Los Angeles Times

Jury deliberates in sign vandalism case

Tattooed shins and a penchant for pedicures prove a Costa Mesa man charged with vandalizing a political campaign sign in 2012 is wrongfully accused, his defense argued at trial Thursday.

Steven Charles White, 40, formerly a maintenance worker with the city of Costa Mesa, was charged last year with misdemeanor vandalism for allegedly ripping up a lawn sign advertising candidates in a heated City Council race.

Testimony in his jury trial began and concluded Thursday at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach, with the prosecutor and defense focused on exactly who is shown in grainy black-and-white footage ripping up a sign for a slate of candidates.

At one point during testimony, White pulled up his pants legs to reveal two tattoos, a German flag that wraps halfway around one shin and a shamrock on the other.

His lawyer, Jeremy Goldman, argued that those tattoos aren't present on the man in the video.

"You can't escape the tattoos," Goldman said.

Prosecutors contend that the video isn't clear enough to see if the tattoos are there or not.

In the video, a bald man with a beard is walking barefoot outside with an off-leash dog following him.

This is something White would never do, according to his wife and stepson's testimony.

White and wife, Christine, have a habit of getting pedicures together, she told jurors. All three defense witnesses — Christine, a next-door neighbor and White's stepson — said White never walks barefoot. They said he even wears slippers constantly in the house because he likes to take care of his feet.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Mestman dismissed this idea in closing arguments, saying it hurt the witnesses' credibility.

"Ladies and gentleman, that is just unbelievable," he said. "That is a witness testifying to try to help the defendant."

Mestman said the bare feet actually help implicate Steven White, who lives around the corner from where the sign was vandalized at the corner of Fair and Columbia drives — close enough to go for a quick walk in bare feet.

Four witnesses for the prosecution — Steven White's former neighbor, his former boss, a police sergeant and a private investigator — said they believed he was the man in the video based on his appearance, mannerism and the location of the crime.

The man in the video became the face of campaign sign vandalism in Costa Mesa during a contentious local election season. Parties on all sides complained of widespread sign theft and vandalism.

In October 2012, the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn., a fiscally conservative local political group, posted a video online that showed a man ripping up the sign advocating a slate of candidates running for City Council known as the 3Ms: Councilman Steve Mensinger, Councilman Gary Monahan and Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy.

In January, the Orange County district attorney's office announced that Steven White had been charged with one count of misdemeanor vandalism for allegedly destroying the $5 sign.

Soon after, the city of Costa Mesa announced that White no longer worked there.

Thursday, the private investigator who filmed the vandalism detailed exactly how he made the tape.

Sam Bertoni told jurors he was working for Mensinger the night of Oct. 20, looking for anyone who may have been stealing or destroying signs up and down Fair Drive. The area was a hot spot for that activity, he said.

Bertoni said he recorded the vandalism but then lost track of the culprit when he drove farther down Fair Drive, hoping to catch him tearing down more signs.

He said he then called Mensinger, who met him nearby. Mensinger called police, who arrived soon after to view the video and interview them, Bertoni said.

According to testimony from Sgt. Jerry Souza, who responded to the call, he believed he recognized the man in the video as a city maintenance worker he'd met — Steven White.

The private investigator said he didn't turn over the video to police until a later date, but that night at the police station, he did look at a photo array of six people and identified White as the man he believed to be in the video.

Souza's suspicion led them to White's house that night, but nobody was home, according to Souza and CMPD Officer Keith Smith.

Christine White told jurors that she arrived home soon after and found six police officers outside her home along with Mensinger and Mayor Jim Righeimer, a political ally.

"They told me that my husband had just ripped up a sign and they wanted to know where he was," she said.

It wasn't until after midnight that officers contacted Steven White by phone.

Mestman played a recorded conversation of Smith asking about the alleged vandalism.

Steven White initially denies he vandalized a sign. When Smith reveals there's video of the incident, Steven White replies, "I don't remember doing this around 8:30."

Smith asks if there was another time he did it.

After a long pause, Steven White said "Um, possibly, yeah."

Later in the recording, White said he doesn't recall tearing up the sign "today" and said he destroyed one previously because he was angry someone removed campaign signs from his lawn.

"That's not the voice of an innocent man on that tape," Mestman told jurors.

In his closing statements, Goldman shot back that it was the jury's duty to decide if Steven White tore up that single sign on Oct. 20, not if he'd ever done so previously.

"Did he ever on that tape say I'm guilty of this crime this night?" Goldman said. "No, never."

Jurors will continue deliberations Friday.

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