The bandits were brazen. With the sun shining and in full view of passing motorists, they approached the mark, a nondescript, vacant auto repair shop next to a shuttered gas station on busy Navco Road.
Of the hundreds of drivers passing the location hourly, few travel below the posted speed limit and most seem attentive on the task at hand. Their eyes are usually fixed on the curvy stretch of road, crisscrossed every few hundred feet by residential streets. But the bandits were an anomaly.
The first two, who worked as a team, arrived about an hour before dusk on Saturday, Aug. 3. Surveillance cameras mounted on the front of the shop captured two cars approaching from the south, decelerating as they diverted from the public pavement to the private, concrete lot of the auto repair shop.
The lead vehicle was a dark, four-door sedan and was closely tailed by a white sports car, possibly a newer-model Camaro or Mustang.
The video lacks high resolution, but appears to show a female figure emerge from the sedan while a heavy-set male stepped out of the sports car. The male seems particularly cautious as they both open their trunks, but the female immediately goes to work. She retrieved what the property owner later identified as a Tim Burnett for City Council District 4 campaign sign from the trunk of her sedan and walked north, planting it firmly at the intersection of Navco and White Street.
Seconds later, she returned and engaged the male in brief dialogue. There’s no audio, but the action suggests the two were discussing how to perform the next part of their scheme. Not satisfied with simply increasing the exposure of their own candidate, the perpetrators apparently wanted to kill two birds with one stone. They wanted to remove a campaign sign belonging to incumbent City Councilor John Williams.
As the man moved to close his trunk, the woman simultaneously opened the passenger door of his car. Within a span of 10 seconds, the man dislodged Williams’ sign, tossed it in his car and shut the door. Twenty seconds later they were back on the road, having stolen at least a couple of dollars’ worth of merchandise purchased with Williams’ campaign fund.
When Jesse Eldridge noticed the theft, he wanted to dismiss it. The sign that was taken had a nominal value and replacing it would take minimal effort. But as a District 4 resident and property owner, he is particularly supportive of Williams’ re-election. Eldridge had recently attended a fish fry Williams hosted for constituents in the Dog River area, and said he came away with the impression that the one-term City Councilman would always take his phone calls and never give him a vague answer. He also came away with the campaign sign.
Eldridge bought the auto repair shop last October as an investment opportunity. It’s not much, a two-car garage with a small lobby, and he thinks it’s been unused for commercial purposes since sometime during the Clinton Administration. But he’s put money into its repair and meeting municipal codes and he even has a mechanic lined up to take on a six-month lease whenever he’s finished.
The exterior is a little uninviting, but the power is on and a small window-mounted air conditioner keeps the lobby a few degrees cooler than the air outside. One of the only other plugs occupying a power outlet in the shop is connected to a video surveillance system, which has four small cameras feeding into a digital recorder and split-screen monitor. He figured, as long as he’s spending money on improvements, he ought to have an extra set of eyes on the place.
The theft of the sign didn’t bother him, but the apparent trespassing and placing of another sign in its place without his permission did. So he scanned the video and afterward, called Tim Burnett.
“I told him I had video of two people putting his sign on private property and taking another one off,” Eldridge said. “He was apologetic and he asked for a description of the people. He said he knew who it was and the very same day he brought the (Williams) sign back.”
Burnett later confirmed Eldridge’s account, adding that in a race with three other candidates, some of his own signs have disappeared.
“The bottom line is, I’m the gentleman running for City Council District 4 so I am responsible for my campaign,” Burnett said. “I can’t control everybody who puts out signs for me, but I do take full responsibility for the campaign so I immediately found out who took the sign and found out he still had it. So I returned it. I sure don’t agree with my signs being pulled up or anyone’s signs being pulled up, but unfortunately it just goes with the territory.”
Eldridge thanked Burnett and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of it. He put the Williams sign back and within a day or two added a couple more, along with a few signs distributed by the Sandy Stimpson for Mayor campaign.
But on Aug. 6 it happened again. Only this time, the thief targeted the Stimpson signs. Video surveillance shows a suspect, appearing to be a lone female, arrive at the property at 1:48 p.m. in a light-colored Lincoln Town Car. In about three minutes, she removes one Sandy Stimpson sign from the property, but allows another to remain standing. She also leaves three yellow and blue placards promoting the re-election of Mayor Sam Jones.
Again, when he noticed the theft, Eldridge referred to the video and again, he contacted the responsible campaign.
“I spoke to the mayor’s campaign and they assured me it wasn’t someone working on their behalf,” he said. “I just thought it was a coincidence and I was willing to laugh it off. When I told people at Sandy Stimpson’s office, they kind of smiled and shook their heads and gave me more signs.”
So on Aug. 8, Eldridge put the new signs up. He intended to work most of the day at the shop and keep an eye on the signs but he left around lunchtime to run a couple of errands. When he returned about 40 minutes later, he discovered the Town Car bandit had struck again.
In the video, she appeared to be driving past the property but suddenly did a one-eighty on White Street. This time, she took all three of Eldridge’s Stimpson signs and replaced them with three more Jones signs. She was in and out in under three minutes, but in reviewing the video, Eldridge suspected she might still be in the neighborhood.
He attempted to give chase, but the car was nowhere to be found. He flagged down a police officer and reported the incidents, but was told it was a widespread problem and it would be helpful to have a license plate number. Again he called the Jones campaign and also called the mayor’s office, but again he was told they had nothing to do with it. Afterwards, he returned to Stimpson’s DIP headquarters and reluctantly asked for more signs.
On Aug. 10, Eldridge had different plan. He’d put the signs out, run his errands early and work through lunch to see if the Town Car thief would return. She did, but as if she had her own surveillance on the property, she came three hours earlier than her previous appearances, while Eldridge was gone. On her third visit, she cleaned house. This time, the Town Car bandit only left one Jones sign. But she cleared the lot of all four Stimpson signs.
Greg Callahan is familiar with the issue of disappearing campaign signs. When he was a candidate for city council in 2001 a number of his own signs vanished and as the owner of ABC Signs in Theodore, he produces the vast majority of campaign signs for political candidates in the area, whether they are Republican, Democrat or Independent. During a busy season, he’ll print 4,000-5,000 campaign signs a day for candidates nationwide.
“It’s something that has gone on from the beginning of time, but it’s usually a two-fold thing,” he said. “Half of it is people putting signs in places they don’t belong. They think if there are two on a corner, they can put one of their own there too. Probably more than half are removed by people who have the authority to take them down. Keep Mobile Beautiful (a City of Mobile initiative) will absolutely clean out an area and they don’t care whether it’s the mayor’s sign, or a real estate sign or a church sign. Some people will take them for their own use, to paint over them and put their own message on there, or to take the wire stands to use in their garden. I caught a guy once with a whole pickup truck full of stands he said he was going to use for his tomatoes.”
Yet, Callahan acknowledged the phenomenon of sign theft for political purposes, saying the number of signs blanketing an area can be indicative of the level of a candidate’s support, or his or her ambition to publicly serve. But he said it’s rarely the candidates themselves pulling up other signs.
“When it gets close to the election time, when stuff gets heated up, you get overzealous supporters out there who are going to do everything they can to gain an advantage,” he said. “Take the mayor’s race. It’s been civilized and common until the last week or two and you can tell your people not to do it but it’s just going to happen. I’ve had some even ask us to put ‘Thou Shall Not Steal’ on the bottom. But in my experience over the years it’s kind of tamed down. Fifteen years ago it was rampant, it was almost a joke. But signs can be a large expense for some candidates and I think nowadays with new technologies and 100 people with camera phones all around it is becoming less common.”
Still, with nearly every political campaign, allegations of sign theft are almost guaranteed. On Dauphin Island last year, mayoral challengers Virginia Shanahan and Shawn Perloff both accused opponents of stealing campaign signs. In Fairhope during the same municipal election cycle, the rumor was that a group of people aligned with a certain block of candidates would travel the streets at night, filling the bed of a truck with the signs of their opponents.
Back at Eldridge’s shop, the practice has proven to be commonplace and he has the video to prove it. If it had happened once or twice, he would be willing to dismiss it, but since the Town Car thief has been so persistent, he’s interested in pursuing trespassing charges. The candidates would be responsible for pressing any theft charges, he said.
“I guess it’s not as much as a big deal to me as it is for the candidates, but it just kind of pisses me off,” Eldridge said. “I’m trying to stay politically active and show my support for the community, but then you see people who’ll trespass on your property and steal to stop you. It’s discouraging and it is petty and there’s really no reason for it.