Candidate for supervisor charged in connection with opponent’s stolen campaign signs

Published 5:46 pm Friday, October 13, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A Smithfield Town Council member who is running for a seat on Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors has been charged criminally in connection with the theft of her opponent’s campaign signs.

Councilwoman Renee Rountree faces a charge of receiving stolen goods, while her son-in-law, Blacksburg resident Jesse Hanson, has been charged with larceny after security video showed a man remove a sign on North Church Street, police said. Both charges are Class 1 misdemeanors, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail.

Rountree was the only candidate to submit paperwork by June 20 to get her name on the ballot for the Smithfield-centric District 1 supervisor seat. Chris Torre, a retired real estate developer, announced on Sept. 19 he would mount a last-minute write-in campaign for the District 1 seat.

By Sept. 27, a number of yard signs supporting Torre could be seen throughout the town. By Oct. 2, Torre and his campaign volunteers noticed some of the signs they’d placed had gone missing.

“One sign was being stolen from its location over and over again,” Torre told The Smithfield Times. “Every time the team replaced the missing one with another sign, that one got stolen too.”

Signs Torre placed in his front yard on Sept. 27 were taken sometime during the evening or night of Oct. 2. Another placed at the entrance to Smithfield’s Cypress Creek community alongside signs for several other candidates also went missing sometime prior to 11:23 a.m. on Oct. 3, according to Leah Walker, one of Torre’s campaign volunteers.

The Cypress Creek yard sign was replaced by the campaign on Oct. 4 and taken again sometime prior to 10:45 a.m. on Oct. 8, Walker said, noting that only Torre’s sign and none of the others placed at the development’s entrance had been disturbed.

Walker said the team searched the internet for a solution and came up with the idea to attach AirTags, a button-sized tracking device made by Apple, to some of the signs in hopes of catching the culprits, and provided the tracking info to police.

According to an Oct. 12 town news release, police traced signs stolen from two separate locations to the 400 block of Royal Dornoch in Smithfield’s Cypress Creek neighborhood, where Rountree lives.

“The Town of Smithfield and the Smithfield Police Department will continue to fully cooperate with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in this matter,” the press release states.

Rountree, at 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 12, issued the following statement:

“Dear friends, neighbors, and supporters: Please know that I have fully cooperated with the Smithfield Police Department’s investigation of alleged missing signs of the Chris Torre write-in campaign. I maintain my innocence in this matter, but on advice of my counsel will not make any further statements at this time. While this situation is unfortunate for our community, it does not distract me from my efforts to serve Smithfield and ultimately the citizens of Isle of Wight County. I would like to thank everyone for their continued support as I refute these allegations made against me and as (sic) my family.”

Smithfield Mayor Steve Bowman, who in the Times’ Oct. 4 edition endorsed Rountree’s bid for supervisor in a letter to the editor, declined to comment on the charge she now faces.

The footage showing a man walking away with a Chris Torre sign placed on North Church Street near Cure coffee shop came from a video camera mounted outside the Isle of Wight County Museum, according to a police report by Lt. J. Eric Phillips.

Phillips’ report states he made contact with Rountree’s husband, Glenn, on Oct. 9, who granted police permission to search his residence for the missing signs and called his wife, whom he then put on speakerphone to talk with Phillips. She allegedly told Phillips that Hanson had taken the signs “as a prank.”

Rountree then allegedly told Phillips over the phone that she’d planned to “put them behind the treasurer’s office” where campaign signs removed from public right-of-ways are typically taken before they’re returned to candidates, but “didn’t have time.”

Phillips called Hanson the same day. He allegedly admitted to taking two signs.

Rountree, according to Phillips’ report, allegedly told Torre she’d seen several of his signs in the back of her son-in-law’s pickup truck, had placed them in her garage “for safekeeping” and “intended to return them.” Torre also told the Times that Rountree had used the phrase “for safekeeping” when describing his conversation with her.

Rountree contacted police herself on Oct. 12 and, according to Phillips, told him and Chief Alonzo Howell that she would be available at 3:30 p.m. that day for an officer to stop by her home to serve her with her warrant.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips told the Times on Oct. 13 that charging Rountree and her son-in-law was a decision made by police, not her office.

Police “presented us with a set of facts and we advised what potential charges were appropriate given the evidence presented,” Phillips said. “My office did not make the decision to charge any individual.”

Virginia law obligates commonwealth’s attorneys to prosecute felonies but gives discretion in whether to assign a prosecutor to argue a misdemeanor case.

“We may prosecute a misdemeanor larceny offense pursuant to a request from either the law enforcement officer or the victim,” Phillips said.