Police Documents Detail Campaign Treasurer’s Involvement in Sign Thefts

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Additional information surrounding the March 21 theft of campaign signs supporting City Commission candidate Jason Johnson, and the involvement of a member of newly elected Commissioner Craig Russell’s campaign team, are part of a recently released set of Winter Park Police Department documents.

According to Orange County Court documents filed on April 30, Christopher Hoats, a non-faculty assistant coach at Winter Park High School and Russell’s campaign treasurer, currently faces misdemeanor charges including two counts of contributing to the delinquency or dependency of a minor and one count of petit theft. A heavily redacted March 21 police report describes a group of juveniles allegedly removing yard signs supporting the Johnson campaign while skateboarding through a Winter Park neighborhood; however, a five-page capias request that details the incident and the investigation for the State Attorney’s Office offers more information. the32789 obtained the capias request via a request to the City of Winter Park Public Records Department for police reports related to the incident. The full capias request is available here.

The documents state that responding officers were informed by one of four juvenile suspects that Hoats approached them at a Maitland barbershop. The suspect stated that Hoats “told them he would give them $50 if they brought him fifty (50) signs.” The statement was corroborated by a second suspect, and both juveniles told officers that Hoats gave them his Instagram account information, instructing them to direct message him after they had taken the signs. Officers were shown the Instagram account and video evidence was later retrieved from the barbershop that places Hoats at the scene on the day of the encounter. The two juveniles who received the Instagram account assisted detectives assigned to investigate the case by identifying Hoats in a photo lineup as the man who approached them.

The capias request also includes a sworn statement, given to the detectives by Hoats on April 2. According to the statement, Hoats initially said that he did not recall any juveniles who were skateboarding but later stated that he recalled speaking with “possibly two of the skateboarders and asked where they were skateboarding, while he was at a barbershop located in Maitland.” He also said that he spoke to the juveniles about a local city election, but that it was a “harmless conversation” and mentioned that “a buddy of his named Craig Russell is also running in the election.”

Hoats also said that one of the juveniles sent him (Hoats) his Instagram profile so he can follow the page. When one of the detectives asked why he would follow the page, Hoats replied, “to tell them who to vote for or who not to vote for, this is who we were going up against, this is our competition.” Hoats went on to deny offering money for signs or having any involvement with the incident.

Detectives made an attempt on April 8 to contact Craig Russell at Winter Park High, where he serves as a teacher and coach. Russell was not available, but later arranged a meeting with detectives at his home. During the meeting, Russell gave a sworn statement informing detectives that Hoats had previously told him that juveniles had been stealing Jason Johnson campaign signs. Russell stated that he “provided rules to his campaign volunteers regarding the political signs, including not to touch other signs that were not his signs.” The statement also notes that Russell repeatedly said there was “no way Christopher Hoats would have sent the juveniles to take the signs, and he believed his opponent’s supporters were involved with the incident.”

Campaign financial documents list Hoats as being named Russell’s treasurer in November of 2023 with Russell’s wife, Kate Demory, named as deputy treasurer. Hoats’ signature appears on financial documents until a March 15 filing when Demory’s signature appears on the remaining documents. Regarding Hoats’ change in status as campaign treasurer, the statement in the capias request includes that Russell told detectives that he asked Hoats to step away during the runoff election due to Hoats’ busy schedule working for a CPA firm and was “in the process of amending campaign related paperwork to remove Christopher Hoats as treasurer.”

the32789 confirmed Hoats’ affiliation with a Maitland-based CPA firm.

Hoats and Russell did not respond to requests for comment, but the Orlando Sentinel published portions of an emailed statement from Russell and Demory explaining that they are “deeply concerned by the recent allegations against a good friend and fellow educator,” and that they “want to make it very clear that we have always been committed to upholding ethical and legal obligations in all our actions. Neither we nor the campaign have been accused of any contrary conduct, nor are we aware of any such conduct.”

Jason Johnson, who is not part of the investigation into the incident, informed the32789 in an email that he had been aware of campaign sign thefts, but “when I learned that these minors were allegedly offered money to take my signs, I was shocked.”

The case was turned over to the state attorney and Hoats has been summoned to appear at a June 7 arraignment hearing.

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