DALY CITY -- On Christmas day 1938 a couple named Minnie and Fred sent a telegram to Emma Gonzales in San Francisco telling her they'd arrived in Reno and wished her a happy holiday.
Nearly 75 years later a Daly City police detective fished the creased and yellowed message from the backseat of the car of a postman accused of pilfering credit and gift cards from letters bound mostly for San Carlos homes. Sr. Detective Joe Bocci wants to get the message back to its rightful owner.
"I think someone was passing down some family history," he said. "It means something to somebody."
Police believe someone dropped the telegram into the mail in the run up to the holidays. It ended up among the thousands of letters allegedly stolen by postal employee Romeo Natan, 38, of San Bruno. Authorities believe he targeted Christmas-colored envelopes, hoping they contained items like gift cards he could turn into cash.
Natan, who is behind bars in San Mateo County, and two accomplices were hit with felony charges for the thefts. A fourth conspirator has already cut a deal with prosecutors and faces jail time, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. If convicted of all eight charges, which include identity theft, Natan could get up to eight years behind bars.
During the investigation, Bocci searched Natan's red Toyota in the parking lot of a San Carlos postal facility on Dec. 19. He found a heap of letters as well as something unexpected. Among the modern correspondence was a yellowed Western Union envelope. Out of curiosity he pulled out the folded message, which read: "ARRIVED SAFELY, NO SNOW BUT REAL COLD NICE TRIP BE BACK MONDAY MERRY XMAS TO ALL = MINNIE & FRED."
It was sent to "Emma Gonzales 4434 3 St" at the Western Union office that once sat at 2397 Mission St. in San Francisco. The address was recently a liquor store which is no longer a Western Union agent. No one answered the phone Wednesday listed at 4434 3rd St., which was apparently Gonzales' address.
Bocci said he's tried to find the people named on the telegram, but has come up with nothing so far. The telegram was separated from the envelope that carried it into the postal system.
He's worried this piece of family history could end up being destroyed once the case wraps up, as is procedure for old evidence.
"I want to get it back to someone," he said. "I'd want it back if it were mine."
Natan's defense attorney said his client has already admitted his role in the case and will do everything he can to help reunite the letter with its owner.
"He took total responsibility for what he did," said attorney Michael Hroziencik. "He's trying to make amends."
Hroziencik said his client got involved with the thefts because of a relapse into methamphetamine use. Natan had kicked the drug and got his life together 10 years ago, but a recent near tragedy sent him over the edge.
His 13-year-old daughter underwent emergency surgery after doctors found a tennis ball-size tumor in February attached to her heart. It turned out not to be cancerous, but the stress nudged Natan toward relapse. He eventually turned to crime to feed his habit, Hroziencik said.
"My client is ultimately responsible," he said of Natan, who's on administrative leave from the job with the agency he joined in about 2007. "It's not an excuse."
Anyone with information about the owner of the telegram can contact Daly City police Sr. Detective Joe Bocci at 650-991-8119.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.