Minors told police campaign treasurer offered them $50 for 50 of opponent's signs

The campaign treasurer for Craig Russell denied he had any involvement in the incident in an interview with detectives detailed in newly released records

May 11, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Newly released police records provide more details of the allegations that teenagers were offered money to steal campaign signs, leading to three misdemeanor charges against Christopher Hoats, campaign treasurer for Commissioner Craig Russell.

Four minors interviewed separately by Winter Park Police provided consistent accounts of what happened, police said. Two of the boys identified Hoats from a photo line-up and said he was the person who approached them on March 21 as they were skateboarding outside Floyd’s Barbershop in Maitland. The boys said Hoats offered to pay them $50 to steal 50 of Jason Johnson’s campaign signs, according to the document.

The incident occurred as Johnson and Russell were two days into a heated runoff contest for Seat 2 on the City Commission.

Three misdemeanor charges against Hoats — two counts of contributing to the dependency or delinquency of a minor and one count of petit theft — were made public for the first time last week after Hoats was issued a summons to appear in the case.

Hoats did not respond to messages seeking comment from the Voice. Russell, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, released a statement to the Orlando Sentinel last week that said he is “deeply concerned” about the allegations and noted that his campaign has not been accused of any wrongdoing. 

One of the boys, who was interviewed by police at his school on March 29, told the detectives that the man said he “was going to pay me to steal signs in Winter Park,” according to a capias request, which details probable cause in the case for the State Attorney.

“The man told us to steal these signs that had Jason Johnson on the signs,” the boy said. ” It was for a city election if I’m not mistaken. He told us the other candidate was stealing his signs so he ran out from the barbershop and asked if we were willing to steal signs for some cash.”

Two boys identified Hoats from a photo lineup, according to the document.

They also told police the man gave them his Instagram account and showed the account to police.

On April 2, police also obtained video footage from the barbershop and observed Hoats at the business on March 21 and also verified with employees that he had a haircut scheduled for that day.

The report goes on to say that detectives went to Winter Park High School, where Hoats helps coach football, in an attempt to talk with Hoats, but learned he is not a teacher and was not at the school.

Police then arranged to meet Hoats at the police department on the afternoon of April 2.

According to the report, Hoats told police he coaches high school football and did not recall any juveniles who were skateboarding. Later he said he recalled speaking with kids outside the barbershop and “immediately stated that he spoke to the juveniles about a local city election.”

He asked the kids who they were voting for and who their parents are voting for, the report stated.

“He stated they were younger; and that it was a ‘harmless conversation,” according to the report, and asked police if the kids were “stealing campaign yard signs.” Police noted that they had not mentioned “campaign signs” to Hoats, only “signs.”

Police asked Hoats why he would want to follow someone he did not know on Instagram after he noted one of the boys sent him his Instagram profile.

“Yeah to tell them who to vote for, who not to vote for, this is who we’re going up against, this is our competition,” Hoats responded, according to the report.

Hoats told police he did not encourage the kids to steal signs and was not a “kingpin” and “that no one asked him to have the signs stolen, he only informed the juveniles not to vote for Jason Johnson and to vote for Craig Russell.”

“Here’s the good guys, here’s the bad guys,” Hoats said, according to the report, and denied offering the kids $1 for every sign they stole.

The report goes on to describe how police arrived at Winter Park High School on April 8, eight days before the runoff election, in an attempt to talk with the candidate, Russell. The school resource officer took police to the gym and football coach’s office, but they learned Russell was not there.

Police later arranged to speak with Russell at his house and he told them that he contacted Hoats to tell him police had been at the school looking to speak with him.

Russell told police that “when he began the campaign he had little knowledge about the political makeup of the city and how involved people were, or the extent people would go to to make things up,” according to the report.

Russell also told police that he gave his campaign volunteers rules and told them not to touch the signs of his opponent.

“Mr. Russell further stated he did not have time to conspire to get kids to take signs,” the report stated.

Russell told police that Hoats served as his campaign treasurer but had asked Hoats to step away during the runoff portion of the campaign because Hoats had become too busy.

“Craig Russell repeatedly stated there was no way Christopher Hoats would have sent the juveniles to take the signs, and believed his opponent’s supporters were involved with this incident,” the report stated. “… He found it suspicious this occured after he won the general election.”

Russell won the April 16 election by 34 votes and was sworn in on April 24.

Winter Park Police concluded there was enough evidence to turn the case over to the state attorney, though the date that occured is unclear from the records.

WinterParkVoiceEditor@gmail.com

 

 

 

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    By: Beth Kassab

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