DETROIT – There were jokes and snickers at a Michigan post office when customers learned that an overwhelmed carrier had rented a storage unit to hide thousands of pieces of mail.
"I heard a couple of people come in and say, 'Can I pick up my mail — or is it in storage?"' said Annette Koss, the postmaster in Howell, 50 miles northwest of Detroit. "We just didn't understand it. It's such a stupid thing to do."
Jill Hull pleaded guilty Tuesday to deserting the mail, a misdemeanor. The case is rare but it happens: From North Carolina to North Dakota, carriers in recent months have been hauled to court for failing to fulfill their routes.
Mail has been found in basements, garages and, in Hull's case, a self-storage unit in Michigan's Livingston County. In North Carolina, a mail carrier admitted to keeping junk mail buried in his backyard.
In September, after she had failed to pay her bill, managers opened Hull's unit and discovered thousands of pieces of unopened mail, including 988 first-class letters. Some had postmarks from 2005.
"I was unable to deliver all the mail," Hull, 34, said during a brief hearing in federal court in Detroit.
In a court filing, postal investigator Douglas Mills said Hull had planned to catch up with late payments and apparently keep the mail under lock and key until she died.
No one on the rural route had complained about missing any mail.
"Looking back at her time sheets, she was leaving early everyday," said Koss, who became postmaster shortly after the discovery. "It's like it got dark and she didn't know what to do with the mail."
Hull and her attorney had no comment after the guilty plea. The maximum penalty is a year in prison, but Hull is hoping for probation.
The Postal Service says there were 333 cases of theft, delay or destruction of mail by employees or contractors filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. A California postal manager was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing thousands of DVDs.
More than 600,000 postal employees last March received a reminder in their pay statement that delaying, stealing or throwing away mail is a crime. "You don't have to be a genius to know," it said with an image of Albert Einstein.
"It's not a systemic issue; the majority of employees are hardworking and honest," said Agapi Doulaveris, spokeswoman for the Postal Service's internal investigators.
Postal Service spokesman Gerry McKiernan said steadily decreasing mail volume — down by 9 billion pieces in the last fiscal year — and route changes should help alleviate any stress felt by carriers.
In North Dakota, Allen Prochnow, 62, will be sentenced in March for delaying mail for 10 years. Four tons were removed from his house in Wahpeton, including 3,000 pieces of first-class mail.
"He'd see a magazine he'd like to read and pretty soon it was quite a bit of mail," lawyer John Goff said. "A lot of it was piled neatly along walls in the house. In his own mind he was building a bunker. ... His most frequent answer has been, 'I don't know why."'
A tip from a meter reader led authorities last year to the home of Steven Padgett, 59, a carrier who delivered in the Apex, N.C., area. Authorities used four trucks to remove third-class mail that had been stashed in his garage for six years.
Padgett felt "it was almost a relief to get caught," lawyer Andrew McCoppin said in a court filing.
"He denied that it stemmed from an anti-junk mail moral protest. It seems more likely that this man ... could not admit to himself or his employer that he was beginning to have difficulty getting the job done," McCoppin said.
Padgett was placed on probation and fined $3,000 — a penalty that was mostly paid by MailChimp, an Atlanta company that specializes in marketing through e-mail, not traditional mail.
"We're doing everything we can to stop junk mail. We can relate" with Padgett, said co-founder Ben Chestnut, tongue in cheek.