made it back, she said safeguards are in place to prevent fraudulent voting.

“The ballots are submitted to us with a signature, which is akin to a fingerprint,” Jones explained.

Municipal election officials completed signature verification training from forensic experts and will match the signature on each mailed ballot against the individual’s signature in the State of Alaska voter records.

“It’s federal offense, a crime, but it’s not an issue with respect to the integrity of the election,” Jones said.

But many Alaskans, like Lehman, remain skeptical.

“Sometimes when I sign my signature, I can’t verify myself that it was my signature, so how are they gonna do it?” he said. “This is not the right way to go.”

Jacob Gholson, team leader of the five federal postal inspectors based in Alaska, said inspectors prioritize their caseload by the number of victims and the type of mail stolen. Among the top priorities are checks and other items that leave hard evidence which can be used to charge and prosecute suspects.

He said the perpetrator or perpetrators nabbed the items of value and tossed the remainders along the way.

“Nothing we’ve seen has shown us that the target was the ballots,” Gholson said.

Nonetheless many residents are hopeful the ballot theft investigation will lead to evidence to help solve a rash of mail theft that has plagued Peters Creek for months.

After losing driver’s licenses, gift cards and uncounted Amazon packages to theft, residents of several Peters Creek neighborhoods are discussing options for purchasing clusters of locked mailboxes. Others, like Chugiak resident Amanda Richmond, discontinued street delivery and opened a post office box.

Richmond moved all her important mail to a PO box after someone swiped her son’s birthday cash from his grandparents and ditched the card with a pile of opened mail in a mailbox down the street. The neighbor recognized Richmond’s son’s name and delivered his empty birthday card.

“It’s a pain in the butt to go to the post office,” Richmond said. “It’s an unfortunate thing that we can’t trust people where we live, in our community.”

Anchorage police do not investigate mail theft except in conjunction with postal inspectors, as mail theft is a federal crime with federal jurisdiction. However, in response to increasing property crime including mail theft in this area, APD very recently assigned a fourth unit to regular patrols in Eagle River and Chugiak.

Postal inspector Gholson urges residents to report any suspected mail theft, regardless of the value of the items, and any tips to the Postal Inspection Service hotline at 1 (800) 275-8777, where it will be quickly routed to his team in Anchorage.

“With the current economic climate, with various laws enacted recently — there’s definitely been an increase in property crime, and there’s also been an increase in mail theft,” he said.

Lehman and neighbors are eager for change in Chugiak.

“They’re breaking into cars, they’re going into people’s houses when they’re sleeping, crime is out of control,” Lehman said. “I just hope this changes it, and hopefully people get their ballots and vote.”

The municipality mailed ballots to all registered Anchorage voters March 13, so all should have been delivered by now. Registered voters who have not received a ballot should contact the Voter Hotline at (907) 243-VOTE or visit an Accessible Vote Center with photo ID for a replacement.

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