Scientologists stole Clearwater council member’s campaign signs, police say

Two church members caught on video told police they lifted the signs because Mark Bunker, who is running for reelection, is an “anti-Scientologist.”

Tampa Bay Times/March 8, 2024

By Tracey McManus

Stealing campaign signs is a common offense during election season, but rarely are suspects caught and compelled to tell authorities why they did it.

That’s what happened on March 1, when two Church of Scientology members admitted to Clearwater Police that in one night they took some 25 campaign signs promoting City Council member Mark Bunker, who is running for reelection.

Officers questioned the men after a doorbell camera captured one of them driving a white pickup truck on Palmetto Street after midnight on Feb. 11 while the other jumped out and took a Bunker sign from a yard.

The two men, who are in their 30s, told police they were members of Scientology. One said he learned on social media that Bunker “was an anti-Scientologist” and took offense, so he convinced his friend to drive throughout the city to steal signs together, according to an incident report.

Bunker, a longtime critic of Scientology, was elected to Seat 2 in 2020 on a platform that included condemning the church’s control of large swaths of downtown real estate. In his bid for a second term in the March 19 election, he faces a challenge from Lealman Fire District Capt. Ryan Cotton and marketing executive Mike Mastruserio.

Police did not file the misdemeanor petit theft charges they were investigating because Bunker said he did not want to prosecute, according to the incident report. Bunker reported the theft to police last month and provided the security camera footage from a supporter’s home because he wanted to know “who was doing it and why,” he said.

The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the two men because they were not charged.

“They are probably not bad people, they just have been told that anybody who says something negative about Scientology is a criminal,” Bunker said. “They don’t know me, they’ve probably never heard anything I’ve said or seen any of the interviews I’ve done with people who have been victims of Scientology.”

In a statement to the Times, Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw said the church does not comment on elections or candidates.

“This is not a Church matter and is not something we were aware of,” Shaw said. “Any attempt to involve the Church is simply a continuation of your anti-religious propaganda.”

Bunker said he began noticing dozens of his signs disappearing from yards and streets earlier this year.

His supporters also reported to him that signs were stolen from their homes and businesses, and one provided the video footage from her Ring doorbell camera, captured on Feb. 11.

Police traced the registration of the truck in the footage and on March 1 visited the owner, who was the father of one of the suspects.

The father said he had no knowledge of the stolen signs and his son is the only other person who drives his truck. His daughter-in-law, who was also present, called her husband at work.

While talking to the officers on speaker phone, the suspect, a lifelong Scientology parishioner, “stated he ‘did it’” because he didn’t want Bunker to become mayor, according to the report. (Bunker is running for a council seat, not mayor). He said he and his friend drove around between 11 p.m. on Feb 10 and 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 11, took 25 signs and threw them in the trash.

An officer also called the second man, a Scientologist of 12 years who admitted to the theft due to Bunker being “anti-Scientology.”

“I strongly encouraged both parties to avoid such activity in the future and both ... stated they would,” an officer stated in the report.

Mastruserio, who has also condemned Scientology’s control of downtown real estate during his campaign, said he too has had many of his signs stolen. He has not reported it to police.

He estimated four large signs on wooden posts, which cost $80 each, have been stolen, along with 20 to 30 smaller ones.

“All over the city they’ve been taken,” Mastruserio said.

Cotton said a commercial sign of his placed off U.S. 19 between Sunset Point and Old Coachman roads has been knocked down “upwards of 15 times.” His campaign, centered on government efficiency, has not focused on Scientology’s impact downtown.

“It is so childish,” Cotton said of the stolen signs. “I don’t know why anyone would waste their time taking or manipulating signs.”

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