Unsolved burglary before Panhandle election drew little attention

Masked men broke into the Santa Rosa County election’s office last summer and walked out with ballots and voting equipment.

They disabled the alarm system by cutting wires outside. They pried a side door open with a crow bar. Footage from surveillance cameras show the thieves calmly walked in and, minutes later, hauled away two, 3-foot safes on dollies.

In and out. Professional.

The June crime seemed to embody the specter of election fraud and chicanery that Republicans had been warning about since before the 2012 elections. Invoking the sanctity of the ballot, they called for an array of measures including restrictions on early voting and voter registration.

Yet neither Florida’s Division of Elections nor the Department of Law Enforcement investigated, even though the break-in came the day before a special election for an open state House seat. The Santa Rosa sheriff’s deputy looking into the crime concluded he had no leads and declared the case inactive on Oct. 11.

As of Friday, no suspects have been identified.

“It’s astounding something like this can happen,” said Bob Kerrigan, a Democratic attorney in Pensacola. “A major crime was committed against our elections system, and it was caught on camera. But nobody from the state did anything?”

Kerrigan is running an ad in Sunday’s Pensacola News Journal that offers $5,000 for information leading to the conviction of the culprits.

It’s unlikely the theft altered the outcome of the June 11 contest between Walter Bryan “Mike” Hill, a Republican, and Jeremy Lau, a Democrat. Hill won by 3,000 votes. According to the Sheriff’s Office and the Supervisor of Elections Office, the safes contained more than 850 blank ballots, a cell phone, 33 completed early voting ballots, two completed absentee ballots and some election equipment. Total value: more than $5,000.

“I don’t think it played a role in my defeat,” said Lau, who is friends with Kerrigan, the main supporter in his rematch campaign this year against Hill. “But I do think they kind of dropped it. When you have something that tampers with an election, like this one did, the FDLE’s involvement should have been immediate. That they didn’t get involved blows me away.”

Hill said he was concerned no one had been arrested. Like Lau, he hadn’t been contacted by investigators.

“I’d like to see whoever did this brought to justice,” said Hill, who is vying to become House speaker in 2020. “It raises concerns. Why was the building itself unsecure? Why was it so easy to walk in and out? Why didn’t outdoor cameras pick up on them?.”

An FDLE spokeswoman, Gretl Plessinger, said the agency didn’t get involved because the case hadn’t been referred by the Division of Elections or Santa Rosa County officials.

Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for the Division of Elections, said state officials “worked to coordinate and offer assistance” to Santa Rosa county officials. But that was pretty much a round of phone calls to Tappie Villane, Santa Rosa’s supervisor of elections in the days following the break-in. There was no formal investigation.

“I laid out what I knew to them,” Villane said.

Asked if she sought help from state officials, Villane said no.

“I just don’t think it was ever discussed or brought up,” Villane said.

Although the thieves knew which wires to cut and had no trouble finding the safes, Villane didn’t suspect the five other employees who work in the office or that any vendors played any role.

“That never crossed my mind,” Villane said.

Of the office’s six elections employees, only Villane and Joan Chabers, who discovered the missing safes when she arrived to work on June 10, were interviewed in the Santa Rosa sheriff’s investigation.

Asked why all employees weren’t interviewed, the spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Rich Alloy, said it was an open case and he couldn’t comment.

“I wouldn’t venture how the investigators operate,” Alloy said.

Although the case is open, the Sheriff’s Office took down the news release asking for tips from its Facebook page. Posts from June that remained included details about a Circle K armed robbery that led to arrests; a vehicle burglary arrest; and an advisory about a new law requiring slow drivers in the left lane to move or get fined.

Alloy said half a dozen people in the department post and remove items from the Facebook page, so he doesn’t know who was responsible. Even though the investigator ran out of leads, seeking further help from the FDLE or another state agency isn’t necessary, he said.

“The crime happened in our county,” Alloy said. “That’s how it was treated. As a county case.”