Daily Press (Sunday)

Missing campaign signs tracked to foe’s home

Isle of Wight County candidate now faces charges for incidents

- By Jane Harper Jane Harper, jane.harper@ pilotonlin­e.com

SMITHFIELD — Chris Torre decided about a month ago to wage a write-in campaign for a seat on the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisor­s.

Torre, 79, is a retired general contractor who’s repeatedly spoken out against controvers­ial developmen­t projects at government forums. He said a group of citizens encouraged him to run for the District 1 seat, which represents the Smithfield area.

Since it was well past the June deadline for getting on the ballot, Torre knew he’d have to run as a write-in. So he started doing all the things a candidate usually does, including getting campaign signs printed and placed around town.

Not long after the signs went up, Torre and his campaign volunteers noticed some had disappeare­d. They replaced the missing signs, only to see some of the new ones disappear as well.

“We were all getting really frustrated,” said Renee Bevan, one of the volunteers. “So we decided to do a little research to see if there was something we could do to figure out what was happening to them.”

The group decided to hide an AirTag — a small electronic tracking device commonly used to hunt down things like lost keys and wallets — between the corrugated layers of one of Torre’s signs, Bevan said.

On Oct. 4, a volunteer placed the doctored sign in a grassy area at the intersecti­on of Cypress Creek Parkway and Fairway Drive in Smithfield, a spot where the political advertisem­ents had gone missing more than once, Bevan said. That was a Wednesday afternoon. By Sunday morning, it was gone.

A team member then used her cellphone to track the sign to its surprising new location — the home of Renee Rountree, a Smithfield Town Council member vying for the same Board of Supervisor­s seat as Torre, Bevan said. Rountree is the only other candidate, and the only one named on the ballot.

Torre’s team reported their discovery to the Smithfield police department.

On Oct. 9, an officer went to Rountree’s home in the 400 block of Royal Dornoch and was given permission by her husband to look around, according to a police report. While the officer was there, Glenn Rountree said his wife had just texted him and said their son-in-law, Jesse Hanson, had taken the signs and they were under the house, the report said.

The officer found two Torre campaign signs just inside the access door to the home’s crawl space, the report said. One began “chirping” when removed.

Renee Rountree, 49, a health care sales executive, was out of town on business at the time and told the officer over the phone that Hanson had taken the signs as a “prank,” the report stated. She also said that before she left town, she took them out of his truck and “put them under the house so that I could return them.”

Rountree said she planned to take them to the treasurer’s office, where she said signs found in the right of way were typically taken. Torre told police Rountree called him after the officer left her house and said she’d placed the signs in her garage for “safekeepin­g” and had planned to return them when she returned, the report said.

When the officer spoke to Hanson over the phone, he said he found one of the signs lying in the gutter/ roadway area in front of a downtown coffee shop on North Church Street, and the other was “right next to it,” the report said.

The officer then located

video from the nearby Isle of Wight County Museum that showed a man picking up a Torre sign Oct. 8 in front of 111 N. Church Street, next to the coffee shop. The sign was planted in the ground next to a Rountree sign — not lying in the roadway or gutter, the report said.

“The Chris Torre sign was positioned further from the roadway than the Rountree sign and neither of them were leaning over or interferin­g with any public right of way,” the officer wrote. “I then located a video clip showing a white male pick up the Chris Torre sign and walk off with it.”

Hanson, of Blacksburg, was later charged with

larceny, and Rountree with receiving stolen goods. Both crimes are misdemeano­rs punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Rountree issued a statement Friday in which she said she was fully cooperatin­g with the investigat­ion.

“I maintain my innocence in this matter, but on advice of counsel will not make any further statements at this time,” the statement said. “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 my family.”

Torre said Friday he didn’t even know what an air tag was until his volunteers told him how they’d used one of the tiny round devices, which measure 1.26 inches in diameter, to try to figure out where his missing signs were going.

“To tell you the God’s honest truth, I wasn’t all that surprised,” to hear where the missing signs were discovered, Torre said. But he’s glad the mystery has been solved, he said, and looks forward to continuing his campaign.

 ?? COURTESY ?? Isle of Wight Board of Supervisor­s candidate Chris Torree became curious when his campagin signs were disappeari­ng.
COURTESY Isle of Wight Board of Supervisor­s candidate Chris Torree became curious when his campagin signs were disappeari­ng.

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