ASHEVILLE — A mail carrier from Forest City admitted Wednesday to stealing gifts sent by mail over a period of months.
Jeffrey Thomas Avolese, 29, pleaded guilty in federal court to taking mail from the route he serviced as a contract driver for the U.S. Postal Service. Between Dec. 25 and April 3, Avolese stole about $2,500 worth of gift cards and cash, he confirmed in court as a part of his plea.
When two postal inspectors and a police detective who suspected Avolese had been stealing mail visited him at his Forest City home on April 9, they said that he admitted to "combing through the mail he was to deliver for cards containing cash or gift cards," according to an account of events verified by Avolese before he pleaded guilty.
The investigation began a couple weeks earlier when, in late march, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service learned of about 10 complaints from people along Avolese's route — which included Asheville, Fairview, Chimney Rock, Bat Cave and Lake Lure, according to court documents.
The complaints alleged that "mail containing cash or gift cards had never been received by the intended recipients," the factual basis for Avolese's plea states.
The postal inspector investigating the missing mail determined that Avolese may have been the culprit and set out to prove the theory by laying a trap. He purchased two $25 gift cards — one for Target and one for Best Buy. Each was placed in a birthday card "inscribed with personal information to act as bait," according to court documents.
On March 29, the inspector mailed the decoy birthday card to a Postal Inspection Service address along Avolese's route during a time when he knew Avolese was working.
The inspector noticed five days later that somebody had spent the gift cards in Asheville. He went to the stores and gained access to surveillance photos, which showed Avolese using the cards, according to court documents.
Avolese had worked as a driver with a Postal Service contractor for two years. He was fired immediately once the postal inspector handling his case notified his employer.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Howell accepted Avolese's plea Wednesday, but the ex-mail carrier has yet to be sentenced. Stealing mail is a federal offense punishable by a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.
Judge Howell revoked a motion Wednesday that would've modified Avolese's conditions of pre-trial release, allowing him to consume alcohol responsibly. Howell cited Avolese's extensive criminal record — which includes more than 30 felony convictions in North Carolina — when he denied the motion.
The majority of Avolese's felony convictions in North Carolina are from Henderson County, where in 2009 he was convicted of 26 counts of felony breaking or entering a motor vehicle.