Rountree sentenced to community service for role in theft of opponent’s campaign signs

Published 6:15 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2023

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A judge sentenced Isle of Wight County Supervisor-elect Renee Rountree on Dec. 14 to 250 hours of community service for her role in the theft of campaign signs belonging to her write-in opponent, Chris Torre.

After hearing testimony from five witnesses and arguments from attorneys, Isle of Wight County General District Court Judge Nicole Belote ruled she’d take Rountree’s Class 1 misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property “under advisement.”

According to Southampton County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Caitlin Angel, whom the court named as a special prosecutor, the ruling means Belote “found evidence of guilt” but stopped short of declaring Rountree guilty, and instead will allow her a year to complete the mandated service hours. If she does so by Dec. 12 of next year, the case against her will be dismissed and she will have no criminal record.

Belote strongly rebuked Rountree during sentencing, stating the sitting member of Smithfield’s Town Council “should be completely and utterly embarrassed by her conduct.” Belote further asserted “a message needs to be sent” to deter other political candidates who would otherwise engage in or abet such behavior.

Torre, who lost his write-in bid with just under 40% of the vote to Rountree’s nearly 60% in their unofficially contested race for the Smithfield-centric District 1 supervisor seat, testified at Rountree’s trial that in early October some of his yard signs began to go missing. Torre campaign volunteer Emily Watson testified she was the one who came up with the idea to place an Apple AirTag tracking device in one of the replacement signs in hopes of catching the culprit.

Police were able to trace the tagged sign to the 400 block of Royal Dornoch in Smithfield’s Cypress Creek neighborhood where Rountree lives.

Rountree’s son-in-law, Blacksburg resident Jesse Hanson, admitted during his testimony to taking two Torre signs and loading them into the back of his pickup truck on Oct. 8.

Hanson pleaded guilty the same day as Rountree’s trial to trespassing, a different Class 1 misdemeanor from the larceny charge he’d originally faced. Rountree, however, maintained her innocence throughout the process.

Belote fined Hanson $2,500 but agreed to suspend it conditioned on his completing 100 hours of community service and a year of good behavior.

Rountree herself testified she’d not been “in the right frame of mind,” having been preoccupied with visiting her niece in the hospital, when she pulled the signs from Hanson’s truck and eventually placed them in the crawlspace beneath her garage.

Smithfield Police Lt. J. Eric Phillips testified that’s where he found the AirTag-fitted sign “chirping” the following morning.

Belote herself questioned Rountree following her testimony as to why she hadn’t demanded that Hanson return the signs to where he’d found them or immediately notified Torre.

Rountree, who described herself as a “fixer,” said she’d placed the signs in the crawlspace to spare Hanson or her husband, Glenn, from having to deal with the situation.

“I just didn’t want anyone to notice them … until I could take them back on Monday,” Rountree said.

She testified she’d planned to return them to Torre but between visiting her niece and attending a municipal conference with other members of Smithfield’s Town Council, on which she currently serves, she “didn’t have time.”

Rountree’s attorney, Ashby Pope, contended her client had remained “forthright” since she was charged on Oct. 12, and contended the situation had been “blown up” on social media for “political purposes.” Angel, however, successfully argued that Rountree had met the “dishonest intent” required under state law to prove knowing receipt of stolen property by not informing Torre or her husband until after police made contact the morning of Oct. 9.

Rountree made no comment to The Smithfield Times specifically on Belote’s ruling other than to note she would be resigning her Town Council seat on Dec. 28 to be sworn in as a supervisor on Dec. 29. She added she is already heavily involved in community service activities.