Gary Smith admitted to removing political signs of two Black candidates for state office. He’s also accused of assaulting a man who confronted him. (Courtesy of Earl Gray)

Gary Smith admitted to removing political signs of two Black candidates for state office. He’s also accused of assaulting a man who confronted him. (Courtesy of Earl Gray)

Police: Lake Stevens political sign thief assaults witness

The suspect, 66, removed signs of two Black candidates, then attacked a man who confronted him, police said.

LAKE STEVENS — A Lake Stevens man has admitted to pulling up political signs of two candidates for state office who are African American, according to police.

Gary D. Smith, 66, is also accused of grabbing a man by the neck for confronting him about it, and then trying to tear off his ear.

Smith reportedly told officers he believed he was acting in self-defense. Lake Stevens police plan to recommend charges of fourth-degree assault, and are investigating additional offenses related to the removal of political signs, a misdemeanor where each stolen or defaced sign can be considered a separate crime under state law.

Earlier this week, Earl Gray, 63, placed about 30 roadside signs in support of John Lovick’s re-election campaign to the state House. Gray has worked on other local political campaigns in the recent past, and in 2019, he managed sign posting and maintenance for nonpartisan mayoral candidate Kurt Hilt. He said about 600 out of 800 signs for Hilt went missing during a tight race that they lost. Hilt signs were later found dumped in a ravine, post-election.

Gray said he noticed an uprooted Lovick sign on Tuesday along the Centennial Trail.

“I called my wife and said, ‘Crap, here we go again,’” he recalled.

Gray pounded the sign back into the ground, then decided to drive around to see if others he’d put up were still OK. He drove past one on Lundeen Parkway — still there, for the moment — and stopped to get gas at a Chevron. As he circled back to the spot about five minutes later, the sign had vanished, he said.

He noticed a dark Volkswagen Golf pulled over at a bus stop at Lundeen and Highway 9. He braked, and around 3:20 p.m. he witnessed a white man with gray hair, in a baseball cap and a striped flannel shirt, stuffing signs for Lovick and April Berg into his hatchback. He noted the man seemed to have skipped other signs for one of Berg’s opponents, Anne Anderson, he said. (Gray has contributed to Anderson’s campaign.) All three candidates are Democrats.

A campaign sign for April Berg sits in the back of Gary Smith’s car. (Courtesy of Earl Gray)

A campaign sign for April Berg sits in the back of Gary Smith’s car. (Courtesy of Earl Gray)

Gray got out and asked the man what he was doing.

“Are you Lovick?” the man reportedly replied.

Gray said no.

“Then it’s none of your (expletive) business. Are you Berg?” he continued, according to Gray’s account. “Then it’s none of your (expletive) business.”

Gray started to take pictures. He’d gotten a photo of the man’s license plate, when he felt the man grab him from behind. The man tried to lift Gray up, and also tried to wrestle him to the ground. Gray took blurry pictures of the man’s hand. He said he twisted away instinctively.

“Meanwhile,” Gray said, “he’s grabbing my ear and saying, ‘I’m going to rip your ear off.’”

Eventually Gray pushed him away. He’d suffered a red mark on his ear and a sore neck, but no more serious injuries. Both men drove away. Gray wrote a statement for police within about 10 minutes of the incident, still full of adrenaline, he said.

Police quickly identified Smith. Officers interviewed him Thursday. He has not been arrested, but police do not believe his actions amounted to self-defense and they’re continuing to work on the case, Lake Stevens Police Cmdr. Ron Brooks said Friday.

Both targeted candidates are Black. Detectives are investigating if race played a role in Smith’s alleged actions.

Smith’s listed phone number had been disconnected when a reporter tried to call Friday.

April Berg (left) and John Lovick

April Berg (left) and John Lovick

Lovick, who has served as the Snohomish County sheriff, executive and a Washington State Patrol sergeant, is running to keep a House seat in the 44th Legislative District. He’s challenged by Snohomish Mayor John Kartak, a Republican who drew widespread criticism for his handling of recent Black Lives Matter protests in the city.

Berg, an Everett school board member, is running for the other House seat in the 44th, the state district east of Everett covering Mill Creek, Snohomish and Lake Stevens. She’s running against Anderson and Mark James, a Republican.

Lovick and Berg released a joint statement Thursday.

Statement from April Berg and John Lovick from Berg’s Facebook page.

Statement from April Berg and John Lovick from Berg’s Facebook page.

“We were horrified to learn that an individual stealing campaign signs allegedly assaulted a good Samaritan who tried to peacefully intervene,” the letter read. “While the cost of lost signage is fairly minimal, the chilling effect on politics is altogether too great when volunteers and supporters feel intimidated, threatened, or outright attacked for simply expressing their support for a candidate.”

Berg wrote on Facebook that she went to the Lake Stevens police station Thursday and “added my name” to the police report.

Gray spoke on the phone with a reporter Friday as he walked past the same spot along the Centennial Trail where he’d seen the vandalized Lovick sign earlier. As he began to explain why he did not mind having his name published in this article, he paused.

“They did it again,” Gray said. “They stole another sign. The sign I put up yesterday, it’s gone. Just now. This is nuts.”

Any other tips about political sign theft or vandalism can be directed to Lake Stevens police at 425-622-9369.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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