Illustration by Taylor Callery
On the morning of May 1, 2010, Tian Yu Lu awoke before dawn. Taking care not to disturb his wife, Lu left his home in San Francisco's Parkside district and climbed into a Ford pickup truck. With him he had night-vision goggles, flashlights, and an extra set of clothes. He was on his way to a dearly desired, and meticulously planned, act of revenge.
As day began to break, he drove across the Bay Bridge and turned north, up the I-80 freeway. Eventually Lu turned onto a quiet block of Pierce Street, on the outskirts of Albany. He parked up the road from the home of Alfredo Bustamante, his former supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Lu had been fired from his job as a letter carrier at a downtown San Francisco post office six months earlier.
When Bustamante emerged from his house and approached his 1999 Acura, Lu gunned the gas and rammed his truck into the car. His former boss was caught behind the driver's side door of the vehicle at the moment of the collision. Bustamante's right arm, sandwiched between the door and its frame, was broken in three places.
Bustamante looked across the hood of the truck and saw Lu, his former employee. "I thought I was having a dream," Bustamante would later say.
Staring at Lu through the windshield, he said, "Why are you doing this to me?"
Lu simply stared back. He then threw the truck in reverse, rammed into the Acura once again — missing Bustamante this time — and drove away. Bustamante stumbled to the house of a neighbor, who called 911.
Lu was arrested by police about half a mile away from Bustamante's house, where he had parked his truck. He was charged with attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.
His motive for the attack was Bustamante's alleged mistreatment of him at the post office.
The term "going postal" entered America's social lexicon in the 1990s, when an inexplicable series of mass murders was committed by USPS employees. In 1986, postal worker Patrick Sherrill shot and killed 14 co-workers in Edmond, Okla. In 1991, Thomas McIlvane killed five people with a rifle at the post office in Royal Oak, Mich. That same year, a postal supervisor was murdered with a samurai sword by a former employee in Ridgewood, N.J.
The shootings, which were linked to workers' office resentments, stoked sensational headlines and led to congressional hearings. Postal employees actually have a low rate of workplace homicides compared to other professions, but the string of high-profile, job-related massacres at one federal agency prompted lots of attention. Postal Service leaders and the unions representing postal employees would eventually produce a joint statement of their intent to foster better working conditions.
The problem, as Lu's case suggests, is that they haven't been too successful.
Crimes on the scale of those that created the "going postal" paradigm haven't been frequent over the past decade. But they still occur. In 2006, an ex-postal worker in the California town of Goleta murdered seven employees at a mail-processing center. The same year, San Francisco postal worker Julius Tart shot and killed his supervisor, Genevieve Paez, and then himself.
The particulars of the Lu incident were disputed during his eventual trial. Lu's San Francisco defense attorney, Eric Safire, maintains that his client only intended to vandalize Bustamante's Acura, not exact revenge through a direct physical attack. "At the end of the day, you've got a nice guy who did a bad thing," Safire says — an argument to which jurors would ultimately pay some attention.
But the bizarre nature of Lu's plot inevitably leads to questions about the working conditions in which it was spawned. Some postal employees and experts on workplace mass murder say little has been done to change the organizational culture that has fostered so many deadly attacks since 1986.
Critics say that postal managers are still not held accountable for needlessly abusive treatment of employees, despite the grisly lessons of the past few decades. The problems might even be growing more acute in an era when the Postal Service is suffering from a lack of revenue and cutting jobs and service as a result. Late last month, the agency announced a plan to cut more than 5 percent of its workforce and end Saturday mail service.
"You would think after all the hubbub that was made after Royal Oak, things would change. But it hasn't changed in a lot of the country," says Charlie Withers, a letter carrier who was present at the Royal Oak killings and later wrote a book, The Tainted Eagle, on troubled working conditions in the Postal Service. "The post office has never learned their lesson."
Lu's trial took place in January. A telling piece of testimony came from Carl Bryant, a retired letter carrier and union steward who had also worked under Bustamante.
Bryant, a U.S. Navy veteran who had been employed by USPS for almost 30 years, was subjected at one point to a sequence of leading questions by Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Danny Lau. The prosecutor appeared to be seeking to establish that while Bustamante might have had other dissatisfied employees, none of them had chosen to drive a truck into him. Bryant acknowledged on the stand that he considered Bustamante "despicable, dishonest, and not trustworthy."
Referring to Bustamante, Lau asked, "Looks like he's kind of caused you some grief yourself, correct?"
"Correct," Bryant replied.
"In fact a lot of grief, right?"
"Yes," Bryant said. "I'd say so."
Asked Lau, "Did you ever think about hurting him?"
"Did you ever try to damage his property, maybe damage his car?"
"Did you ever try to kill him?"
"Came to mind sometimes," Bryant said.
"'Came to mind sometimes,'" Lau repeated.
"Yes, it did," Bryant said.
What was it about Bustamante that inspired violent thoughts in more than one of his underlings — thoughts one person was willing to admit in a court of law?