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Empty mailboxes: Residents left waiting after Postal Service, citing threat to carrier, stops deliveries

UPDATED: Tue., July 11, 2017, 3:03 p.m.

From top left clockwise: Alanna McKelvey; Margaret Walsh; Gerald  Avenmarg; Rich Madore; and Barbara and Dennis Craig, – neighbors who have had their mail stopped after a man in their neighborhood allegedly threatened a postal worker  – pose for a photo on Friday, July 7, 2017, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
From top left clockwise: Alanna McKelvey; Margaret Walsh; Gerald Avenmarg; Rich Madore; and Barbara and Dennis Craig, – neighbors who have had their mail stopped after a man in their neighborhood allegedly threatened a postal worker – pose for a photo on Friday, July 7, 2017, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

After 62 years living in their faded yellow ranch-style home on West Wabash Avenue, Denny and Barb Craig are used to having people come by.

Family and friends, or neighbors stopping by for a chat, the Craigs welcome them all.

It wasn’t until after a few days near the end of June that they noticed who wasn’t coming around anymore: the postal worker.

Since June 15, postal delivery has ceased to more than 30 households along the 2600, 2700 and 2800 blocks of West Wabash Avenue. Many of the residents on these two blocks are retirees, several of whom cannot drive or walk down the block, and they rely upon the United States Postal Service to deliver their Social Security checks, important bills and medications.

The reason for the lack of mail? Alleged threats to the postal worker’s life.

While many may be familiar with the Postal Service’s motto – “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” – harassment or threats of violence will certainly keep any carrier off a block.

The safety of employees is “a paramount concern,” USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson said in a statement. The decision to stop mail delivery to two blocks in the Northwest neighborhood, a decision that was supported by the security arm of USPS, was due to a “recurring credible threat against our delivery personnel,” the statement said.

Residents, however, say that little was communicated to them about why mail delivery had stopped, and that they are still struggling to find answers on how or when their mail service will continue as normal.

“Why is it that the perpetrator walks away scot-free while the law-abiding citizens get penalized?” Craig said.

But perhaps more importantly, residents now worry whether their own safety is at risk.

Margaret Walsh, who currently relies on the Craigs to pick up mail on her behalf, said she is unclear why the community would not be made aware of a threat if it is serious enough to prevent a postal worker from even entering the block.

“Should we not be informed?” she said. “Is it safe? No one will tell us.”

What little the residents know about why their mail was stopped they’ve put together themselves, as the USPS said releasing specific details about the source of the threat would violate privacy rules. From a Postal Service warning delivered to the wrong house to quiet gossip exchanged during strolls around the block, a neighborhood consensus was reached.

It had something to do with the man in the blue house.

Reading the danger gauge

Greg Huston wears an easy grin, but admits he can sometimes lose his temper.

“I can be abrupt,” Huston said.

His problems with the postal carrier began one day several months ago when his mail went missing, he said. Confused, Huston said there was something about the worker that bothered him, which led him to fits of anger whenever he saw the worker.

In his 60s, Huston has lived on the block for over a decade with his mother, who owns the property. During that time, most of his neighbors have never had a problem with him.

Craig said Huston would always stop to talk with him when Craig would walk his dog, though he was often more interested in talking to the dog than Craig or his wife. On several occasions, Huston showed Craig small inventions that he created with a painstaking level of attention to detail, which impressed Craig, a former machinist.

“But I think he has some trouble relating,” he said.

“I’ve never seen him doing anything wrong,” neighbor Gerald Avenmarg added. “I’ve seen him cutting the grass, driving his mother.”

However, a number of residents have mentioned incidents of harassment, some severe enough to warrant calls to the police, where Huston seemed to grow angry for inexplicable reasons.

Spokane Police Department spokesman John O’Brien said the department was aware of the threat that ended the mail delivery, and that the department takes threats to the community seriously. But the police have not yet received a report from the postal worker, he said.

“Once we have a report, we can evaluate if there are any charges that can be brought,” he said. “However, the Postal Service is in charge of the mail delivery, and that’s a decision for them to make.”

Swanson said threats like these are usually reported to the post office supervisor, who ultimately will make the decision about whether to pursue a case with the police. USPS does not require police involvement to decide to halt mail delivery, which means other residents have few means to resolve a problem on their block and restore their regular service.

Huston insists that he never approached the postal worker, or made any effort to harm him.

“I said some pretty rude things,” he said.

Minutes before speaking with The Spokesman-Review, Huston said, he had walked down to the Shadle-Garland post office to apologize for his behavior. Huston said that at first the post office manager did not recognize him, but seemed to realize who he was after he told the manager his address.

“I got started thinking about it, and I just realized how wrong it was (to act that way),” he said.

A breakdown in communications

Upon realizing he wasn’t getting his mail, Denny Craig headed down to the Shadle-Garland post office, where he said an employee informed him that mail delivery had been stopped to his area and that the post office had sent a notice by mail to make him aware of this. Bewildered, Craig said he hadn’t received such a notice. He soon found that the notice was tucked in among his mail – mail that was no longer being delivered to his home.

USPS spokesman Swanson said that typically a supervisor would deliver such notices to the affected homes, but he is not sure if that happened in this case.

If delivery to an area becomes impossible, USPS then tries to install what are known as cluster boxes, or a collection of mailboxes, at a central location on the block, Swanson said. Postal employees approached several residents about installing the boxes in front of their properties, but all declined.

The final solution that USPS can offer are free post office boxes, where residents can have their mail addressed, Swanson said.

Residents complain that USPS has not asked them for feedback about these options, each of which they said present problems.

Avenmarg has lived on the block for about 12 years, and over the past week has called everyone from the local postmaster to the postmaster general of the United States, he said, all to no avail. When Avenmarg, a veteran who walks with the aid of a cane, heard he would have to head to the post office to pick up his mail, he was furious.

“I physically can’t walk down there. If I can make it to the grocery once a week, I’m lucky. And by the end of it, I’m wiped out,” Avenmarg said. “Taxes are supposed to cover this stuff.”

For now, Avenmarg relies upon a neighbor who works with Catholic Charities Spokane to pick up his mail twice a week on her own time. However, many residents don’t have someone who can regularly fetch their mail for them, and while a postal employee reached out to Catholic Charities about officially assisting the block with mail pickups, the organization is unable to spare the resources, said development director Ann Marie Byrd.

Another resident, Rich Madore, walks with a cane after undergoing four back surgeries and a liver transplant. He moved to the area about two years ago after deciding to downsize his house, and he said he never would have expected something like this to happen.

“It’s ridiculous,” Madore said. “To have to keep going back (to the post office), every time it takes more than half an hour.”

Even more frustrating than the struggle to get to the post office is that registering a P.O. box would require a change in address, which would have a cascading impact on lives in the neighborhood, residents said.

New problems and questions seemingly arose the more residents talked: What if my medication from Veterans Affairs doesn’t fit in the post office box? Won’t I need new checks that have my new address? Could this lower my property value? How will decades’ worth of contacts find out how to reach me?

Recently, most of the chatter along West Wabash Avenue ends up like this. Conversations eventually become exercises in verifying information they’ve heard about the mail. With several residents each calling the local post office regularly since mid-June, they often receive conflicting information – or no information at all, they said.

Case closed?

Despite Huston’s apology, mail delivery may still not go back to normal. Swanson said his conversation with the Greater Spokane postmaster made it clear that there was pretty much only one way for service to be restored: if Huston no longer resided on the block.

As the deadline for residents to switch to a P.O. box, or risk not receiving their mail at all, approaches, Craig, Avenmarg and Walsh have been busy reaching out to anyone who they think can help. Bounced between the Postal Service, the police and a number of politicians and government officials, residents still aren’t sure if the mail will ever come to their homes again.

According to her office, City Councilwoman Karen Stratton has been speaking with residents about the issue, and Mayor David Condon’s office is looking into the matter as well. But largely, the decision remains in the hands of the Postal Service.

USPS understands the frustration that many residents must be feeling, which is why halting mail service is a last resort, but the Postal Service must do what it needs to in order to protect its employees, Swanson said.

One police commander has suggested a community forum to the USPS, Craig said, which is an idea he approves of. However, Swanson said he and the local postmaster were unaware of the proposal, suggesting that the idea did not go through the proper channels for anything to be done about it.

Though he is still reaching out for help, Craig said he knows he’s fighting a losing battle.

“You can fight City Hall,” he said. “But you can’t fight the feds.”

This story has been updated to better reflect the scope of the mail stoppage.