Facing off with the US Postal Service
ARLINGTON — Heather Astaneh, an artist on a deadline, was livid when the package of pencils and erasers she had ordered for her project arrived a day late.
It was the latest in a series of late deliveries, she said, so she dashed off a complaint on the US Postal Service website.
“You guys suck [expletive],” she wrote.
Astaneh, 33, assumed her angry blast would remain anonymous. But about a week later, her letter carrier, Sharon Demiridjian, showed up on her porch yelling, a printed copy of the complaint in her hand, she said.
That was almost three years ago, the first of an escalating series of confrontations between Astaneh and her husband and the postal service, a bitter feud that has carved a strange path from the local police department to the federal courts, with little sign of a truce.
“If I had known it would have started a three-year thing, I would not have said it that way,” Astaneh said.
The protracted dispute involves unlikely foes: a professional suburban couple against neighborhood letter carriers. Both sides have sought harassment orders against the other, placed several calls to the Arlington Police Department, and fired volleys of competing accusations that one federal judge described as “bizarre.”
“I can’t dissect the truth of the thing,” said US Chief District Judge Patti B. Saris during one hearing in Boston last August after the harassment order the couple obtained against one carrier was moved to federal court. “The whole thing is odd. In 22 years of being a judge, I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
Astaneh and her husband, Amin Astaneh, have meticulously documented the dispute on a website, titled Delivering Fear, that accuses Demiridjian, Allen Hodgkins, a letter carrier on an adjacent route, and other carriers of carrying out a campaign of abuse that includes thrown packages, insults, and even stalking.
The allegations stand in stark contrast to nine letters filed in court and written by other residents on Hodgkins’ route, who describe the 20-year veteran in glowing terms.
“Our entire family feels so comfortable and so appreciative of him that we recently invited him to our family cookout,” wrote one family.
“He always has a smile on his face and is kind with our children, especially my son (who is autistic) and sometimes has a bunch of questions for him,” another family wrote.
But Astaneh, who works from home, said that after tensions with Demiridjian escalated, Hodgkins began lingering behind her house as he delivered mail to other streets, peering into her house and taking pictures of her. She said he has followed her when she goes to pick up her husband at the Alewife train station when he comes home from work.
Their complaints to the carriers’ supervisors were largely brushed off, the couple said. Over time, they became so fearful that they installed cameras in their windows and their car so they could track the carriers’ movements, Amin Astaneh said. At one point, they covered all their windows with poster board.
In court filings, however, the letter carriers say that they are the victims, and accuse Heather Astaneh of following them in her car and screaming insults and threats from her porch.
Hodgkins, the target of Heather Astaneh’s harassment order, acknowledged recording her but said it was only when she was outside her home, to give his supervisor “proof of what I was being subjected to.”
“I did not feel safe and did not know what Ms. Astaneh or her husband [were] capable of,” Hodgkins wrote in one affidavit. “If anyone is being harassed, I believe that Ms. Astaneh and her husband are harassing me.”
In her affidavit, Demiridjian said Astaneh was so “threatening and intimidating,” videotaping her from behind trees and a parked car, that another carrier replaced her briefly. When Demiridjian returned, she said her supervisor accompanied her for safety.
Saris dismissed the complaint in January, citing federal law that shields federal employees from complaints while they’re on the job. The couple must first exhaust legal remedies through a tort claim with the Postal Service. They are seeking $200,000 in damages.
“Given what we’ve endured, in addition to the legal costs and therapy costs out of pocket, we feel that’s completely reasonable,” said Amin Astaneh, a 33-year-old manager for a software engineering company in Boston.
A spokeswoman for the US Postal Service said the agency “does not comment on pending litigation or tort claims.” The union representing the carriers also declined to comment. The carriers could not be reached for comment.
During a hearing before Saris last August, Assistant US Attorney Jason C. Weida, who represented the Postal Service in the harassment complaint, said the agency had investigated the couple’s claims and found them to be “false.”
“Frankly, your honor, the Postal Service would have fired Mr. Hodgkins if these allegations were true,” Weida said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Faced with the conflicting stories, Saris said: “I don’t know how you will ever resolve it.”
The differing accounts unfold in short videos posted on the couple’s website and in court affidavits filed by both sides. In August 2016, Astaneh posted a video of a mail truck she said was driven by Demiridjian. As the truck turns onto a nearby street, a homophobic slur can be heard. In a court filing, Demiridjian denied shouting the slur.
Hodgkins, for his part, accused Heather Astaneh of calling him a “crybaby,” “fat,” and on one occasion, a homophobic slur. She acknowledged the first two insults — the result, she said, of frustration over their harassment — but denied using a slur.
The couple said post office officials told Astaneh to stay away from her porch and windows when the mail was being delivered. In response, they hung signs in their window that read “I have the right to look out my window,” and “I have the right to sit on my steps” in black marker.
Eventually, they hung a large tarp outside their back porch with the message: “USPS driver... stop harassing and taping my wife,” in red and black letters.
“That was a desperate moment on our part,” Amin said.
Their lawyer, Lauren Thomas, advised them to take it down.
“This a rare, almost unique occurrence,” said Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan. “Most people have wonderful relationships with their mail delivery people, myself included. I buy my guy birthday gifts and holiday gifts.”
Those close to the couple describe them as reasonable, level-headed people who are mystified by the conflict.
Heather Astaneh’s sister, Tiffany Smith, who lives in Tampa, said a mason jar filled with homemade tea that she sent to Heather arrived shattered. She now sends packages to her brother-in-law’s office.
Smith said the last three years have made her normally outgoing sister far more reclusive.
“She only goes out with her husband,” Smith said. “It’s making her check over her shoulder.”