Editorial – Election whodunnit has IW abuzz

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, October 17, 2023

We’ve seen more missing-sign capers than we can count in decades of covering small-town elections, but the latest  — resulting in criminal charges against a Smithfield town councilwoman and her son-in-law — reminds us that technology won’t let you get away with anything these days.

The chirping, err smoking, gun in the Renee Rountree case was a tracking device used by opponent Chris Torre’s volunteers after his signs kept coming up missing. A Smithfield police officer says he literally heard the Apple AirTag chirping in a crawl space at Rountree’s home in Cypress Creek. 

As if that evidence weren’t damning enough, modern technology provided more. A security camera at the Isle of Wight County Museum captured video of a man — identified by police as Rountree’s adult son-in-law — removing a Torre sign a half-block away on North Church Street.

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As a legal matter, Rountree and the son-in-law are innocent until a jury or judge say they are not, but the Smithfield Police Department and crackerjack investigator Eric Phillips have handed the prosecutor — or the judge, if Torre decides against asking for a prosecutor — about as airtight a case as we’ve seen in a small-town whodunnit.

We give Smithfield police credit for an unusually thorough investigation of a misdemeanor crime. As SPD leadership understands well, not all misdemeanors are created equal. A town councilwoman’s alleged involvement in behavior that threatens the integrity of an election demanded nothing less from town police. A halfhearted investigation would have been seen by citizens as a classic example of the system protecting its own.

In addition to the thorough investigation, we applaud town officials for releasing the police report in its entirety, including officer notes that could have been — but didn’t have to be — withheld under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Given the extraordinary circumstances involving one of its own council members, the town wisely chose to give citizens everything it possessed.

We encourage citizens to read the police report closely. It is available in its entirety, save for very minor redactions by police, at SmithifieldTimes.com. 

For the sake of Rountree, who has contributed much to this community beyond her elected service, we’re hoping for new evidence to surface that absolves her of criminal liability, unlikely as such an explanation seems in the wake of Phillips’ investigation.

And we’re especially hopeful that her son-in-law, a model student-athlete at Virginia Tech, doesn’t see his life tarnished by a political campaign’s foolish panic over a longshot write-in candidacy.

Meantime, the current scandal should be a reminder to all that naughtiness large or small doesn’t stand a chance of going undetected in this high-tech world. Cameras are watching. Devices are tracking and listening. Let’s all behave ourselves.