(NEW YORK) — A 21-year-old New York man was arrested on hate crime charges tied to the repeated theft of LGBT rainbow flags from in front of a church, a series of crimes that the openly gay pastor called “unnerving” for him and his congregation.
The suspected thief, Ronald Tyler Witt, was arrested around 8:05 p.m. Tuesday at his home in Sayville, New York, less than four blocks from the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, according to the Suffolk County Police Department.
Witt was arrested on suspicion of six counts of petit larceny as a hate crime and is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday at the First District Court in Central Islip, on New York’s Long Island, police said.
It was not immediately clear if Witt had hired an attorney.
Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, the openly gay pastor of the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, said the first theft occurred in July and that he contacted police when subsequent flags were stolen.
“Amazon has me on speed order for rainbow flags. I just kept ordering them and putting them up,” Bagnuolo told ABC News on Wednesday. “It wasn’t for any reason other than you can’t let people stop.”
Suffolk police said the rainbow flags, measuring 12 by 18 inches, were stolen on July 29, Sept. 23, Oct. 7, Oct. 15, Oct. 20 and on the Tuesday just before Witt was arrested.
“I’m happy they found out who he is and that it can stop because it was unnerving,” Bagnuolo said. “These types of things are meant often to send a message. Sometimes there just a dumb thing that people do, but repeated over and over it begins to feel like there’s a targeting going on here and there’s a message.”
He said the stolen flags were displayed on the church lawn next to an American flag and a prisoner of war flag, which were not touched.
The pastor said that after the second flag was stolen, he put up a sign in front of the church reading, “You destroyed our welcoming Rainbow Flag twice. It WAS an act of fear. It IS an act of hate. Do you realize that? IT WAS NOT KIND. IT IS HURTFUL. Instead of doing it again, talk with us. We will talk with you. You, too, are welcome here.”
Bagnuolo said he did not know Witt.
“You forgive the guy. That’s easy in a lot of ways, but as far as accountability … you know, you’re accountable for your actions,” Bagnoulo said.
He said his congregation is also relieved an arrest was made.
“It’s a very welcoming group of folks. So, there’s always this sort of sense of why are people doing this? What’s going on?”
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