A Holland man who, with his understudy, stole thousands of letters across three West Michigan counties looking for checks, was sentenced Monday, Nov. 21 to two years in federal prison.

Zachary Stephen Thomas, 33, was indicted in June on myriad charges stemming from mail thefts in Allegan, Ottawa and Van Buren counties over a five-month period. Investigators say hundreds of residents were victimized.

Thomas in late July agreed to plead guilty to aggravated identity theft. In exchange for his plea, two other charges were dismissed.

In addition to prison, U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Maloney ordered that Thomas pay more than $18,000 in restitution and serve one year on supervised release once he gets out of prison.

The mandatory two-year prison term “sends a message that those who seek to take advantage of others by stealing mail and accessing their finances through illegal means will face significant consequences,’’ U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles said in a news release.

A second man linked to the crime, 24-year-old Chad Mitchell Weener, pleaded guilty to possession of stolen mail. He’ll be in federal court for sentencing in late December.

Their arrests earlier this year capped a two-month investigation into mail thefts, including 1,000 pieces of mail recovered from a trash bin in Saugatuck.

Thomas was accused of stealing mail in search of bank checks, credit card convenience checks or other types of checks which he made payable to himself, according to a federal indictment.

He was arrested in mid-May and held pending a grand jury investigation which culminated in criminal charges of bank fraud, possession of stolen mail and identity theft.

Thomas was under investigation for mail thefts when Weener was nabbed in Coloma Township on April 25 trying to cash a stolen check at a grocery store. A search of his backpack turned up mail stolen from Holland.

Weener told investigators he stole the mail at the direction of Thomas, “so that he could teach Weener how to steal mail and deposit the stolen checks,’’ Mark Dayhuff, a special agent with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, wrote in a criminal complaint.

“Thomas told him the best areas of Holland from where to steal mail and directed him on what items to steal,’’ Dayhuff wrote in the criminal complaint.

Weener also said he pitched some of the stolen mail in a trash bin behind a Saugatuck gas station. Investigators recovered about 1,000 pieces of mail belonging to Holland area residents.

Postal inspectors got involved when the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department gave them a heads-up about fraudulent bank transaction in Holland Township linked to Thomas.

Thomas opened an account at Macatawa Bank and deposited several checks belonging to two Holland area residents, federal court records show. After making the deposits, he withdrew cash from ATMs.

He was trying to cash a check at a Chase Bank branch in Holland when a teller became suspicious and contacted the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department.

Thomas was arrested March 17 on an outstanding warrant. Officers recovered a backpack stuffed with stolen mail, bank account statements and credit card convenience checks for people across West Michigan.

A search of his Holland apartment turned up more stolen mail, checkbooks and a stolen package, court records show.

Thomas was not cooperative when questioned by police, but said he worked alone. He was released on bond.

About two weeks later, a Holland resident complained that he found his mailbox open and no mail inside, including an anticipated rent check.

Someone attempted to cash the check, which led investigators back to Thomas. His apartment was searched a second time; police recovered more stolen mail.

His claim that he was working alone fell apart when Weener identified Thomas as a mentor.