Hate versus the 'pride flag lady' of Guerneville

Beth Streets will be there as hate-crime trial begins over anti-gay bomb threats

Beth Streets thought it would send a message celebrating freedom and acceptance when she asked county officials last year for permission to fly a rainbow pride flag in the Guerneville town plaza.

 “I felt it was essential for that flag to be there,” especially after the shooting massacre of 49 people the year before at Pulse, the gay bar in Orlando, Florida, said Streets.

The Guerneville pride banner went up a year ago in June during a ceremony that included a Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ proclamation “to recognize, honor and celebrate the diversity, shared humanity and civil rights of our entire community.”

The proclamation notes that “for the first time, a Pride Flag will be flown in downtown Guerneville.”

Streets didn’t expect to become known as Guerneville’s “pride flag lady” for winning permission to fly a rainbow flag on the town plaza. She just thought it was the right thing to do, particularly in a gay-friendly town like Guerneville.

“I grew up on the Russian River,” said Streets, who isn’t gay but remembers Guerneville before it was on the map as a gay-friendly Mecca. “I saw the ugliness and the hate. I was a child. What did I know? Now I’m 55 years old,” said Streets. “I can do something.” 

The “pride flag lady” title aptly describes the public role Streets has embraced since six pride flags disappeared from the Guerneville plaza starting last April. One flag was stuffed into the mail slot of the adjacent Russian River Chamber of Commerce office. Another one ended up at the bottom of the Russian River beneath the Guerneville Bridge. Streets replaced them all, using her own money.

In May Guerneville substation sheriff’s deputies arrested Vincent O’Sullivan, 55, a Guerneville transient living in a junk-filled pickup truck, on charges of stealing the pride flag and threatening to use pipe bombs to blow up the sheriff’s substation, the Guerneville Safeway and “all the m******-******g faggots” along the lower Russian River.

O’Sullivan faces a jury trial this week, charged with committing a hate crime. If convicted, he could land in state prison for three years or more. The trial is scheduled to start this Friday, Nov. 2, at 8:30 a.m. in Sonoma County Superior Court, Department 10, presided over by Judge Knoel Owen.

 O’Sullivan was arrested after a sheriff’s department investigation identified him in a plaza videotape stealing the rainbow flag, with an accomplice, Michael Campos, 35. O’Sullivan was taken into custody after making bomb threats targeting a gay Starbucks employee in the Guerneville Safeway store.

 Streets has attended all of O’Sullivan’s court hearings, starting with the petty-theft case when a visiting judge, Andria Richey, dismissed the more serious felony hate-crime charge for lack of evidence. Streets then urged the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office to reinstate the more serious hate crime charge, which was formally re-filed in August.

 “Someone had to step up,” said Streets, who will be sitting in Sonoma County Superior Court this week when O’Sullivan faces trial for threatening to bomb the Safeway, the Guerneville substation and specifically Hank Myers, the gay Starbucks employee who knew O’Sullivan as a regular Guerneville Starbucks customer. Myers was making O’Sullivan his usual Starbucks order (a caramel macchiato with breve), when O’Sullivan calmly announced he was making pipe bombs intended to blow up all of Guerneville’s “m***********g faggots,” according to court testimony.

 O’Sullivan told Myers “matter-of-factly that he was building two pipe bombs, one ‘to blow up the m**********g Safeway and also you, you m***********g faggot, and then I’m going to blow up the sheriff’s substation,’” said Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Maddock in his court argument in support of recharging O’Sullivan with a felony hate crime.

 O’Sullivan made the threats casually, “like [he was] discussing a recipe, a hairstyle, what’s going on that day,” Myers testified.

 “I almost shit myself,” said Myers, describing his reaction to O’Sullivan’s threats during a hearing in May.

 “I was in shock,” said Myers. “I have never heard anything like that said to me before,” Myers testified. “I’m having nightmares over it.”

 Judge Richey dismissed the hate-crime allegation citing lack of evidence. No bombs were ever found in O’Sullivan’s possession, said the sheriff’s investigation.

 “While I find the conduct reprehensible and frightening,” said Richey, “I don’t find that it rises to the level of the pleading” to prosecute O’Sullivan for a felony that could put him in prison.

 O’Sullivan’s appointed attorney at the time, Sonoma County Deputy Public Defender Michael Teply, argued there were “proof problems” regarding O’Sullivan’s intent to actually build a bomb specifically targeting Hank Myers. O’Sullivan is now represented by Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney Martin Woods.

 O’Sullivan was convicted in July for stealing one rainbow pride flag from the Guerneville plaza flagpole. His sentence included three years probation, 100 hours of community service and a court order to stay away from the plaza.

 O’Sullivan was also ordered to pay Beth Streets $17.50 in restitution for the cost of replacing the rainbow flag. “He still owes me the money,” said Streets.