MADISON — A former Coulee Region letter carrier who stole 9,000 pieces of mail pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to postal theft and destruction.
Robert A. Ernstes, 50, of Melrose, who had worked out of the downtown La Crosse post office, told District Judge Barbara Crabb that he took the mail because “times were tough, money was tight and bills were piling up.”
Reports of the theft first surfaced last month, when residents began receiving letters from the state Justice Department saying their mail had been stolen. It was unclear until Thursday how many people had been victimized.
The stolen mail has been held as evidence until now but will be released to the U.S. Postal Service, which will attempt to deliver all first-class mail within 30 days.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Altman credited a Holmen man for uncovering the thefts.
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In February 2011 he reported mailing eight greeting cards containing $2 bills to his grandchildren. Some of the cards were opened and the $2 bills were missing. Authorities determined Ernstes was the carrier.
A piece of test mail was put into the system May 2. Ernstes took the mail home with him, and agents later searched his car, home and garage. They found about 9,000 pieces of mail that Ernstes had stolen since November 2008, according to the U.S. Attorney.
The majority of mail was intact, although some pieces had been opened.
In court Thursday, Ernstes admitted he took money from the envelopes he opened.
He faces maximum penalties of five years in prison, $250,000 in fines and three years on supervised release.
Altman didn’t know how much restitution may be involved in the case but said replies received from those mailed notices will help the government calculate the amount. The probation office, which will also recommend a restitution amount for Crabb to consider, asked for more time to review the extensive amount of mail involved in the case.
Ernstes was released with conditions until sentencing.