Political sign theft leads to bizarre cover-up effort
Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Don't read all about it
A series of minor thefts in early September had Lakes Area store clerks scratching their heads. Newspaper racks were empty. Storefront vending boxes were cleaned out, and copies of the Sept. 2 Dickinson County News were hard to come by just 24 hours after the weekly newspaper was distributed throughout the Iowa Great Lakes.
Area businesses reviewed their security footage, and Peter De Yager, owner of the Foreign Candy Company in Hull, was charged with fifth-degree theft.
De Yager had been caught on camera removing a stack of Dickinson County News editions without paying for them at around 12:49 p.m. Sept. 3 from the Jiffy station in Spirit Lake. De Yager had walked in, tucked the store's supply of the newspaper inside one of the area's free publications and left the store, according to store management — the criminal complaint said the stack of papers was valued at about $20. Management also told the Dickinson County News the store's staff had been wondering why they and a number of other businesses along the area's main highways were suddenly sold out of the Dickinson County News that day. Jiffy filed charges against the 70-year-old businessman Sept. 16, and De Yager pleaded guilty just shy of two weeks later. Iowa Third Judicial Associate Judge David Larson ordered the Hull businessman to pay a $105 fine for the crime, and the judge's order indicated necessary restitution, if any, had yet to be determined.
Repeated requests for comment from Mr. De Yager were not returned.
The Jiffy station wasn't the only business reviewing its security footage. Surveillance video from other Lakes Area businesses captured similar thefts on that particular Thursday.
Cameras at Jennings Tow & Repair in Spirit Lake recorded a man visiting the local Shell station at midday. Co-owner Sylvia Jennings said she recognized him as a somewhat regular customer, and she recalled him asking if she carried $100 gift cards.
"I said, 'No, I don't, but I've got $50. Let me get some more out here,'" Jennings said. "I turned around to get them out of the cabinet, and he grabbed my papers, folded them over, stuck them down by his leg and walked out the door."
Surveillance footage appears to confirm Jennings' account, and outdoor cameras caught the man walking toward pump 5 and placing the papers inside a maroon Buick crossover with dealer plates. The footage showed he went back inside but made no purchase at the time. Jennings said she had sold about five copies of the newspaper before the theft. The newspaper's content is also available online.
Staff at the Spirit Lake Kum & Go, Spirit Lake Fareway, and Spirit Lake Hy-Vee each said they discovered similar thefts had occurred between 11:30 a.m. and 12:42 p.m. that day. The cameras at Hy-Vee captured a man paying for one newspaper from the DCN's outdoor coin-operated machine before emptying its entire contents into a grocery cart and loading the papers into the back of a maroon crossover.
De Yager's name happened to appear on page 3 of the Sept. 2 edition — in the police reports. The Hull businessman had been charged with fifth-degree theft and trespassing — both misdemeanors — after stealing a political yard sign from a residence in the Monarch Cove area the night of July 26. Dickinson County Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Vodraska helped file those charges and confirmed the stolen sign was in support of former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign. De Yager has donated more than $30,000 to various Republican campaigns and political action committees since 2019, according to the Federal Elections Commission, including $20,000 to Iowa Four — a PAC aimed at unseating U.S. Rep. Steve King in favor of Iowa State Sen. Randy Feentra, who was employed by De Yager's company in the past.
De Yager initially pleaded not guilty to the charges of theft and trespassing, according to the court filings, but the businessman changed his plea to guilty on Sept. 21 — less than a week after the Jiffy station filed charges against him — and the court later ordered De Yager to pay $105 for the theft of the sign and $260 for trespassing.
"In addition, (the) defendant's motor vehicle registration or suspension of (the) defendant's drivers license, or both, may be initiated," both rulings said.
Tracy Theye, general manager of the Okoboji Kum & Go, was one of the few who had a name to go with a face after reviewing her store's security tapes last month. She had noticed something strange about the store's news racks that Thursday morning, and it didn't take her long to realize there was a gap where the Dickinson County News should have been.
"I never sell through my papers in less than 24 hours," Theye said.
Theye took a look at the previous day's footage, and she was able to identify De Yager by name. She said De Yager is a regular customer during his summer vacations to the Lakes Area. Theye also said De Yager is friendly with her staff, sometimes bringing them edible gifts like Georgia peaches or Nutty Bars from the locally famous Nutty Bar Stand in Arnolds Park. But on Sept. 3, he stole about 35 copies of the newspaper from the store.
"He put his Wall Street Journal down on top of the Dickinson County News and looked over to see if anyone was watching him, grabbed all the papers and walked out the door," Theye said.
The general manager decided to confront De Yager about the theft on his next visit, rather than going immediately to the police.
"I said, 'You need to bring those papers back,'" the Kum & Go manager recalled saying. "That's a loss of money for me."
According to Theye, De Yager initially denied stealing the papers but soon changed his story, saying he mistook them for the free Northwest Iowa Shopper publication and that he wanted to cut out all the coupons to a particular quick-service restaurant. Theye said De Yager paid for the newspapers a few days later, telling the cashier he felt guilty and planned to pay each location back for the papers he stole.
"We went around to the various convenience stores, and some of them opted not to press charges if he agreed to come in and pay for the papers," Spirit Lake Police Lieutenant Daren Diers said.
Both Jennings and the Spirit Lake Kum & Go confirmed De Yager has since paid for the papers. Management at Fareway and Hy-Vee were unaware of any payments made for stolen newspapers as of Tuesday. The DCN and its publisher have yet to be contacted by anyone wanting to pay for newspapers stolen from its coin-operated machines.
Sign theft, vandalism a problem this election
Tuesday, October 6, 2020
By Seth Boyes - Staff Writer
Campaign signs and other displays of political support began popping up in yards around Dickinson County in August, and Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun said it didn't take long for reports to start rolling in about signs being stolen or vandalized.
"It's becoming a big problem," Baloun said. "We've received numerous complaints from both sides of it."
Virginia Kelly, a resident in an unincorporated area near East Lake Okoboji, said her signs in support of former Vice President Joe Biden and congressional candidate Theresa Greenfield were stolen the night of Sept. 11. But she said it's not the theft itself which bothers her the most. Rather she said the most bothersome aspect is what she called a loss of empathy and a shift on both sides of the political aisle toward silencing opposing viewpoints.
"It's just ridiculous," Kelly said. "If you profess you want to live in a free country, then please give others the same courtesy you expect for yourself."
Kelly also said she believes the thefts and vandalism being reported throughout the community are a symptom of a large social issue.
"Our good qualities are lagging behind the ugly that has sprouted up, and we have to figure out a way to come back from that," Kelly said. "The signs are just a microcosm of it all."
A few weeks before Kelly's signs disappeared, a large-scale sign in support of President Trump's reelection was vandalized at Vick's Corner World west of Spirit Lake. Owner Layton Vick said the word "dump" was written in spray paint just above the president's name about three weeks after it was put in place. Vick said the sign was made of aluminum and cost him about $375.
"It sounds like, after they vandalized mine, they went from here down to Milford, and it sounds like there were three or four of them that were vandalized — same guy, same paint, same spelling," Vick said.
Vick said he doesn't understand the motivation to steal or deface political signs and went so far as to call it "just plain stupidity."
"I don't care if it's a Trump sign or a Biden sign, leave the dang things alone," Vick said.
Both Vick and Kelly said they reported the crimes to the Dickinson County Sheriff's Office. Vick hopes authorities are able to hold the perpetrators responsible so others considering the same crimes might be deterred. He said he doubts many people realize the potential risks of stealing or defacing campaign displays.
In fact, 16 signs — valued at $20 each — were reported stolen about 20 miles to the east in Emmet County, prompting the Estherville Police Department to remind the public of the potential charges.
"The theft of signs is a criminal offense that could land the perpetrator up to a year in jail and a substantial fine," the department said in a Sept. 14 social media post. "Entering the property of another is also trespassing under Iowa law. The suspects could face the possibility of being charged with both offenses."
The police later reported two juvenile males had been confronted, and the missing items were being returned to their rightful owners.
"Some words of wisdom for today," the police said in their Sept. 15 update. "If it isn't yours, keep your hands off of it."