At first it seemed like an April Fool's joke told by some procrastinator, since it occurred several months too late. The word spread around Sun City Summerlin like a wildfire that somebody "stole" one of the drive-up, mail collection boxes bolted to the ground at the four community centers.
The mystery of the missing mailbox sure sounded like the perfect caper some prankster might have dreamed up simply as a rumor, just to attract attention. That is until you drove up to the usual place for the collection box at Desert Vista Community Center, 10360 Sun City Blvd., and saw that the steel U.S. Postal Service box, which weighs a tidy number of pounds, had been lifted clear off its concrete foundation.
Post office people won't say how much those collection boxes weigh "for security reasons." And that makes good sense, because thieves would then know how many men and what kind of equipment it would take to carry off one of the boxes, especially if it was filled with payment checks and other mail.
But back to the caper. To add credence to the mystery, the collection box disappeared during a recent weekend, sometime between late Saturday and Sunday morning. Of course the general conclusion was that if U.S. Post Office personnel had removed the blue-and-white collection box, some kind of advance notice undoubtedly would have been given to officials in the community. But there was no notification.
Hence, since thieves don't notify you in advance when they're planning a heist, the ultimate conclusion was that the box was stolen.
What at first sounded like a joke was legitimized when Barbara Cogar, executive director of Sun City Summerlin, sent an email to residents advising them that the big box was not only missing, it was actually believed to have been stolen. At least that was the word circulating the rumor mill for the next few days, since nobody from the U.S. Postal Service came forward to offer any explanation.
But, alas, it was post office people after all who had come at some ungodly hour to retrieve their collection box. The official reason given several days later was that the box was "removed for maintenance" because "someone had tampered with it."
Cogar sent out another email, four days after the disappearance of the box, explaining what happened.
"I spoke with the collections department of the U.S. Post Office and was advised that, contrary to earlier reports to me, the Desert Vista mailbox was NOT stolen. It was taken away by the Post Office for routine maintenance. All the mail contained in the box was processed normally.
"We regret any inconvenience or distress caused by this erroneous information we received," the email added.
Aw, shucks! And so the mystery of the missing mail box was solved. No federal investigation. No congressional hearings. No crooks in the middle of the night. Only some folks from the U.S. Postal Service collections department.
"It was not a good idea for our people not to have notified Sun City that they were removing the box for maintenance," said Marilyn Fennimore, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service.
"Somebody had tried to tamper with the box. Fortunately, they weren't able to open it. When one of the carriers who routinely removes the mail discovered that the box had been tampered with, our maintenance people were called to remove it. The protocol in that situation is to take the box to our plant, first to guarantee the security of the mail inside, then to restore the box," Fennimore explained.
Residents throughout Summerlin have been warned for some time not to put envelopes containing cash, checks and other valuables in home mail boxes, since they can be easily accessed by thieves. As a result, collection boxes have become popular alternatives, especially for those who choose to mail their bill payments.
"We encourage people to come directly to one of our post offices to mail valuables," Fennimore said. "That's the best choice."
If that's not possible, she urged the use of "alternate mail access areas," such as U.S. Postal Service facilities in the CVS Pharmacy at the corner of Del Webb and Sun City boulevards or the Albertsons Sav-On Food Center at 8350 W. Cheyenne Ave.
Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He is the author of the novels "Falling Dominoes" and "One At A Time." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.