Mistrial in case against former county judge candidate accused of stealing election signs

Published on Wednesday, 2 December 2015 18:56 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL, arussell@tylerpaper.com

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Visiting Judge Jerry Calhoun declared a mistrial in a theft case for John Furlow after five of 12 jurors indicated further deliberation would not lead to a unanimous decision.

Furlow, 59, a retired major general in the Texas Army National Guard and local accountant, was accused of instructing a man to steal campaign signs of his opponent County Judge Joel Baker a day before the March 4, 2014 Republican Primary.

Furlow was said to have directed the theft of campaign signs valued at more than $1,500 but less than $20,000, making it a state jail felony charge. State jail felony offenses are generally low-level property or drug crimes and are punishable by confinement in a state jail facility for 180 days to two years and a fine of no more than $10,000.

Special prosecutor Anthony Lyons of Dallas said the state would re-evaluate the case before deciding whether to proceed with another trial.

Lyons said the cost of another trial would likely be a consideration, because the case did not involve a violent crime. Lyons said he believed the state proved Furlow participated in the theft by directing and encouraging Michael Konieczny to steal 22 of Baker's campaign signs valued at $1,640.

During the trial, Furlow’s attorney, Scott Ellis, said the case was a form or retaliation against his client following a nasty political race for county judge.

The case against Furlow included testimony by Konieczny, a man Furlow met while working with local veteran support groups. Konieczny admitted taking the signs but said he acted at the behest of Furlow. Konieczny said Furlow insinuated he should steal signs as a response to losses of his own signs, which he blamed on Baker’s campaign.

Prosecutors said text message threads taken from Konieczny's cellphone implicated Furlow.

In one thread on the day of the theft, Konieczny referred to himself as "Sneaky Pete," which he characterized as a soldier working off books. "Pete" told Furlow it was a nice night to "make some things disappear" and requested areas to target. Furlow responded "anywhere works, especially on Old Jacksonville.” Half the signs taken came from along Old Jacksonville Road.

The next day, Konieczny sent Furlow a photo attachment of the signs he took and the message: “Pete says hope you have a good Monday.” Furlow responded "Looks good."

Furlow said the thread was out of context. He said Konieczny was eager to help the campaign and that "Sneaky Pete" was meant to look out for people stealing his own signs. Several Furlow campaign signs had been removed from along Old Jacksonville Road, he said. Furlow said "Sneaky Pete" references reconnaisance and observation.

Furlow also said he did not open the photo attachment until November when he learned of the investigation. He said the "Looks good" was in reference to his campaign for county judge and the next day's election.

Furlow took the stand Wednesday and called Konieczny a "yahoo" who introduced himself as a former Navy SEAL and a member of a special police unit. He was neither. At the time of the theft, Konieczny faced a charge in north Texas for impersonating a police officer.

Lyons questioned why Furlow did not report Konieczny to police or Baker at any point after learning he had stolen the signs at an election watch party the night of March 4. Furlow said he did not want Konieczny, a veteran and someone he considered unstable, to face other possible charges beyond what he faced in north Texas. Furlow said he called Konieczny an idiot and told him he should get rid of the signs.

Tyler Police major crimes investigator Dennis Mathews recorded a converation between Furlow and Konieczny after the signs were located in November. In the conversation, Konieczny said police had located a few of the signs and traced them to him and that he told investigators he'd found them on the side of the road. He asked Furlow for further instruction. Furlow told Konieczny he should "stick to that story." In court, Furlow said he was worried about Konieczny facing charges when he gave the advice.

In his closing argument, Ellis attacked Konieczny's credibility. He also continued to question the value of the 22 signs of various sizes, which Baker had initially valued at $769, based on invoices. The $1,640 valuation that took the charge from a misdemeanor to a state jail felony was based on a later quote from the sign company on what it would cost to replace the 22 signs. The cost of individual signs decreases as the number ordered increases. 

Lyons said the law shows the replacement value is what the jury should consider in the case.

Baker sought the higher value to secure a more severe punishment for Furlow, Ellis said. He said Baker was granted special attention from Mathews, because they were friends and because of his position in Smith County.

Baker called Mathews on his cellphone, and the investigator responded directly and filed the initial police report. Furlow said he had called police to file a report regarding stolen signs and was told to call the Texas Ethics Commission in Austin.

Ellis called Baker vindictive. Baker won the race 57 percent to Furlow's 43 percent but held a grudge because Furlow had used a 2011 police report against Baker during the campaign, Ellis said. The incident report taken by Tyler police included a complaint that Baker had videotaped a young woman in a neighboring home through her window around 1 a.m. while she was undressed. The complaintant said Baker then attempted to meet with her by written message. Police investigators reported they found no physical evidence to corroborate the woman’s complaint, and no charges were filed.

But Furlow discussed and raised questions about the complaint in public.

Baker took the stand Tuesday and said he suspected Furlow was behind the sign thefts. He said he wanted to know the truth and to what extent Furlow's campaign might have been involved after Konieczny admitted to Mathews he had taken the signs. He said he was never pursuing the case as a way to punish Furlow.

Konieczny has not been charged in the crime.

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