In just about anywhere in the country, when somebody steals a mailman’s wheels, cops start searching for one of those familiar blue-and-white U.S. Postal Service vans.
In South Beach, the thief pedaled away.
Miami Beach is one of the last places in the United States where carriers still use bicycles to deliver mail. So when the bright yellow two-wheeler of postal carrier Richard Williams went missing, along with a satchel of undelivered mail, police and postal inspectors didn’t treat it like a prank. They employed modern sleuthing to crack the case, making an arrest earlier this month.
The theft was a rarity for the U.S. Postal Service’s small fleet of bike-riding carriers. Today, the Service deploys two-wheel carriers in just two states — 47 across Arizona, 17 in St. Petersburg and a dozen in South Beach.
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Once upon a time, thousands of mail carriers used leather satchels to deliver letters and packages in fast-growing cities.
“There are many an unsung hero in postal transportation. Dog sleds. Horse trailers. Bikes are up there,” said Nancy Pope, a historian at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
The postal museum, part of the Smithsonian Institute, owns just two bicycles. Neither is currently on display. According to the museum, the fleet peaked around 1951 with 3,134 bicycle carriers.
But their use plummeted in the 1960s as mailmen began carrying more and heavier parcels. On top of that, postmasters began buying and deploying “Mailsters,” small three-wheeled motorized vehicles loathed as clumsy and inefficient.
“The carriers hated them,” Pope said. “The postal service loved them because they were cheap and easy to buy.”
Bicycles have never totally disappeared. Their use even jumped during years of rising fuel costs. In 1982, for instance, supervisors at the Tamarac post office had to teach one 54-year-old carrier to ride a bike when they temporarily shut down their gas-burning fleet.
By 1990, there were still 40 pedaling carriers — they called themselves “buggy riders” — delivering mail on routes that included downtown Miami and Overtown. Now, in South Florida, bikes are confined to Miami Beach.
Criminals have periodically targeted postal carriers over the years in South Florida, whether on foot, bike or driving trucks.
In the early 1980s, robbers confronted bicycle-pedaling mail carriers on Miami Beach, stealing checks from their satchels. In 2003, a gunman infamously held a mail woman hostage in her van for five hours, leading police on a long and very slow chase before surrendering. More tragically, a mailman named Bruce Barton — two weeks away from retiring — was shot and killed in North Miami in December 2010.
Fortunately, no one was hurt or injured in the South Beach postal bike caper back in March.
Carrier Richard Williams was pedaling his way through his route when he stopped to deliver mail inside an apartment building in the 800 block of Meridian Avenue, according to an arrest warrant.
When Williams emerged, a woman pushing a baby stroller told him that she had seen two young men and a woman make off with the bicycle.
Miami Beach police scoured the neighborhood and quickly found the bike abandoned at Euclid Avenue and Eighth Street, left leaning on some bushes. Also found in a nearby alleyway: a U.S. Mail placard removed from the bike and the satchel of mail.
“Some of the mail items were rifled and without contents,” according to the warrant by Miami-Dade Det. Marcos Rodriguez and prosecutor Ansley Peacock.
The bike placard and a piece of express mail were dusted for fingerprints. Lab results, police say, came back to 25-year-old Michael Rey — twice previously arrested for marijuana possession. U.S. Postal Service inspectors also uncovered surveillance footage from South Beach apartments that appeared to show Rey riding the bicycle, valued at $400.
Rey, investigators say, told them he just wanted to take a joyride.
Now, he’s awaiting trial for grand theft — and facing up to five years in the slammer. His next court date is Jan. 9. He does not face any federal mail-theft charges. He could not be reached for comment.