Hate crime case shakes up Guerneville, long known for tolerance

The arrest of a 55-year-old Guerneville man charged with making criminal threats that constitute a hate crime has shaken sensibilities in the Russian River community residents consider a model of acceptance of people of all sexual identities.

Seven river-area residents showed up at Tuesday’s Superior Court arraignment for Vincent Joseph O’Sullivan Jr., who entered a not guilty plea. He was held on $55,000 bail set by Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite, who also ordered him to stay away from an unnamed victim and the Guerneville Safeway.

“I’m thrilled that he’s in custody and there’s not any threat to the community,” said Beth Streets, a Santa Rosa resident who grew up in Guerneville and was instrumental in adding a rainbow-colored gay pride flag to the town plaza flagpole last year.

“There’s a huge uproar over what he is and what he represents,” she said.

West County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who was not in court, said O’Sullivan’s arrest has soothed nerves in Guerneville, an unincorporated community of about 4,000.

“I think everyone’s relaxed,” she said. “You have someone who is clearly acting out of malice and hatred for the LGBTQ community.”

The community angst started with a series of thefts of the gay pride flag from the plaza at the corner of First Street and River Road.

Streets said the flag was first missing April 23, and the replacement she installed April 27 was missing the following day. On May 1, she put the original flag, which had been shoved through the mail slot at the Russian River Chamber of Commerce office, back on the pole.

Two days later, that flag was gone and six days later its replacement was too. Again, the flag was replaced. A resident found one of the missing flags tied to a rock and submerged in the river.

Sheriff’s deputies investigating the flag thefts learned of threats involving the detonation of pipe bombs at the Guerneville Safeway and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office substation in Guerneville, Lt. Eddie Engram said in a statement Saturday announcing O’Sullivan’s arrest.

O’Sullivan was jailed on suspicion of petty theft, as well as making criminal threats constituting a hate crime, but the theft allegations were sent back to the Sheriff’’s Office for more information, Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said Tuesday.

Staebell said he and other prosecutors could recall only one other hate crime case in the past year, which involved two Santa Rosa women accused of punching and shoving a woman holding a crying toddler in line at the Dollar Tree on Sebastopol Road in August. The melee stemmed from a comment by one of the female assailants who allegedly said something like “Mexican baby needs to shut up.”

Hate crimes are difficult to prosecute because they require proof the criminal acts were “directed at somebody because of their status,” District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. “That’s a high bar.”

A California Department of Justice report said Sonoma County had 14 reported hate crimes in 2016, including six in the Sheriff”s Office jurisdiction, three in Petaluma, two in Windsor and one each in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Sonoma.

There were 1,190 hate crimes reported that year statewide, including 248 based on sexual orientation. More than half — 672 — were based on race, ethnicity or national origin.