Craig Russell's campaign treasurer charged with asking minors to steal political signs

The incident occurred just days into the runoff between Russell and Jason Johnson, according to court records and a heavily redacted police report

May 9, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Christopher Hoats, who served as campaign treasurer for new Commissioner Craig Russell, is facing three misdemeanor charges related to soliciting minors to “steal campaign signs in exchange for money,” according to court documents.

Records say Hoats is charged with two counts of contributing to the dependency or delinquency of a minor and one count of petit theft related to the alleged theft of Jason Johnson’s campaign signs that occured on March 21, two days after the first election in Winter Park and as the runoff between Russell and Johnson was underway.

The court documents and a heavily redacted police report provide few details about the evidence or circumstances in the case.

Hoats, 33, who has worked as a non-faculty coach at Winter Park High School, where Russell is also a teacher and a coach, did not immediately respond to a phone call and email requesting comment. He was issued a summons to appear in the case this week.

Russell, who won the April 16 runoff by 34 votes and took office last month, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ryan Williams, chief assistant state attorney, said he could not provide any details about the charges because the case is still open and active.

Johnson said he was disheartened to learn about the case and would like more questions to be answered.

“I was very disappointed to learn about this when it happened and while there remain lots of unanswered questions about the extent of who was involved, who knew what and when and whether my opponent’s campaign funds were used, I made the conscious decision not to turn this alleged incident into a campaign issue before the runoff election date,” Johnson said on Thursday.

A Winter Park Police report from the date of the incident describes how a witness called police after she saw a group of kids taking Johnson’s campaign signs from yards as she was driving in Winter Park.

Nancy Elizabeth Cocchiarella, who is named in the court documents, was a volunteer for Johnson’s campaign who called police after she noticed signs, including her own, removed.

She stated she “saw the signs under the arms of [redacted],” and “she let her window down and told [redacted] and [redacted] to just put the signs back, and the juveniles kept riding on their skateboards.”

The report stated that the signs promoted Johnson’s campaign.

Officers eventually caught up with two of the juveniles, who called two other juveniles and asked them to come back to the area of Magnolia Avenue and Sunnyside Drive, according to the report.

At that point the narrative becomes heavily redacted except to describe that all four juveniles were, at one point, at a barbershop in Maitland.

None of the publicly available documents explain how or if the young people know Hoats or any details related to the offer to steal signs described in the court documents.

Hoats signed all of Russell’s campaign finance reports filed with the city clerk through March 15. The final two reports were signed by Kathleen Demory, Russell’s wife who served as his deputy treasurer. 


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