Virginia man is suspect in theft of Sandy Hook sign

Hand-crafted memorial cards honoring Grace McDonnell, one of the victims killed in the Newtown tragedy, frame the location of the stolen sign at the Grace McDonnell Playground in Mystic on May 13, 2014.
Hand-crafted memorial cards honoring Grace McDonnell, one of the victims killed in the Newtown tragedy, frame the location of the stolen sign at the Grace McDonnell Playground in Mystic on May 13, 2014. Tim Martin/The Day

Two signs stolen from Sandy Hook memorial playgrounds, including one from Mystic, were recovered in Herndon, Va., on Friday at the home of a man police describe as a “truther,” someone who claims the Sandy Hook shooting never took place.

Herndon police executed a search warrant at a home and recovered two signs — one stolen from a playground in Mantoloking, N.J., and the other from Mystic. Both signs were dedicated to shooting victims, 7-year-old Chase Kowalski and 7-year-old Grace McDonnell, two of the 20 children shot and killed by Adam Lanza on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

The suspected thief, identified as 28-year-old Andrew David Truelove, was charged with possession of stolen property. Further charges are expected. He is being held at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center where he was incarcerated on May 26 for an unrelated probation violation. Court records show Truelove has multiple pending cases for charges including trespassing, destruction of property and disorderly conduct.

Herndon Police Lt. Jim Moore said his department was contacted earlier this week by Stonington police with a possible address for a suspect in the theft from the Grace McDonnell Playground. The playground opened April 27 at Williams Beach behind the Mystic YMCA. The 50-pound vinyl sign, with a peace symbol and the words “Love” and “Grace,” marked the entrance of the playground built by volunteers.

After the theft, someone claiming to have taken the sign called McDonnell’s mother and called the shooting at Sandy Hook a hoax. Earlier this month, Moore said photos of the stolen signs along with a “disturbing rant” surfaced on the website thedailybanter.com, a response to writer Chez Pazienza’s column condemning the theft in Mystic. The author claimed to have stolen the signs and taunted the parents of the slain children.

In photos on the website, someone is holding up their middle finger in front of the signs.

Moore said after receiving information from Stonington police, officers set up surveillance at the suspect’s home and even identified the surrounding area from photos posted online. The home was being rented by Truelove’s father.

William Lavin, founder of “Where Angels Play Foundation,” which is building playgrounds to commemorate the victims at Sandy Hook, said Friday he was pleased to hear the alleged thief was off the streets.

“He’s obviously a very troubled individual,” Lavin said. “Anybody who drives from Virginia to vandalize a children’s playground raises concerns about what else he would do.

“It’s painful for the families. This was just another hardship and a painful moment they have to go through unnecessarily.”

On the positive side, Lavin said publicity about the thefts generated tremendous support from people for the replacement of the signs.

“The attention is helping us to continue our cause to build these 26 playgrounds for all of the Sandy Hook victims,” he said. “We’ll try to focus on the good the playgrounds are doing for the communities and the families.”

Stonington police Capt. Jerry Desmond said the news was a relief and he credited his detectives and Herndon police alike for their efforts to find the signs. He said the case here is still officially under investigation.

Moore said his department is organizing an effort to hand-deliver the signs back to the parents of the children for whom the playgrounds were dedicated.

“It’s the least we can do,” Moore said.

g.smith@theday.com

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