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Above and beyond: Postal worker honored for helping catch fraud suspects

A U.S. Postal Service employee in Medford went above and beyond the call when he chased after suspected crooks who had allegedly been cashing fraudulent money orders in post offices up and down Interstate 5.

USPS sales associate Mark Hawkins was formally recognized Wednesday for his efforts by U.S. Postal Inspector William Melvin, receiving a letter of commendation.

The incident took place Oct. 17. Hawkins was working the front counter when 17-year-old Lavelle Nichols, of Sacramento, walked in. Hawkins had seen a notice about Nichols earlier, which warned employees to keep an eye out for him and 18-year-old Briannah Gipson, also of Sacramento. Postal Service officials said the pair and at least two others had been purchasing money orders for nominal amounts — anywhere from $1 to $3 — and altering the amounts to triple-digit figures before cashing them.

“When someone partakes in an action like this, it costs the postal service a tremendous amount of money, especially if they’re successful in negotiating these instruments," Melvin said.

Gipson and Nichols were suspected of already hitting post offices in Roseburg, Salem, Eugene and Portland, allegedly making off with anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000.

"In my mind, I thought, OK, this is big-city stuff. This is Portland, Eugene, whatever. I'm not going to see this, you know?" Hawkins said.

But he did. Nichols walked in, and Hawkins recognized him, based on the description he'd seen. They made small talk until Nichols handed him the money order for more than $700.

"I knew it right away," Hawkins said.

Hawkins made an excuse that he needed to grab more cash from the back of the store, where he informed a supervisor. He called 911 and went outside, where he saw Gipson. She'd also been at the post office two days prior. The pair bolted, but Hawkins followed. He stayed on the phone with police and informed them where the two were headed in their car.

"They got them a couple streets over," Hawkins said.

Gipson was booked into the Jackson County Jail on two charges of first-degree forgery and additional counts of first-degree theft, possession of a forgery instrument and conspiracy to commit theft. She is no longer listed in the jail. Nichols remains at the county's Juvenile Detention Center on charges of first-degree forgery and first-degree theft, facility officials said.

Medford police said at least two more individuals are being sought and that the case is still active.

"It becomes very, very useful when our employees go above and beyond the expectation and assist law enforcement in apprehending them," Melvin said. 

Despite the appreciation from upper management, Hawkins said he doesn't feel supported by some on the local level. A U.S. Air Force veteran of the Afghanistan War, he said he felt belittled by some co-workers for needing a few minutes to calm down and get his post-traumatic stress disorder under control after the incident. He has filed a hostile work environment complaint and may file a grievance with his union. He also has not been back to work after recently finding out his supervisor was trying to get him relocated, he said.

"I'm very disgusted at the way it's been handled," Hawkins said.

When he arrived back, he said he felt mocked publicly when some co-workers said he was using his PTSD as an excuse to get out of work.

"I would have been fine in five or 10 minutes," he said.

USPS officials declined comment on the complaint, stating the issue is a personnel matter. But they reiterated they were proud of Hawkins' actions in dealing with the fraud suspects.

Despite the issue, Hawkins said he feels good about his decision to help, adding that he never felt he was in danger.

"I think I did what was right. I think I'd like to see a lot more people do maybe the things I did. ...," he said. "We can't just rely on our local law enforcement. We've got to be there to help them."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

U.S. Postal Service employee Mark Hawkins has been honored after assisting police in their arrest of suspected crooks who had allegedly been cashing fraudulent money orders at post offices. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore