Bandit stealing political signs leaves Silver Spring residents wondering why

By Annys Shin
Sunday, September 12, 2010; C01

A couple of months ago, Kathy Jentz awoke to find that someone had uprooted signs supporting three political candidates from the corner of her yard in Silver Spring. Two signs were missing, and the third had been left in the street. Since Jentz lives at the busy intersection of Fenton Street and Philadelphia Avenue, near Montgomery College, she chalked it up to a clumsy biker or a wayward drunk. She replaced the signs.

"I realize now, those were the warning shots," Jentz said. The warning shots of the Silver Spring sign vigilante.

A few weeks later, Jentz came home to find one of her new signs torn and tossed into the bushes. She replaced it the next day.

Some weeks after that, in early August, her signs were ripped out again, only this time, the perpetrator also left a copy of the county's sign regulations.

Unbeknown to Jentz, during the same period, a pattern of unsolicited sign weeding and anonymous missives was repeated at least a dozen other addresses around East Silver Spring and North Takoma Park, with many homes hit more than once.

Neighbors began trading stories and comparing notes. A call to the county permitting office made clear that the missives and sign-pulling were not the work of any government official. The number of incidents pointed to only one conclusion: A political sign bandit was on the loose.

On the list of public safety priorities, yanking yard signs ranks lower than the car break-ins and burglaries that pepper the neighborhood crime blotter. And with primary elections coming Tuesday, some amount of stealing or defacing of campaign signs is normal. But the vigilante's narrow geographic focus and persistence has set him -- or her -- apart from your run-of-the-mill mischief-maker. Residents find it unsettling that the culprit probably lives among them.

In May, Kit Bonson of Gist Avenue found on her doorstep a three-page, single-spaced letter written in response to a "War is not the answer" sign she has had in her yard since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"I pass by the sign every morning," the letter reads. "If war is not the answer, what is? I've had many thoughts on why your sign is incorrect; war has solved some things and provided answers to certain questions -- such as whether, for example, there would be a 1000-Year Reich."

Bonson said in an e-mail, "I was perplexed why someone would write such a long and bizarre letter about my antiwar sign, but then not put a name to it."

A few weeks later, Bonson received a copy of the county rules about campaign signs. "It was hard not to presume it was the same person," she said.

But who could the vigilante be? One woman suspected her ex-husband but ruled him out after a Washington Post reporter showed her a copy of the sign-ripper's handwriting.

One victim suspected a man who has posted critical comments about the neighborhood civic association on a local Internet mailing list. (He did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.)

Another homeowner suspected Dale Barnhard, a longtime resident who has removed signs before, mainly from telephone poles. ("I'm a dedicated sign taker-downer, but they are all illegally posted," Barnhard said. "I know the difference.")

Another neighbor said his "deep, dark suspicion" is that the sign bandit is Bob Colvin, president of the East Silver Spring Civic Association, who is known to take walks late at night.

Colvin said that he is often out late but that it's because he is a volunteer patrolman for the Maryland-National Capital Park Police. "I just don't have any idea who is doing it," he said. "We got some deranged person out there. No one is able to catch a glimpse of him. It's a frustrating thing. I know everybody wants to kick his" behind.

Colvin and several others have reported the incidents to Montgomery County Council members, police and permitting officials -- not all of whom agree that the vigilante's actions are sinister.

The surreptitiously delivered copies of sign regulations, for instance, are "a good way to get the information out to people," said Susan Scala-Demby, zoning manager for Montgomery's permitting department. "They're helping us, though I'm sure the citizens who are getting them don't think that."

The sign bandit is clearly on a crusade. Just what that crusade is, no one is quite sure.

Several victims believe the perpetrator has an anti-Democrat, anti-liberal bias because almost all the affected signs support local politicians, most of them incumbents and all of them Democrats.

The flaw in that theory is that there are hardly any signs supporting Republicans in the first place; the neighborhoods in question are overwhelmingly Democratic. (The area is also home to many of the politicians whose signs were targeted, including state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, Del. Heather R. Mizeur, and County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).

The Montgomery County Republican Party and the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had no evidence of similar acts against signs promoting their candidates.

The other theory about the sign vigilante is that he or she is driven not by ideology but by a compulsion for order. "I don't think it's political at all," said Hans Riemer, a Democratic candidate for County Council whose stretch of Ritchie Avenue was hit by the sign bandit several weeks ago.

But for the most part, non-campaign yard signs, such as one advertising music classes for preschoolers, have been left alone.

Riemer's theory is that the perpetrator is a code enforcement zealot.

Riemer says the signs ripped out on his street were potentially in violation of a county regulation that all yard signs be five feet inside the owner's property line. He believes his yard signs were untouched because they were well inside that limit.

Other evidence in support of the non-political theory comes from Ernest Bland on Sligo Avenue. He said he thinks the same person who wrote the note to Bonson left him an anonymous note in June, threatening to report him to the county for failure to control vegetation growing just outside his property line. He says the handwriting on that note is similar to that on Bonson's.

"I don't think it's a political statement," said Gist Avenue resident Richard Stack, who has had his yard signs uprooted twice, most recently on Aug. 26. He moved his signs to a different spot, where, so far, they have been left undisturbed. He also added a "Repeal the Death Penalty" sign.

Which the sign vigilante might interpret as something of a peace offering. "They should be happy I'm soft on punishment," Stack said.

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