Accused campaign sign stealer has tricky past

By Bob Norman - Investigative Reporter

Eric Gilreath had mystery to solve -- someone had apparently broken into his restaurant and stolen a campaign sign he'd put up in the window.

The sign for Cooper City mayoral candidate Greg Ross was there Thursday night when he closed Vita Italian Restaurant, the oldest eating establishment in the city. When he came in Friday it was gone. 

So Gilreath starting watching surveillance tape from that night. At the 1:27 a.m. mark he saw the culprit with the Ross sign in his hand stuffing it in the garbage can outside the door. Gilreath remembered that workers were there overnight cleaning the hoods in the kitchen and had likely left the door unlocked. 

But it was still a crime, thought Gilreath. Someone had gotten into his store and then stolen not only the sign but his right to political expression. Gilreath took still shots from the surveillance tape and sent them out on emails. One of the recipients posted them on Facebook. And soon someone recognized who it was in the fuzzy photos: Ryan Shrouder. 

A 24-year-old law student, Shrouder is a campaign aide/shadow of Gary Laufenberg, the opponent of Ross in the mayor's race. Shrouder didn't respond to detailed messages left on his phone, but Cooper City Commissioner John Sims said Shrouder has admitted to taking the sign. Laufenberger acknowledged Tuesday that he learned that Shrouder had done it as well. And this wasn't the first time Shrouder had been caught doing a dirty deed on tape.

Back in 2006, Shrouder was arrested at Cooper City High, where he served as senior class president, for breaking into the school's computer system to improve the grades of himself and 19 classmates. It was a major story in South Florida that made national headlines. Initially charged with a felony, Shrouder pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was sentenced in 2010 to probation and community service. 

Shrouder, after graduating from Florida State University, immediately immersed himself in Cooper City politics, befriending commissioners and often speaking at meetings on the issues. Long-time Cooper City Mayor Debby Eisinger took him under her wing, making Shrouder her protege.While serving last year as president of the Broward League of Cities, Eisinger brought Shrouder to numerous cities, introducing him to all the local politicians as a future "leader." At one League meeting Sim says she introduced Shrouder as the future mayor of Cooper City. Eisinger also backs Laufenberg in the mayoral race.

Sims is no friend of Eisinger; the two of them are political enemies. And while he says Shrouder is a "nice kid," he doesn't have a very high opinion of his work in politics. "He does [Eisinger's] dirty work," said Sims. 

Gilreath wasn't impressed that the suspected sign thief was the darling of the mayor either. He filed a complaint with the Broward Sheriff's Office, which obtained a copy of the tape and is investigating the case. "I shouldn't have somebody come into my restaurant in the middle of the night and steal what my right is," he said.

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