Iowa man who stole election sign goes on to steal newspapers that reported it
Dickinson County News reporter describes thefts as 'just bizarre' and 'one of our more popular stories'
An Iowa businessman's initial crime of stealing an election sign only garnered him three sentences on the third page of a small-town newspaper. But his strange attempt to cover it up made national headlines.
Peter De Yager's name first appeared in the Sept. 2 edition of the Dickinson County News as part of a small round-up of local crimes, after he was caught taking a Joe Biden sign from someone's yard — a charge he later pleaded guilty to.
That same morning, the newspaper learned that copies of its latest edition had gone suspiciously missing at stores throughout the region.
"Our editorial decision at that point was just to treat [the lawn sign theft] like any other small crime. But then when the newspapers started disappearing, well, then it kind of became a stranger issue," Dickinson County News staff writer Seth Boyes told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.
"I suppose it's one of those cases in which the severity of the crime isn't what makes it news; it's the bizarre nature of the crime that made it news."
De Yager has pleaded guilty to theft and trespassing for swiping about $20 US worth of the newspapers from a Jiffy gas station in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and has reportedly paid back two other convenience stores for the papers he took.
He did not respond to requests for comment from As It Happens or Dickinson County News.
Hot tip from the delivery driver
Boyes says the story first started to unravel when a local delivery driver who drops off mail to the newspaper office every day asked for a copy of that day's paper — something he'd never done before.
"He told us that there were no papers anywhere along his route that day," Boyes said. "And he also happened to mention that there was one location, at least, that told him they had some footage of a guy stealing all the papers on their on their security cameras. So from that point, I started making some calls."
The reporter called up all the places where the Dickinson County News is sold, and discovered five locations that had their copies stolen. Several of those had security footage of a man walking out with them.
Boyes says he immediately had a hunch who the man might be.
"I got to thinking about why anyone would want to take all the papers. And it did occur to me that we'd run that police blotter, what we call the Sirens, in that week's edition," he said. "It was kind of a long shot, we thought, but, you know, maybe it was."
So when he interviewed the first store owner who had security footage, he brought photos of De Yager with him.
"I showed it to the owner and she said, 'Well, yeah, it looks like him. He was wearing a mask, but it sure looks like him," he said.
While Boyes says he understand's the man's motivation, he said the crime is "just bizarre."
"The paper is not only available online, but subscribers get the paper directly mailed to the residents," he said. "So stealing papers out of the racks is going to have an effect, but not as large an effect as one would think."
Paying the stores back
While one store, a Jiffy station, opted to press charges, others decided against it.
Tracy Theye, general manager of the Okoboji Kum & Go, told the Dickinson County News that she recognized De Yager from the security footage and knew him by name. He was a regular customer, she said, and a friendly one.
So instead of calling the police, she waited for him to return to the store and confronted him directly.
At first, she says, he denied stealing the papers on purpose, claiming to have confused them with another paper that's free and filled with coupons. But he later returned, confessed and paid for the stolen copies, she said.
Two other shops told Dickinson County News that De Yager had also paid them back.
"We went around to the various convenience stores, and some of them opted not to press charges if he agreed to come in and pay for the papers," Spirit Lake Police Lt. Daren Diers told the paper.
The irony, says Boyes, is that the initial story about the election sign theft was just three sentences long, tucked away in a police blotter on Page 3.
But the story of the missing papers was front-page news.
"It's making waves in the community for sure. It's probably one of our more popular stories in recent times," he said.
"And other papers have picked up on it through social media. Some national level correspondents and commentators and reporters also become aware of it. My publisher just told me today that someone associated with the Washington Post, I believe, saw it and subscribed to our paper just today.
"So it is catching quite a lot of attention."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by John McGill.