PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Detective James Rock remembers it as one of the worst professional decisions he'd made in 24 years with the Denver Police Department, although there was no way he could have known that at the time. He simply made one of those judgment calls that cops make a dozen times a day, five days a week, that end up affecting their lives in ways they never imagined.
"I heard the call come over the scanner of an assault at the downtown post office," he recalls. "And since I was working the postal detail anyway, I radioed back and said I'd take it. I went down that one fatal damn day because I heard the call. Big mistake. I should've let the uniformed police cover it."
For the past three years, Rock has been assigned by the city to work with local postal inspectors. Most of his cases are mail fraud. But with last May's call, he found himself tackling a whole new category of police work.
The assault case involved a postal employee named Billy Mullins and his supervisor, Reggie Chapman. When Rock arrived at the downtown station on 20th and Stout streets, Mullins was screaming that Chapman had hit him. Mullins's glasses were lying broken on the floor; Chapman was looking perplexed. Rock began his investigation.
Mullins gave Rock his version of the story. "I came back from break, and Reggie was standing there watching me work," he recalls. "I said, `What kind of shit is this?' Reggie said, `You used a curse word.' I said, `I didn't use a curse word. I just said, What kind of shit is this?'
"So he told me to get into the office," Mullins continues. "I said, `Look, I got 23 years, I don't have to really take this.' Reggie said, `You're a sorry nigger.' So I said, `If I'm a sorry nigger, you're a sorry nigger, too.' And that's when he hit me. He knocked the shit outta me. I mean, I been in fights before, but in those you expect to get hit."
After concluding his investigation, however, Rock saw things differently. To the detective, the situation looked odd from the start. Mullins was a lot bigger than Chapman. Plus, there was the statement from a woman who worked with both men and said she'd witnessed the incident. "I saw Billy throw his own glasses on the floor and break them," Carol Ware recalls.
Ten days later Rock filed charges--but not against Chapman for the assault. Instead, he charged Mullins with giving false information: lying to the police about the incident.
That was Rock's first taste of what it is like to work at the U.S. Postal Service's 20th Street station. Since then, the detective has found himself there more times than he likes to think about.
"Now they seem to know my name, and they call me direct," he says. "They're a bunch of fruitcakes." Rock--not to mention a few other police officers, the post office's own inspection service and several prosecutors and judges--has been swamped with complaints that nothing in his law enforcement training could have prepared him for: a load of squabbling postal clerks whose case files read like an elementary-school report card.
There has been the "roly-poly ass" case and the "big-teeth-like-a-horse" case. Those were followed by the "moo-moo-smell-the-stockyards" case. And then, of course, the now-famous "wackadoo" incident, which went all the way to court last month.
"They got a den of iniquity down there, I swear to God," the detective says, his voice rising. "If they were working for anybody in a private office downtown, they'd get canned. It's sixth-grade schoolyard crap."
Rock pauses. "I feel like going back to homicide," he says.
Rick Bollig is the customer-relations coordinator for all Denver post offices and, as such, he has been directed to handle questions about the situation at 20th Street. Now he is trying to put the station into context.
"We have some personality problems there," he admits. "But we have that at every post office." And the half-dozen criminal cases that downtown employees have filed against each other? "We don't have that at every post office," he agrees.
A few hours later, after checking with his supervisors, Bollig decides to tackle the 20th Street problem head-on. "Basically, what we have here is not a post office problem but a personality problem," he explains. His position hardens. "We have some grown adults at the downtown station who prefer to act like children. And that," he concludes, "is unfortunate."
But predictable, given the contortions managers and workers go through when an employee's wayward behavior calls for sanctions.
"Management just passes the buck all the time," grumbles Rock. "If management does step in, then the unions get involved. And they've got a half-dozen unions over there. I've never seen so many unions in all my life."
"Unfortunately," adds Jon Freeman, who supervises the postal service's inspection department for the Denver area, "with the postal service, it does take time to dismiss employees." And even then, there are no guarantees. "In the past there have been people who I've thought were fired," he says, "and a year down the road, their names pop up and we have to go after them again."
For instance, there's the Littleton clerk who allegedly threatened to kill some of his colleagues. Last August, after a leave of absence, he was reinstated. On the day he returned to work, a dozen postal workers walked off the job in protest.
Actually, clarifies Littleton postmaster Jack Sauer, "It wasn't really a walkout. The workers just went into the parking lot to ask a supervisor some questions. Nobody lost any time at work." Still, the 28-year-old clerk was placed on nine months' paid leave for a psychiatric evaluation.
The man is still on paid leave today, Sauer says, although "on a different, unrelated matter." However, he will be returning to his job sometime in the near future. "We were never able to substantiate any of the remarks he allegedly made," the postmaster adds. "And the psychiatric tests cleared him, I guess. He'll be coming back to work soon."
Cases of curious personnel policy abound and are traded like playing cards among postal employees. Last year Phyllis Woodman, a clerk at the 20th Street facility, was placed on unpaid leave for allegedly opening a piece of mail. Inside happened to be a shipment of cocaine--which the postal inspection service knew about. "She screwed up an entire sting operation," says one supervisor.
Woodman insists that it wasn't she who opened the package but rather a co-worker searching for a clearer address. (A source says Woodman's fingerprints were found on the package.) Still, both workers were placed on leave. Woodman recently was allowed back to work--but because the other clerk implicated in the incident had been permitted back a few days earlier, she filed a grievance against her supervisor. It is pending.
In October 1993, Kathy Babe, a Golden postal clerk, had a run-in with one of her workmates. "He came up to me and told me a really inappropriate joke," she says. "It had to do with eating him. And I didn't even know him."
Two months later, she continues, "he came up behind me after a safety meeting and shoved me; he almost knocked me to the floor. I complained, and they placed him on paid administrative leave."
After counseling, the man returned in mid-June 1994--to, among other duties, training women mail carriers. "I was flabbergasted," Babe says. "I asked them, `You have him training women?'" She took her accumulated sick leave and left the post office for three months.
Still, upon reflection, Babe counts herself lucky. "All this sounds nice in comparison to 20th Street," she says. "That place sounds really scary to me. I counted my blessings after I heard about their stories."
"This has been going on for three years now," says Phyllis Woodman, currently on sick leave from her 20th Street job. "It began two years ago," says Garland Lewis, who works next to Woodman at the downtown station. "We've been working in hell," says Carol Ware, who is stationed nearby, "for four years."
"Thank you for your letter," Denver postmaster Michael Flores recently wrote to Representative Dan Schaefer, after the congressman passed along a complaint he'd received from a 20th Street clerk. "I am well aware of the employee climate at the Downtown Station and have been working for months to resolve the situation.
"Several associations have met with the employees of that station to help them come to terms with their individual issues," Flores assured Schaefer. "The National Association of Letter Carriers Union, American Postal Workers Union, District Equal Employment Opportunity, Violence in the Work Place team, Employee Assistance Program, United States Postal Inspectors and the City of Denver Police Department."
"I can't talk about it," says Gene Sandoval, a union steward at 20th Street, although he concedes, "I have spent some time down there."
Many postal workers don't share Sandoval's reticence, however, and recently, several employees from 20th Street's early-morning shift--4 a.m. to noon--gathered at a friend's Lakewood townhouse for a support session. Over pizza rolls, black olives, sliced carrots and nuts, they aired their grievances.
To help her remember specifics, Carol Ware, a twenty-year veteran of the postal service, refers to a detailed diary she keeps of goings-on at the station. Tom Romero has a stack of copies of letters he's written to various officials. Beverly Langley has a hardback folder of her EEO complaint against a 20th Street supervisor for not preventing harassment against her.
"They call me bitch, fat bitch, everything," Ware begins. "I've had to take pain pills and go to a psychiatrist. My husband and I have been almost run off the road. I have been threatened to have my house firebombed. My new car has been vandalized." She unfolds a picture of a pig wearing a tutu, taken from the rear. "I found this on my desk," she says.
Before she requested a transfer from downtown, Langley says she had to work through daily doses of intimidating stares, swearing and threats. "They farted near us," adds Rosalee Anderson.
Although other people are mentioned--Billy Mullins, for instance--the usual subject of the complaints is a man named Garland Lewis. "Garland has always been there, and he's a horrible person," says Langley.
Across town, in a modest Aurora home that he recently sold, the object of their ire is happy to give his own interpretation of events. "This is about management's inability to deal with the workforce and what's going on," says Lewis, a muscular, seventeen-year mail sorter with a closely cropped beard and thick black Nike wristband. He adds that 20th Street's problems lie not with him but with those who have lodged complaints against him that happen to be vicious lies.
"Management is looking for a scapegoat, and I'm just the one," he says. "They just want to make it look like an individual problem. And I guess I'm the individual with the problem.
"These people," he concludes, "I don't think they have a life, to tell you the truth. They're just people who're trying to make my life miserable."
One of the primary ways they've tried to make Lewis miserable is by calling Detective Rock whenever a bad word or hard stare is tossed about the sprawling mailroom. In a police report filed last May, postal clerk Trina Bell charged that Lewis "called me a roly-poly ass." Actually, she added, "I didn't hear this. But [someone else] did, and he came and told me about it."
Later, Bell complained to police, "I was called a Mack truck." Again, she conceded that "I didn't hear this word for word. But I saw Garland laughing...I've heard them saying things about me, but I couldn't distinguish what was said until other people told me."
In the same police report, Ware complained that Lewis had stated, "I hate women who get old and fat." He then allegedly observed to a co-worker, "There's a big black cow in here. Moo, moo, smell the stockyards."
Rock, hastily called away from his mail-fraud desk, dutifully wrote up the incidents, handing Lewis a ticket for harassment. Lewis tried to understand. "I said, `Detective Rock, you mean to say you're going to give me a ticket for saying something that someone says I said to someone else?'" he recalls.
Unfortunately for Lewis, the answer was yes. Three months ago the case went to trial in Denver District Court. Officially, Richard Ott, Lewis's attorney, leaned toward a First Amendment defense. "The prosecution's evidence is that the defendant allegedly called Ms. Ware a cow, then said `moo' and made comments about her weight," he wrote in a motion. "This phrase, even if offensive, is not obscene."
Unofficially, says Ott, "this is a case where a woman was called a roly-poly ass. What more can you say about that?"
Guilty, according to the jury. Lewis was sentenced on May 3. The judge ordered him to write letters of apology to Bell and Ware, attend counseling and be placed on one year's probation. The judge also told Lewis he wanted him to transfer out of 20th Street as soon as possible.
"This is not to be just an agreeable transfer," he warned. "Day or night, east, west, north or south--I just want you out of there."
Lewis has yet to be transferred out of downtown; that's because Ott has requested a new trial. He contends that his client wasn't even working at the station on the day he was accused of making the cow remarks. "The prosecution's witnesses were backing up so fast that if there was a telephone pole behind them they would have knocked it over," Ott says. "I don't think Garland got a fair trial. I just think the jury didn't like anybody at this trial."
Within the local postal service, Garland Lewis has become bigger and badder than life. "He's been fired twice," says Ware. In a court filing, she claims that Lewis frequently drinks on the job; several colleagues charge him with purposely slowing down the mail so he can get overtime pay. Still others say he was put on administrative leave for threatening to go home, get a gun and kill everyone at the station.
Lewis denies it all. "I've never been fired from the post office," he says, adding, "I've never threatened anyone, never, not once. They always discriminate against me because of my size, how big I am, and that I look intimidating because of my size. I've heard that so many times. I think management looks at me as a big, intimidating guy."
But sources at the U.S. Postal Service say that, truth be told, Lewis has been a problem and owns a record going back to 1989 to prove it. "He should have been out of here long ago," says one person familiar with Lewis's disciplinary history.
Several postal employees say they've transferred out of the downtown station just to escape his endless threats and insults. Beverly Langley says she took a night-shift spot at another station rather than endure more abuse. Rosalee Anderson says she took another job--and a $3,000 pay cut--to get away.
"Garland has always been a mean fellow," says one clerk who recently left 20th Street. "He was very intimidating. He would confront you, stick his finger in your face and threaten you. I was frightened.
"I don't want to portray the post office in a bad light," he adds. "But things like this need to be dealt with. Let's put it this way: I was glad to get out of there. It's crazy."
"Personal opinion?" adds another man who also has left the station. "I think the guy's dangerous. His sense of manhood is different than other people's; his manhood is very important to him."
Nonsense, says Lewis. His supporters back him up. "Everyone has the potential to be violent," observes Mullins over a soda at a downtown tavern. By way of example, he points to himself. "I go through days where I want to use this"--he reaches down and grabs a fork--"or this"--he picks up a knife--"or even this"--a spoon. "I won't deny it; I feel the rage."
But, he adds, "I don't think Garland's a violent guy. He's got a nine-year-old daughter; why would he want to be violent?"
"I'm not intimidated by him," adds Woodman, a friend and fellow clerk. "I've never seen him do anything to anyone that could be considered intimidating." And, she says, "he can't help his stature."
Enough about him, anyway; Lewis has his own tales to tell. "You might want to ask about the card club," he says.
Actually, no need to ask--Lewis will explain it himself. "There's a group of people at the station who go upstairs to the break room to play cards," he says. "They go about three times a day, from 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes each time. On the clock."
And another thing: It's Lewis who has felt threatened, not the other way around. One woman "once said that if I keep talking to [a colleague], she was going to come over and slap my face," he says. "She's paranoid."
Finally, Lewis points out that he was complaining about his co-workers long before they got around to tattling on him. "I've been to the postal inspectors, written to the postmaster--I called on this stuff before any of these complaints happened," he says. "Yet I'm the one getting tickets. I feel like my civil rights have been violated."
The enthusiasm of 20th Street workers for filing complaints has not been matched by prosecutors. Most of the criminal cases have been dismissed.
Last October, for example, Ware thought she heard an unkind cut as she put on her apron. "She's too fat to even tie it," Woodman allegedly remarked. Ware called Rock. Rock investigated. Woodman received a ticket for disturbing the peace.
Woodman denies insulting Ware. If anything, she says, she was defending her friend Lewis's honor, which she felt was being maligned when Ware reached for her apron. "Garland always wears an apron," she explains. "And I just said, `Well, look who wants to be just like you.' I mean, suddenly all these people were wearing aprons. I felt they were trying to make a mockery out of him."
The city attorney's office declined to prosecute.
A week after the apron incident, Mullins allegedly yelled across the work floor. Trina Bell, he was said to have said, "has big teeth, like a horse." Bell called Rock. Rock charged Mullins with disturbing the peace. The city attorney declined to prosecute.
Even the charges against Mullins for filing a false assault report were dismissed earlier this year. (A medical exam performed following the alleged fracas revealed redness on his face and a tearing eye.) After the dismissal, Mullins accepted a year of internal postal probation for "unacceptable conduct."
But Mullins has since reconsidered his passive stance. He is keeping his own diary of alleged misdeeds at the station, and last month he filed a notice of his intent to sue Rock and the City of Denver for negligence. The incident, says Mullins, had an adverse impact on his life.
In addition to the standard pain and suffering, he says he has sustained other injuries. "I'm an amateur lyric writer," he explains. "And suddenly I had to write to some guy to explain myself and answer complaints. I tell you, it was throwing me all off."
And then came the wackadoo case.
It began last May 19, exactly a year ago--but it's far from over.
"Thomas Romero really likes the Broncos," begins Detective Rock. "He's kind of an excitable guy."
"I'm a Broncos fan, and I watch them religiously on Sundays," Romero confirms. "So I was walking across the floor one day, and I said to my buddy, `How 'bout them Broncos!"
Romero continues: "Garland Lewis overheard the conversation, and he said, `Hey, Tom, come over here. You know what you are? You're a wackadoo. You're the motherfuckin' founder of the wackadoo club.' Then he said, `You know what a wackadoo is?' And I said, `No, what's a wackadoo?' And he said, `It's someone who only roots for his team when it's winning.' And that's just not true."
Romero was shaken. "I wanted to go home sick that day, because I felt bad because of what this man did to me," he was to recall later in court. Instead, Ware recommended that Romero call Rock. She gave him the detective's direct line, and Romero dialed the phone. Rock was soon on his way back to 20th Street. He investigated the incident. Romero's story seemed accurate.
"Well," Rock says, taking a deep breath, "Garland suddenly thought Tom should be a wackadoo. A motherfucking wackadoo. And I'm going, `What the hell's going on?' This stuff should've been done with in sixth grade."
Lewis disputes the detective's findings. "A wackadoo's an unfavorable sports term," he agrees. "Everybody in there uses the word. But," he adds, "the word `motherfucker' never came into it."
Come to think of it, Lewis adds, "I never spoke to Tommy that day and called him a wackadoo."
Nevertheless, at Romero's request, the detective charged Lewis with disturbing the peace and threatening Romero. As the case approached trial, several postal employees rallied to Lewis's cause, submitting more or less expert testimonials.
"To Whom It May Concern," began one. "I, Pat Reynolds, do use the word `wack a-doo.' It's a generic sports term with no violent or aggressive meanings.
"It also is used as a title of a 1970s popular song," he added.
Another letter read: "This is in reference to the word `wacka doo.' I do not find the word to be offensive of any sort. I have used the word myself and have also been called a `wacka doo.' I do not get angry in any way.
"In fact," the writer pointed out, "on the talk show `Oprah Winfrey,' she herself used the word on national T.V. on Tuesday, June 14th." (An Oprah spokeswoman says the topic of that day's show was "Test Your Personality," and a scan of the transcript didn't turn up any wackadoo references. Still, the word "is something I've heard come out of Oprah's mouth a few times," she confirms. "I think it means goofy.")
The wackadoo trial was held late last month in courtroom 117 of Denver County Court. Tom Romero was the first witness called by the prosecution. "How would you describe your relationship with Garland Lewis?" the city attorney began. "Is it professional?"
"It's supposed to be," Romero answered, eager to set the appropriate tone. "I act professional. He doesn't."
Carol Ware, who claimed to have witnessed the incident, was next to take the stand. The city attorney asked her to recall, to the best of her knowledge, the unfortunate events of July 19.
"I went up to get my mail out of my mail cart," she began, "and I heard Garland Lewis call Mr. Romero a..." She paused, uncertain. "Do you want me to say what I heard?"
The judge and city attorney nodded yes.
"He called Tom a motherfucking wackadoo," Ware said. "He said, `They're all motherfucking wackadoos.'"
In his summation, attorney Ott, again representing Lewis, contended that the prosecution did not prove that `wackadoo' is necessarily a fighting word under the U.S. Constitution. Besides, he pointed out, the date of the alleged event was May 19, not July 19. After a review of the transcripts, the judge agreed and dismissed the case.
Despite the best efforts of the Denver police, the postal service, its employee-assistance programs and the various unions, the mayhem continues at 20th Street. A growing pile of still-pending Equal Employment Opportunity cases names nearly everyone at the station. (The EEO office did not return phone calls.)
Last month Lewis was actually arrested and charged with threatening a co-worker who'd testified against him in an earlier harassment case. "Garland said he'd kick his teeth in and then kill him," Rock recalls. Lewis, who is out on a $2,500 bond, is suspended from work at the post office, although he still receives a paycheck because he is a veteran.
Even though Lewis is at least temporarily out of the picture, Rock says others are picking up the slack. "Billy Mullins's latest trick is, he comes around and starts grabbing his crotch and balls and smiling," the detective says.
And early this month Denver police received another call from 20th Street: Carol Ware had complained that Billy Mullins said she smelled bad. Mullins doesn't deny it.
"Carol was spreading mail," he says, "and the supervisor told me to help her. And I said to him, `I'm going to wait, because she's got an offensive odor.' It's like, you know, after you've played basketball. Kind of sweaty." Police called to the scene let Mullins off with a warning.
By last week, however, Rock had revisited city statutes. On Friday Mullins was arrested and charged with harassment. According to Rock's application for the warrant, Mullins had been trying to attract attention to himself in an unprofessional way.
"Whenever Mullins is in a position where Ware can see him," the detective wrote, "he grabs his crotch and fondles himself... While on the phone with me, [Ware] advised that Mullins had just walked by her and while doing so, grabbed his buttocks and was squeezing it in front of her. At this time, I instructed Ware to call the Denver police dispatcher, request a car to respond to investigate this matter and make a report, if necessary."
While some people interviewed by the police denied any knowledge of Mullins's alleged groin-grabbing, others unfortunately revealed more of the same. For instance, Bell reported that "while [she was] at the time clock, Mullins walked up, started singing a song about a girl with a big booty, laughed and walked away." Interviewed later that day, Romero confirmed to Rock that he "has heard Mullins singing sexual songs around the ladies in a rap style."
"The songs Mullins sings," Rock's report concluded, "Romero related he has never heard before."
Mullins concedes he was disciplined once before for singing a song by the rap group Salt-n-Pepa on the mailroom floor that, out of context, might be construed as explicit. It was called "Let's Talk About Sex." But he says those days are over.
"For the past month, month and a half, I haven't been singing any explicit songs," he insists. For instance, "Jimmy Buffett's `Let's Get Drunk and Screw'--I haven't been singing anything like that." And, he points out, it's not as though he doesn't know any offensive tunes. "I'm a songwriter," he says, "so I keep up with lyrics."
Besides, Mullins responds that it's Carol Ware who's harassing him. "Carol wants to be the object of desire," he says. "She would look at me, then stare down at my crotch like this"--his eyes drop--"then look back up at me."
Mullins's recent alleged misconduct has yet to be litigated. But law enforcement types say they're quickly tiring of the trouble at 20th Street.
"We're trying to get them to act like adults. What I consider this to be over there is very juvenile behavior," says Freeman, the postal inspector. "When I send my resources over to the downtown station to deal with juvenile delinquency, I have to take my men away from a bomb investigation we're working on."
"The city attorney's sick of them, and I'm sick of them," adds Rock. "I've got a $7,000 fraud case, and I'm spending all my time on this.
"There used to be a mediator," the detective continues. "I don't know where he went, but I don't care. I'm not a counselor. I don't take their bullshit."
Postmaster General Marvin Runyon recently penned an essay--distributed by his own agency to the media--about the U.S. Postal Service and its unfortunate reputation as a haven for the disgruntled. It simply isn't true, he said. Nevertheless, Runyon insisted that he is not about to turn his back on the problem of violence and disruptions in the workplace.
"The Postal Service is committed to this cause and to the security and well-being of every working person in the country," the postmaster assured his readers. "We look forward to working with the people of this nation to achieve that goal.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.