Sign out: Vandalism on the campaign trail

On the jammed front porch of Linda McRaven's hand-built log house in Free Union, a rusting exercise bike sits near a wooden crossbow. Several paper and metal campaign signs, promoting McRaven's run for the at-large seat on the Albemarle County School Board, lean against the wall by the front door.

But McRaven's not so sure she'll be putting those out. After all, over 25 of her signs have already disappeared, and she's beginning to think replacing them is a lost cause.

When her first sign a $30 vinyl one vanished from a friend's property near the Millington Road intersection with Free Union Road, McRaven didn't think anything of it. But when the cheap paper replacement disappeared almost immediately, the mother of five knew she had a problem.

"At first, I thought it was the kids across the street," she says, suspicious because the neighboring yard displays a sign for her opponent, Brian Wheeler. But then she discovered the house is vacant.

Soon McRaven's signs began to disappear from other locations. According to McRaven's count, she's lost 12 signs from the Millington/Free Union intersection, six from the corner of Garth and Owensville Roads, three from in front of the Hunt Country Store, and two each from yards of the Findley and Rucker families. Lest she think it's not personal, in several instances, the thieves singled out her sign within a cluster of signs, leaving the others untouched.

"I didn't think we have enemies like that, and I don't," says McRaven, who moved to Albemarle County from Missouri in 1978 with her husband, Charles "Mac" McRaven, and their children.

"I think it's someone playing a game, but I'm beginning to take offense," she says.

Whatever the vandal(s)' motivation, there's muscle behind the effort. After the Millington/Free Union sign disappeared for the seventh time, Mac McRaven, a restoration specialist, decided to thwart future removal by building a "super sign." He took a heavy-duty real estate sign, spray-painted it, then welded and bolted it to fence posts with triangular anchors, which he drove a foot into the earth.

"He said it would take two very strong men and a truck to pull it out of the ground," McRaven remembers. Installed around noon on a Saturday, the sign was gone by that evening.

McRaven dismisses the idea that the culprit might be someone holding a grudge over the controversial yet never completed Keswick amphitheater she and her husband began building in the mid-1990's. "Why would they be upset with me out here in Free Union?" she asks. "I haven't hopped, skipped, and jumped all over Albemarle County."

She suspects the vandal(s) are Wheeler advocates, which she finds particularly annoying because early in the race, Wheeler sent her a message suggesting they both run clean campaigns.

"I just think it's kind of ironic," McRaven says, "that I have to spend all this time and expense because I guess his supporters didn't get the same e-mail."

The first time the McRavens approached Wheeler with their concerns, Wheeler says, he was sympathetic, but suggested that natural causes might be to blame. After all, Isabel's winds had carried off several of his signs.

"What I told Mac," Wheeler says, "was of course I wouldn't condone my supporters removing signs.

"Where her signs are is of so little concern to me," Wheeler adds. "What I'm focused on is being positive, focusing on the issues, and treating my fellow candidates with respect."

But after the McRavens complained a second time about the ongoing vandalism, Wheeler admits, "Within a week I sent an e-mail to my core group of supporters that the McRavens were concerned about their signs."

For her part, McRaven isn't angry enough to involve the police. "I don't want to waste the police's time," she says, "They're not going to do a stake-out." She jokes that her son, a freshman at Virginia Tech, has offered to load his crossbow with paintballs and lie in wait for the culprit(s). "But we're not going to do that," she says.

McCraven is now attending to other aspects of her campaign, but Mac McCraven reports, "I'm working on yet another super sign."

He adds slyly, "I'm not giving away my secrets."

Linda McRaven.