Man pleads guilty to defacing Bush-Cheney sign

Two others are awaiting trials in similar incident

Ellicott City

December 02, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

During this fall's polarized presidential election season, Howard County police staked out a 4-foot-by-8-foot Bush-Cheney sign on U.S. 40 after similar placards had been vandalized. Within an hour, they arrested an Ellicott City man for striking down the sign and cutting holes in it.

Cory Robert Cooke, 33, who told police he was tired of seeing the huge sign, pleaded guilty yesterday in Howard District Court to malicious destruction of property valued at less than $500. His arrest, one of three in Howard for defacing political signs, came during a rash of such incidents in the county before last month's election.

Cooke apologized and said, "I don't want to have this as a representation of myself" to his children or other children.

Judge Neil Edward Axel sentenced Cooke to 30 days, suspending all but the two days he had served after his arrest, as well as a year of unsupervised probation. Cooke also was ordered to perform 32 hours of community service. The state wanted a sentence of 60 days, suspending all but three weekends.

Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said his office has to "insist on a certain level of political discourse."

After the trial, McCrone said, "When it gets to this level, we're going to have to aggressively prosecute in the hope to deter future similar offenses."

T. Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said it is "very rare" for the county to prosecute people accused of vandalizing political signs, but there is "increasingly less civility in political discourse and conduct in society."

"Obviously, there are more pressing law enforcement problems," Kirwan said. "However, in every political campaign there's always charges that signs have been stolen. It seemed to come to a head this year in this national campaign."

Cooke, of the 3000 block of Fels Lane in Ellicott City, was arrested Sept. 24 after police began surveillance on the Bush-Cheney sign atop a hill overlooking Baltimore National Pike, near Executive Center Drive.

Police saw Cooke drive into the parking lot of a vacant shopping center and strike the sign's wooden post with a tool, according to the statement of facts prosecutor Devora Pontell read in court.

Cooke then pushed the sign to the ground and cut holes in it, she said. When Cooke started to walk back to his car, police arrested him and found a sledge hammer, hand saw and utility tool in his trunk, Pontell said.

Cooke told police that he was tired of seeing the sign and thought that it was not allowed on vacant property, Pontell said.

"We can't have members of our community standing in the way of free speech," Pontell said. The sign was "put up using funds given by Howard County residents, so the community has been affected by this."

The sign was replaced the next day, and yesterday Cooke paid the Howard County Republican Party $317 for the cost of the materials, Pontell said.

Cooke's lawyer, Paul E. Mack, told Axel that the action was "out of character" for his client, who has no prior criminal record and volunteers as a coach for his 6-year-old son's soccer team.

"What he did went beyond what was acceptable," Mack said.

Mack said that although Cooke's misdemeanor crime can be punishable by jail, it was no more serious than any other similar property destruction, and that the state's request for jail was "politically motivated."

Axel said Cooke's crime appeared to be an isolated incident that interfered with the Republican Party's freedom of speech.

"That's why it is more serious than punching a hole in someone's wall ... or other destruction of property," he said.

John D. Wafer, co-chairman of the Howard County Republican Party's Bush-Cheney re-election committee, attended the trial and said Cooke received an appropriate sentence because he seemed like a "real nice guy" who regretted his actions.

"I'm just disappointed in the fact that this had to happen at all," Wafer said. "I would like to think that everyone has the right to free speech. For anyone to take that away from a political party, candidate or anyone is a terrible violation of our rights."

Cooke was one of three people arrested in the county's spate of political-sign destruction.

On Oct. 1, Peter Lizon and his wife, Stephanie Louise Lizon, of Randallstown were arrested, accused of using a bayonet to cut the centers out of two Bush-Cheney signs on U.S. 40, near Ridge Road in Ellicott City.

Stephanie Lizon, 35, is scheduled for trial Dec. 16 in District Court. Peter Lizon, 30, faces weapons charges and is scheduled for trial Jan. 27.

The same day Cooke was arrested, an Ellicott City homeowner awoke to find his 4-foot-by-8-foot sign supporting the Bush-Cheney campaign and a 2-foot-by-8-foot sign promoting state Sen. E.J. Pipkin's bid for the U.S. Senate on fire.

In October, Anthony McGuffin -- an active Democrat and former candidate for Congress and the House of Delegates who displayed campaign signs on his property -- reported that a bullet was fired into his house.

No arrests have been made in either incident.

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