Police say new victims are emerging in the odd case of big blue mailboxes uprooted from the doorsteps of Anchorage post offices in recent days.
Several people now say counterfeit checks have been cashed on their bank accounts, possibly using information stolen from mail they dropped in one of four collection boxes stolen between Dec. 19 and Christmas Day, police say.
"We've had a couple of victims call in and say, 'That wasn't my check but it's another check that cleared my bank account because it had my account numbers on it," said Det. Michele Logan, a member of the financial crimes unit.
Police are hunting for 50-year-old Clifford Earl Dancer, who cashed a check police believe was stolen from one of the mail boxes. Dancer's record includes a drug conviction in 2003, when police busted him and two others in an Anchorage meth lab sting, and an auto theft conviction earlier this year.
He was still on the loose Thursday night, Logan said.
Each stolen mailbox could hold hundreds of pieces of mail, said Dave Schroader, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is leading the investigation.
The case is a rare one for the Postal Service, Schroader said. He said he knows of just one other collection box theft reported this year in the Northwest Region that includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
"It's kind of hard to be surreptitious when you're carrying a 200, 300-pound blue box around," Schroader said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, he declined to say if security cameras caught any of the heists, but given the difficulty of moving the boxes, authorities believe more than one person was involved.
As the U.S. Attorney's Offices consider federal charges in the case, a warrant for Dancer's arrest filed in state court revealed new details.
"WASHING" A CHECK
Before the thefts, two collection boxes at the Muldoon Road post office stood partially hidden by the trees that separate the Postal Service parking lot from the busy East Anchorage street. It was about 9 p.m., Dec. 19, when an Anchorage man stopped here to mail a bill.
The $54 check was made out to pay for the man's military life insurance policy, according to the arrest warrant. He dropped it in one of the blue collection boxes.
The next day, after one of the boxes at the Muldoon station was stolen, a security camera at an Alaska USA Federal Credit Union branch in Midtown captured video of Dancer cashing an altered version of the same check, according to the warrant. Police say Dancer or an accomplice used a technique called "washing" the check to erase or fade the ink and re-write the check to make a $358.88 payment to Dancer himself, the warrant says.
Logan said she obtained the arrest warrant for Dancer on Christmas Eve. He faces charges of felony theft and forgery.
At that time, only two collection boxes had been stolen: The one in Muldoon and another from the post office on Lake Otis Parkway, which was taken about two days later, Logan said. Two more disappeared late on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, stolen from the Spenard Road and Huffman Road stations, according to police.
As of Thursday, three of the boxes had been found, at least one with mail still inside, police said.
"OUT OF ORDER"
When people swiped collection boxes in other states, they sometimes have used vehicles and chains to rip the bolted-down receptacles from the ground.
"It's a crime that takes some planning. (It's) a lot of work to take those big blue boxes and cart them off, and try to break into them later," said Schroader, the Postal Inspection Service spokesman.
In Anchorage, the thief or thieves apparently loosened bolts on the feet of the collection boxes, Logan said.
On Thursday, just one of the blue mail boxes remained on the sidewalk outside the Muldoon station. Someone had placed a sign on it: "Do not use; out of order."
That's a precaution until the mail-box snatchers are caught, Logan said.
"Bring your mail inside for now," she said.
People with information about the collection box thefts are asked to call the Postal Inspection Service at 1- 877-876-2455.
Anyone who thinks their mail may have been stolen can call postal inspector Kim Dallas at 261-6323 in Anchorage.