Man Steals Church’s Rainbow Flag Six Times, Faces Hate Crime Charges

The pastor posted a sign pleading for peaceful communication with the thief.

A New York man was arrested this week after he allegedly stole six LGBTQ Pride flags from a Long Island church on six separate occasions.

Sayville resident Ronald Tyler Witt, 21, is charged with six counts of petit larceny as a hate crime, ABC7 reports.

The first rainbow flag was stolen July 29 from the front lawn of the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ.

"At first I thought it had just been blown off or maybe somebody was messing with it, but then it started happening on a regular basis," says pastor Ray Banguolo. "Two weeks later, it happened again."

Banguolo posted a sign in August that read: "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."

Following the fourth theft, Suffolk County police Hate Crime Unit detectives set up surveillance cameras at the scene. The last flag was stolen November 6.

Witt's defense attorney argued in court that the thefts were simply pranks, but prosecutors say Witt reportedly told police he "didn't want to see a gay flag on a church."

An American flag, a POW flag, a Star of David, and a memorial sign for Parkland victims displayed next to the rainbow flag were left untouched after each incident.

"This 21-year-old person who's in a heap of trouble and at least at this point is accused of hate crimes, that's a horrible thing," Banguolo says. "I feel for him, I feel for his family."

Witt, who was held overnight, will have supervised release and must wear a GPS monitoring device because of a probationary issue on a separate case.