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Residents take steps to prevent mailbox vandalism

Nighttime slumbers used to be more restful for Ed Croft.

That was until his Ellicott City neighborhood recently suffered from a bout of "mailbox baseball."

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"I don't sleep," he said. "Every little noise, I would jump out of bed."

Croft, his neighbor Tom Donovan and others are taking steps to try to prevent this and other forms of vandalism in their community.

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Across the country, people have grown accustomed to dealing with the crime, which derives its name from the use of a bat to damage postal units. A simple Internet search on the topic brings up countless pages with vandal-resistant receptacles and designs for constructing "fortresses" with recessed steel posts reinforced with cement blocks.

That's the route that Shafqet Ashai of Clarksville took after vandals whacked his box on more than 15 occasions.

Three years ago, he erected a 3-foot-tall concrete base to support his mailbox. But the challenge of destroying his creation proved to be too great. In 2001, someone used a large truck or construction equipment to knock it down.

The experience forced Ashai to rent a jackhammer to smash the structure into little bits and a post office box to ensure his mail would be delivered uninterrupted.

For Ashai, who works at home, "it is inconvenient to go to a post office and check the mail," he said.

Although it is a violation of federal law to destroy a mailbox, unless it's a very aggravated case it would be difficult to prosecute, said Bob Northrup, a local postal inspector.

"I think it's just a matter of being practical and pragmatic. ... To hear a $30 vandalism case is not a good use of [the courts'] resources," he said.

Howard County police said they do not keep records of vandalism specifically of mailboxes.

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Lawrence G. Miller, a state representative in Connecticut, sponsored legislation last year to suspend for three months the driver's licenses of those convicted of vandalizing a mailbox.

"To most teen-agers, possession of a driver's license is synonymous with freedom and popularity. The threat of losing the right to drive for an extended period of time would probably be enough of a deterrent to result in a sharp drop in this kind of activity," Miller said in a news release.

The bills did not pass the legislature's judiciary committee, however.

Because of the nature of the crime, there's not much that law enforcement can do.

"Those aren't scheduled games," Northrup said. "They're really more impromptu, pickup games. It becomes very difficult to do a surveillance or do anything proactive to prevent it or catch it in the act."

But retaliating by building a concrete fortress around your mailbox is not recommended, said James M. Irvin, director of Howard County public works.

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"We don't condone or authorize vaults or fortresses," he said. "If someone runs off the road and hits one of those, it becomes a liability issue for the county and the resident."

The standards for mailboxes in the county code is based on standards from the U.S. Postal Service and a guide by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. It specifies that mailboxes should be designed to break away if struck by an errant motor vehicle.

The guide cautions that although vandalism-resistant boxes are available for purchase, those weighing more than 5 kilograms may become large projectiles in an accident.

That doesn't leave many options for Croft and other residents of Rockburn Township to prevent further attacks on their mailboxes.

They are doing what they can, however. Several residents reported the incident to Howard County police as well as the Postal Service, which sent them stickers warning that "willful damage to mailboxes and theft of mail are federal crimes [felonies] punishable by fine or imprisonment or both."

Tom Donovan also has lobbied members of the Neighborhood Watch committee to try to establish a reward for any information about vandalism. And he tried to keep the proper perspective on this.

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"In the big scope of things, this is probably nothing," Donovan said.

According to eyewitnesses, two men walked down the street at 1 a.m. June 27, smashing several mailboxes before leaving in a car, Croft said.

He was disturbed by what seemed to be such a calculated action for a crime usually attributed to teen-agers driving along rural roads.

"That's what bothered me, the arrogance of it," Croft said. "These guys, they didn't care. These guys were just so bold about it." If it happens again, the Rockburn Township residents may be forced to rent boxes themselves, although it wasn't an easy solution for Clarksville's Ashai.

The Motor Vehicle Administration "would not send my driver's license to my post office box," he said. "I discovered that the registration on my two cars expired because the mail, it was just going back."

Now Ashai is taking small steps toward resuming his service. Recently, a school bus driver who regularly drives on Hallshop Road gave Ashai a rusted-out box, which he placed in front of his home. He started a subscription to Investors' Business Daily, which he receives at the rusted box. MVA sends notices there as well.

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But before resuming mail service entirely to his home, Ashai knows what he needs to do. "I would put a heavy surveillance system around it, so at least we catch the perpetrator," he said.


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