A grinch may have stolen Christmas for some Alexandria residents.

At least three mail sacks full of packages for Alexandria zip codes 22314 and 22305 were stolen from the Memorial Station post office on Duke Street over the weekend, according to U.S. Postal Inspector Robert A. Fisher.

The sacks were found at about 9:30 p.m. Monday in an alley just north of the 200 block of N. Payne Street, police said. The mailbags contained packages that had been ripped open -- some obviously were thought not worth taking.

A 28-year-old resident of the area found the sacks and reported them to police officer Andre Vaquero, who was patrolling the high-crime area. Police are withholding the name of the resident, who is the prime witness in the apparent theft of U.S. mail, a federal crime carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

Fisher said he was uncertain how the theft occurred, but said it was possible that "for an hour or so" during the weekend the sacks were left unsupervised at the back dock of the station awaiting pick-up.

Along with the three or four bags filled with packages that were partially or totally ripped open, Fisher said the inspectors recovered about 100 empty mail sacks in the alley. The investigators said they do not believe those sacks originally contained any packages or mail.

Michael Poetzman, the manager of Plumbing Services Inc. at the corner of Cameron and N. Payne described the alley as a "dumping ground for thieves." "Radios, tires . . . mail, you name it."

Police and postal inspectors declined to comment on suspects.

The opened packages were being fingerprinted yesterday and either the sender or the addressee will be contacted today, Fisher said. If the items are salvageable, the post office will rewrap and forward them. If the contents were taken or cannot be matched to their packaging, he said, there is little the Postal Service can do. "It's a loss if the customer didn't have insurance."

Lino Puricelli, the customer service manager at Alexandria's main post office who has been working there for 20 years, said it is rare to lose that much mail, adding, "I don't ever recall a similar theft."

"It's a pretty low-down theft," said Maureen Trimber, 18, as she picked up her parcels at the post office on S. Washington Street. Several times a day, Trimber, an office manager for an Old Town ophthalmologist, checks the post office box for contact lenses.

As Martha Shaw was mailing a 61st birthday present yesterday to her twin sister in Albuquerque, she heard about the theft. Happily, she said, she still thinks her own gift will come through. "I know my sister," she said, "and she uses UPS."