Holohan Acknowledged Having Election Worker Remove Opponent’s Campaign Sign

Slightly more than two months after Patty Holohan’s reelection to the Redlands School Board, the Redlands Police Department has released a series of reports, interviews and evidence summaries documenting that Holohan herself was involved in campaign tactics that have already tainted her victory.
Now under way is an examination of that evidence and documentation to determine if Holohan’s action constituted prosecutable criminal conduct.
Holohan has been a member of the Redlands Unified School District Board of Trustees since just after her initial election to that panel in 2006. She was reelected handily in 2010 and 2014, while positions on the school board were yet ones elected at large by all of the voters in the district. By 2018, the school district had switched to by-district elections, and Holohan competed to remain on the board in the District 1 contest. She comfortably turned back her challenger, Libbern Cook, capturing 6,522 votes or 63.5 percent of the total 10,273 votes cast to Cook’s 3,751 or 36.5 percent.
In 2022, two candidates, Erin Stepien and Victoria Oginrinu, challenged Holohan.Holohan had little reason to believe her path to confirmation by the voters last year would prove any more difficult than it had been during the previous four races over sixteen years. By late September, owing to the energetic approach of several of Stepien’s supporters and the relative sophistication of her campaign manager, Candy Olsen, it was apparent to many in the community, as it was to Holohan, that Stepien was making inroads in capturing the attention of the electorate that Holohan had not needed to contend with in any or her previous easy walks to victory.
In elections – national, state and local – efforts at countering an opponent’s advantage or perceived advantage or momentum are routine, less common, indeed, than straightforward electioneering efforts by one candidate or his or her campaign to promote himself or herself, but still a part of the electoral process. Offsetting an opponent’s advantage can take the form of rhetorically attacking an opponent in stump speeches out on the hustings; distributing handbills that emphasize a competing candidate’s previous actions or voting history or personal foibles; similar television, radio or newspaper ads; mass mailed “hit pieces” that trash an opponent’s reputation, character or good name; and so-called push polls using phone banks where voters are asked questions in a leading or suggestive way, implying something unflattering about the opponent of the candidate sponsoring the opinion survey, which is not really a sincere effort to measure voter attitudes but rather a ploy to trick the voters who answer and participate into voting against the sponsoring candidate’s opposition. While all of those tactics are or can be distasteful, they are not illegal. Employed virtually as frequently as those legal but costly negative tactics are ones that cost much less but cross the line to what is against the law: campaign sign vandalism or stealing.
Early in October, those involved in her campaign noticed that Stepien’s signs were not only knocked down but were disappearing.
At $5.40 apiece for standard 15-inch by 44-inch or 22-inch by 30-inch lawn signs when ordered in bulk and a cost of anywhere from $34 to $110 for 4-foot by 8-foot board signs, the theft of Stepien’s signs represented a challenge to those who wanted to see Stepien elected. Believing in their candidate and resigning themselves to the reality that the opposition would not let up, the Stepien team kept their heads down and pressed on, continuing to look for optimum sign locations at which they sought and sometimes received permission to post, and monitoring as best they could where the signs went missing and moving quickly to replace them.
During the course of the campaign, Dorothy Lohman, one of Stepien’s volunteers, phoned William Buster Sr, who with his two sons, William Buster Jr and Mark Buster, owns and operates the Plaza Las Palmas shopping center at 1150 Brookside Avenue, located at the intersection of Brookside Avenue and San Mateo Street near downtown Redlands. Lohman, after telling Buster she represented the Stepien campaign, asked his permission to post an Erin Stepien campaign sign on the shopping center property. Buster gave her permission to do so.
In reaction to the disappearance of the Stepian campaign signs, Olsen, as Stepien’s campaign manager, in October inserted electronic tracking devices, known as Apple Air Tags, in several of the signs, including one that was mounted at Plaza Las Palmas.
At 7:40 p.m. on the evening of October 17, a Monday, Olson noted that one of Stepien’s campaign signs, one which had been placed at the Plaza Las Palmas shopping center, was being moved. She traced it to a location on Sonora Circle Drive, proximate to or at Holohan’s residence. Olson contacted the police to inform them of the theft. According to the department, Olson’s relaying of the tracking data related to the sign sufficed as evidence of a “violation of Penal Code section 484(a) petty theft occurrence at 20:04 hrs [8:04 p.m.] on October 17, 2022, at 1150 Brookside Avenue, Redlands.”
Records obtained from the Redlands Police Department indicate its officers were dispatched at 8:55 p.m. to the Sonora Circle Drive location. While they were en route, at 8:58 p.m., the tracking device gave indication the sign was being moved once more, terminating at a location in the 900 block of Thomas Avenue in Redlands, whereupon Olson texted the police, alerting them to the sign’s repositioning.
According to the department, its officers diverted from their intended destination on Sonora Circle Drive to instead drive to the location of the sign, the Thomas Avenue residence of Mary Ethel Bell, 62, where she was found to be in possession of four Stepien campaign signs, including the one removed from Plaza Las Palmas.
“On Monday night, Oct. 17, a school board candidate reported that her political signs had been
stolen from the corner of a shopping center at the corner of Brookside Avenue and San Mateo Street,” the Redlands Police Department’s weekly update for October 13 to October 20 states. “The victim had an Apple Air Tag inside one of the signs and received notification when it was moved. She traced the sign to an address in Redlands. Police responded and found the suspect in possession of four signs. She was arrested and the signs were returned to the victim.”
Redlands City Attorney Yvette M. Abich Garcia in October told the Sentinel that Bell had not been taken into custody and booked but rather was subjected to a cite-release arrest. With regard to the factual circumstances surrounding the arrest, the amount of bail set, the charge the arrestee was facing and the time and manner of release, Abich Garcia said there was no bail and that a “citation [was] issued in the field and [Bell was] released.”
According to one of the officers dispatched to Bell’s home to locate and recover the sign in question on October 17, Bell acknowledged having coordinated with Patty Holohan in removing the sign and three other Stepien campaign signs that were recovered at the same time. The police officers’ write-ups of the incident were initially withheld, despite public requests lodged shortly after the incident. There were press reports of Bell’s citation and anecdotal allusions to her connection to the Holohan campaign, but no official confirmation of those reports.
The Sentinel has now come into possession of several documents relating to the case, including the department’s primary report, written by Officer A. Lomelin, the first officer detailed initially to the address of Holohan’s residence but then ultimately to Bell’s house on the evening of October 17; a supplemental report by Assistant Police Chief Travis Martinez; who on the morning of October 18 spoke with Holohan about Bell’s arrest the previous night and then with William Buster, Jr and Mark Buster about their family company’s policy with regard to the mounting of campaign signs at Plaza Las Palmas and what they knew about the October incident; a supplemental report by Detective J. Valdivia, who after reviewing the previous reports with regard to the case and confirming that Bell was employed with the Holohan campaign on the afternoon of October 18, in the company of Detective D. Frisch, arranged with Holohan to meet her at the Bricks and Birch coffee shop and interviewed her and then on October 19 interviewed Stepien, Olson and Lohman; and a supplemental report by Detective D. Frisch, who interviewed William Buster, Sr. on November 11, 2022.
According to Lomelin, he was working uniformed patrol when he was contacted by the department’s dispatch center about the report of the theft of a Stepien campaign sign. He said he made phone contact with Olson, who indicated that the Apple Air Tag showed the sign located at Holohan’s residence on Sonora Court. While en route to Sonora Court, Lomelin’s report states, he was contacted by Olson, who informed him that the sign had been relocated to Thomas Street. There, Lomelin wrote, he confronted Bell, whose front yard featured a Holohan sign. Lomelin recounted that Bell acknowledged she was in possession of some Stepien signs when he told her a signal from an Apple Air Tag attached to one indicated it was in that location. Bell, he said, led him to her garage where she handed over to him four Stepien signs, including one outfitted with an Apple Air Tag.
Lomelin’s report indicates Bell stated that Holohan had permission to post her signs at 1150 Brookside Avenue, that she believed Stepien did not have such permission, that Holohan had told her to remove the Stepien sign from 1150 Brookside Avenue and for those reasons she had taken possession of the sign. Lomelin wrote that he issued Bell a citation for violation of PC 484(a), petty theft.
According to Martinez’s supplemental report, he received a text message from Holohan on the night of October 17 in which she sought to speak with him. He responded by text the following morning, according to his report, and then spoke with Holohan, who informed him of Bell’s arrest/citation. He told Holohan, Martinez’s report states, that “campaign sign theft has been a problem for several years and that RPD [the Redlands Police Department] has been proactively addressing the issue the last couple of years. I told her the chips were going to have to fall where they fall.”
Martinez’s report states he then contacted both William Buster Jr. and Mark Buster to ascertain whether Stepien had permission to post a campaign sign on their property.
According to Martinez, in his initial statement Mark Buster told him that he knew about what had happened the previous night. He said he, his brother and his father decide “as to whether people can put political campaign signs on the property. In this instance, to his knowledge, nobody gave Erin Stepien permission for one of her signs to be placed on the property. He told me that Patty Hallohan (sic) had called him during this election cycle to get his permission for her campaign sign to be placed on the property which he granted.”
Martinez’s report stated Mark Buster told him “that it has been family tradition to not pick sides when it comes to who can place signs on the shopping center property. The family has made the decision to be non-partisan and not get involved in political conflict. He stated that if somebody from Erin Stepien’s camp had called him to get permission to place a sign on the property, he would have given that person permission [and that] if he would have seen Erin Stepien’s sign up, he would not have taken it down nor would he have given anybody permission to take it down. He stated nobody ever called him to get permission to take Erin Stepien’s sign down.”
According to Martinez’s report, subsequently Mark Buster called to tell him that he had learned that his father had given the Erin Stepien campaign permission to post a sign at the shopping center.
In his exchange with William Buster Jr, Martinez in his report stated, he was told “Patty [i.e., Holohan] received permission from his brother Mark to place a political campaign sign on the shopping center complex property [and] Nobody has asked him to place a sign at the complex. William told me that the family prefers people to ask permission to put a sign up at the complex but people do not always do so. Like his brother, William stated the family will not remove a sign that has been placed without permission unless the corner starts to get cluttered. In the case where the corner gets cluttered, he has removed signs that are placed without permission but has never taken them or thrown them away. He simply lays them flat next to the other signs so that the owners can retrieve them.”
According to Martinez, “William told me that nobody called him to get permission to take down Erin Stepien’s sign.”
In Detective Valdivia’s supplemental report, Valdivia indicated he and Detective Frisch met with Patricia Holohan at the Bricks and Birch coffee shop on the afternoon of October 18.
According to Valdivia, Holohan told him and Frisch that in placing her signs during a campaign, “She asks permission from the property owner. She advised that she is longtime friends with the Buster family. The Buster family owns the property at 1150 Brookside. Holohan reached out to Mark Buster via text message. She retrieved the text message that was on her cell phone. Holohan turned the phone in my direction, displaying the text as she read it to Det. D. Frisch and me. She advised that the Buster family had supported her for many years, through many of her past elections. They even contributed to her campaign. She was confused as to how the Buster family would support Erin Stepien if they were already supporting her campaign. She stated that she had a large sign placed on the corner. The large sign cost her $300. Holohan advised that the sign was placed there four weeks prior to our conversation.”
Valdivia’s report continues, “On Monday, October 17, 2022 while driving she noticed that there was a small Erin Stepien campaign sign posted to the front of her sign, blocking hers. She stated that she became upset because based on her conversation with Mark Buster she knew that Erin had not asked for permission to post the signs on his property. Holohan stated that she called Mary Bell and told her ‘Mary there’s another sign to be taken’ because it was on private property. Mary Bell acknowledged ok, confirming that the property belonged to Mr. Buster. Based on our conversation she was under the impression that because Stepien didn’t have permission to post signs at the location she could remove it.”
According to Valdivia, “Holahan explained that Mary Bell and John Jacobs are employed by her campaign to post her campaign signs and removed the signs they posted at the conclusion of the election. She stated that she obtains permission for the owner of the property before posting the signs. Holohan stated that on the evening of the theft Mary Bell did stop by her home prior to police contacting her. She stated that later that night she was advised by Mary Bell that she was arrested for theft because she took the campaign sign. Holohan stated that she did ask Mary to take the sign, referring to it as a honest mistake, but didn’t know at the time. Holohan stated that she was devastated by Mary’s arrest, calling Mary a honest lady, referring to the fact that-she told police about the other campaign signs.”
Valdivia’s report continues, “She sent Mark Buster a text message outlining the arrest for asking Mary to remove the sign. Buster informed her again that he had not talked with Erin Stepien about her placing signs on the property. He informed her that he would look into it. Holohan stated that she was later informed that in talking with other family members of the Buster family, Mark learned that William Buster Sr had given Erin Stepien permission to post her signs.”
Valdivia’s report states, “I asked her what was her intention to do with the signs. She said that she wasn’t going to do anything with them. I asked if she was going to throw them away. She replied once again that she wasn’t going to do anything.”
Ultimately, Valdivia’s report states, “Holohan stated that she believed the right thing to do was to give them back.”
Valdivia’s report states that he “explained that even though she didn’t take the sign she could be culpable for directing Bell. I further explained that this report would be forwarded to the district attorney’s office for review.”
On October 19, 2022, according to Valdivia’s report, he contacted Erin Stepien by phone. He asked Stepien about who in her campaign sought permission to place her campaign sign on the property at 1150 Brookside Avenue. He was referred to Olson.
Valdivia then contacted Olson by phone. “Olson stated that she didn’t contact the Buster family,” Valdivia’s report states. “She informed me that it was a campaign volunteer by the name of Dorothy Lohman. On October 19. 2022 at approximately 1051 hours I contacted Lohman. [Lohman] stated that she was the person that contacted William Buster Sr and obtained permission to post the campaign sign on October 17, 2022.”
In a supplemental report by Detective D. Frisch, the detective said he was tasked on November 11 to obtain a statement from William Buster Sr relating to the October 17 removal of Stepien’s sign. When he did so, according to Frisch, “Buster said he could not remember the exact date, but approximately a month before this incident he received a phone call from a female who identified herself as a representative from the campaign of Erin Stepien. Buster said the female asked him for permission to place a campaign sign, for Erin Stepien, at his commercial property, located at 1150 Brookside Ave. Buster said he told the female ‘yes’ and that was the content of the entire phone call. Buster said he does not remember the female’s name but that she did introduce herself as a representative from the Erin Stepien campaign. Buster said he has always given permission to people, over the years, who have asked to put up campaign signs during elections. Buster said he does not take sides and appreciates when people ask him permission. Buster said he did not receive a phone call from Erin Stepien’s opponent, Patty Holohan, but said he would have told her yes too because he does not take sides.”
On November 8, Holohan, with 5,371 or 53.45 percent of the 10,049 total votes cast, prevailed over Stepien, who polled 3,138 votes or 31.23 percent and Ogunrinu, who brought in 1,540 votes or 15.32 percent.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office has not, as of this morning, filed any criminal action against Bell or Holohan, according to the San Bernardino County Superior Court’s website.
At the Tuesday, January 10 Redlands Unified School District board meeting, some of Stepien’s supporters and critics of both Holohan and the board generally called for the district to take action with regard to the October 17 incident and for Holohan to resign.
That’s not going to happen, Holohan said.
“I’m committed to continuing my work here the next four years on the Redlands School Board alongside with my fellow board members to continue to work with parents and students, teachers, RTA [the Redlands Teachers Association], RESPA [the Redlands Educational Support Professionals Association, which represents the district’s non-teaching employees] and our amazing staff,” she said.
-Mark Gutglueck

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