A case of campaign sign vandalism in the spring Anchorage mayoral race ended this month in an unusual way: not with a fine or jail time, but a $400 donation by the alleged perpetrator to a homeless shelter.
Days before the first round of the election on April 7, Joshua Whittaker, 54, was accused of cutting up campaign signs belonging to candidate Amy Demboski. With a gun in a holster on her hip, Demboski -- a conservative who went on to win a spot in the runoff race by two and a half points over moderate Andrew Halcro -- confronted and filmed a man with a box cutter near one of her signs on Fireweed Lane.
The man was later identified by police as Whittaker. After the confrontation with Demboski, police cited Whittaker for criminal mischief. He had been scheduled to appear in court Thursday for trial on a misdemeanor charge of malicious destruction of property.
But in early October, prosecutors dismissed the case. Deputy district attorney Clint Campion said that instead of going to trial and possibly paying a fine or serving jail time, Whittaker, as restitution, donated $400 to the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission.
The idea of a charitable donation as restitution came from Demboski when prosecutors consulted her in September, Campion said.
In an email, Demboski confirmed she spoke with the district attorney's office a month ago. She said she was told they were moving forward with criminal prosecution and she would be subpoenaed for trial in October. She said prosecutors also asked if she would seek restitution.
"It was my position that the crime Mr. Whittaker committed resulted in property damage and I would ask the judge to have the money donated directly to a local charity rather than paid to me," Demboski wrote in the email.
Campion said prosecutors also inferred that a charitable donation would be simpler to process, avoiding the complexities of campaign finance filings. A direct reimbursement by Whittaker to Demboski for sign damage might be considered a reportable campaign contribution.
During the election, Demboski suffered a rash of vandalism to her campaign signs around the city. Some had her face cut out. In others, a mustache was drawn on her face.
In the video filmed by Demboski, the man identified as Whittaker spoke angrily about the city's sign ordinance. He also appeared to accuse Demboski of using her looks to further her campaign, which Demboski's campaign later criticized as sexist. The video ends with the man declaring, "Amy, I'll see you in court." Whittaker later told police he considers political signs an "eyesore," according to charging documents.
In her email, Demboski wrote, "The election process is expensive and often individuals become passionate, but it is never acceptable to act out in violence or destroy property." She added: "Mr. Whittaker will pay for the crime he committed and in this case, I believe not only was justice served, but a local nonprofit, dedicated to serving our community, will receive a donation to further their efforts."
The amount of the restitution in the case was generally discussed with Demboski, Campion said, but the actual charity was not.
Why Whittaker chose Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, a Christian nonprofit on Tudor Road that serves the homeless, as a beneficiary was unclear. Calls and emails to Whittaker's public defender, Julia Metzger, were not returned. Whittaker could not be reached for comment and no one answered the door Thursday at a listed address for him. Whittaker responded to a note left by a reporter at his door by leaving a phone message saying his home is private property and that trespassers aren't allowed.
Reached by phone, Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission Pastor John Lamantia initially said he wasn't aware of the donation. But Lamantia checked with his bookkeeper and called back to confirm that Whittaker made a $400 donation to the mission on Sept. 14.
The rescue mission serves about 7,500 meals a month and shelters about 100 people a night, Lamantia said.
"Believe me, it helps us out," Lamantia said. "We're thrilled to have it."
With Whittaker, Campion said prosecutors felt they had a "prosecutable case." But he said there were other considerations, such as the relatively low-level nature of the offense and whether Whittaker posed a danger to the community.
The misdemeanor charge was for property damage between $250 and $749. Whittaker would have faced up to 90 days in jail if convicted, Campion said.
"I think (the outcome was) appropriate based on all the facts and circumstances," Campion said.
Campion said that while Demboski suggested a charitable donation, prosecutors came up with the framework of the plea deal, a version of what's known as a civil compromise. The scenario only applies to misdemeanor cases, not felonies or cases that involve violent crimes such as domestic violence. Campion said the state district attorney's office is increasingly turning to civil compromises to resolve cases as budgets tighten and resources become more scarce.
It's fairly rare, Campion added, to see charitable contributions as restitution to a victim.
"This doesn't happen very often at all," Campion said.
Once prosecutors received a receipt showing Whittaker's donation, Campion said, the case was closed.