For months, all manner of signs and banners from throughout Arcata — particularly Northtown — as well as the Humboldt State campus, have been disappearing from their installed locations and, as it turns out, migrating toward a house on lower California Avenue.
Residing at the house are Jordan Richard Keeling, from Milpitas, and Robert Andrew Espinoza, from Los Angeles, both 20-year-old Humboldt State students.
Weekend before last, they had a big party, bedazzling attendees with walls plastered with pilfered placards. And banners. And road signs. And door numbers. Even restaurant fixtures. And other odds and ends, including a stolen football helmet.
Virtually any type of semi-permanent or better sign that could be pried from its moorings or simply plopped in a pocket was proudly presented at the party.
One of the more elaborate signs — arguably the centerpiece — was a $1,500 job torn from the upper wall of Big Pete’s pizzeria in Northtown.
“They must have climbed up on the roof to get it,” said Big Pete’s owner Pete Ciotti, of whoever took the sign. “They had to break the holder and slide it out.”
When it disappeared in April, Ciotti reported the theft to the Arcata Police Department (APD). It wasn’t until the weekend wingding, though, that the vanished pizza sign was spotted in the wild — at the house occupied by Keeling and Espinoza.
The hosts weren’t just oblivious to the simple statistical likelihood of someone connected to one of the many small-town businesses whose signs adorned the walls being in the crowd, they openly boasted of the thefts to people they didn’t know, according to Ciotti.
“They were all, ‘Yeah, we steal signs, me and my homey. That’s what we do’,” he said. Degrees of separation in a small town being what they are, a friend of Ciotti’s at the party listened to the reckless braggadocio, took a cellphone picture of the filched furnishings and then passed it along.
Monday, Arcata Police were in the loop. Early Tuesday morning, Oct. 4, they were in Keeling and Espinoza’s house.
Officers located nearly 50 suspected stolen signs and other text-bearing items inside the residence. Recovered signs appear to be the property of local businesses, schools, state, federal and local governments. Additional suspected stolen property in the residence included road pylons, gas station price numbers and an orange-painted newspaper rack.
Keeling and Espinoza were arrested and booked into the Humboldt County Jail on suspicion of possession of stolen property.
Police haven’t documented which items are stolen and which may have been obtained legally. Some could have been retrieved from dumpsters during remodeling projects, though others are warped at their mounting points, as though they were forcibly wrenched free without benefit of tools.
Possession of the Big Pete’s sign alone pushes the matter past the $400 threshold and into the felony zone.
Keeling and Espinoza’s house was one place in our polarized world where small local businesses and corporate giants dwelled in harmony.
Fast-food powerhouses McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, KFC and Jack In The Box compete for visual attention with signs from Arcata’s own Morning Star clothing boutique and Arcata Pizza & Deli. That business was represented by a small, plastic stand-up sign from one of its tables advertising its hours and phone number.
The collection, while eclectic, seems conceptually ambivalent, even amorphous and suggestive of random opportunity, if not some sort of persistent compulsion or maybe just simple kleptomania.
Now resting in the APD evidence locker, next to small mountains of cannabis grow equipment from other pending cases, are multiple road signs warning of hazards like detours, an open trench and loose gravel in unknown locations. For some reason, there were five copies of a sign directing traffic around an unknown boulevard.
Others specify locations. One green sign is from L.K. Wood Court. A brown one is from Mad River County Park, and offers directions to parking and restrooms.
The mix includes a few door signs. One is from the Green & Gold Room in HSU’s Founders Hall. Another iconic public restroom sign was found, appropriately enough, on the suspects’ bathroom door, according to APD Det. Sgt. Todd Dokweiler. Other signs seem way out of place. In a town full of bicyclists, signs warning of open trenches and loose gravel might have been more useful in their original locations. Another warns to keep out of an unknown archery range.
Three large plastic numbers of the type used in backlit gas station price signs were present, spelling out “420.” Even a few decidedly non-stoney HSU parking lot banners found their way into the collection. Other banners tout the sort of dining fare — Burger King and KFC — that might appeal to young men on the go.
A few of the signs were modified with edgy witticisms. A “STOP” sign had been augmented with marking pen to read “CAN’T STOP.” A “SPEED 15” sign was altered to read “SPEED YES PLEASE 15 HITS.” A Denny’s flyer affixed to a handheld stop sign had read, “America’s diner is always open,” but was changed to read “JK’s diner is always open.”
Also among the items confiscated were table umbrellas emblazoned with Coca-Cola logos and a Humboldt State Lumberjacks football helmet. HSU spokesman Paul Mann said the helmet was reported stolen during the big Sept. 8 game televised on CBS.
“The whole house was littered with these signs,” Dokweiler said. The collection even spilled out onto the front porch, he said, with other pieces “scattered about.”
Dokweiler guessed that the Northtown emphasis is because that neighborhood is located at the mid-point between downtown and the suspects’ residence off L.K. Wood Boulevard. He theorized that the two may have paused to add to their collection while walking home from Arcata Plaza night spots.
Besides the physical evidence, APD is basing its case on statements they say the suspects made to officers when the search warrant was served Tuesday morning. Dokweiler said the two immediately admitted to taking the signs, and with startling openness.
“If I woke up with cops in my bedroom, I wouldn’t be bragging about stealing things,” he said. That night, after what must have been a long day in the Pink House (aka the HumCo Jail), Keeling posted a three-word status update on his Facebook page: “straight compton wakeup.”
Ciotti said he was glad to be getting his stolen sign back, but that he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it now that it has been replaced and the Northtown shop’s color scheme changed. He guessed he might use it inside or at the Eureka Big Pete’s.
Dokweiler said that in addition to the charges of possession of stolen property, grand theft charges could also be filed if police obtain evidence that the two committed the actual thefts.
Along with any criminal penalties, Keeling and Espinoza could face discipline, including suspension from school, under Humboldt State’s Student Conduct Code.
Among listed punishable offenses are “theft of property or services from the University community, or misappropriation of University resources,” “unauthorized destruction, or damage to University property or other property in the University community,” and “any act chargeable as a violation of a federal, state, or local law that poses a substantial threat to the safety or well being of members of the University community, to property within the University community or poses a significant threat of disruption or interference with University operations.”
Penalties could include disciplinary probation, which allows continued class attendance; suspension from Humboldt State; suspension from the entire California State University system; or permanent expulsion. Community service could also be part of the punishment.
Mann confirmed that some of the signs are the property of Humboldt State. University Police Chief Lynne Soderberg is checking with campus Plant Operations to determine when the signs were stolen. She said any punishment the lads might undergo would be confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). All the university could disclose is whether or not someone is a student at the university.
Neither Keeling nor Espinoza responded to Facebook messages seeking information. Wednesday, following issuance of an Arcata Police press release and news stories in local media, Keeling’s Facebook page disappeared altogether, followed by Espinoza’s on Thursday.
Keeling isn’t done with social media, though, leaving his Twitter page public. On Thursday, Oct. 6, he posted, “too famous for facebook. hello again twitter.”
While the suspected sign swipage, subsequent publicity and Facebook sign-off appears to have offered a pivotal life lesson in cause and effect for a young man, Keeling’s Twitter feed documents what may be a previous brush with indulgence and insalubrious consequence.
An exuberant Sept. 26 tweet reads, “fuck bitches, get money, eat pizza. repeat as necessary.” Four days later, a more resigned-sounding tweet states, “Here we go again (@ Student Health Center).”