Nov 7, 2018, 3:48 PM ET

New York man hit with hate crime charges in serial theft of LGBT rainbow flags from church

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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.

PHOTO: Ronald Tyler Witt in an undated police photo. Suffolk County Police
Ronald Tyler Witt in an undated police photo.

"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."

PHOTO: One of six LGBT rainbow flags stolen from the lawn of the Sayville Congregation United Church of Christ on Long Island, New York, since July 29, 2018.Courtesy Rev. Ray Bagnuolo
One of six LGBT rainbow flags stolen from the lawn of the Sayville Congregation United Church of Christ on Long Island, New York, since July 29, 2018.

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?"

News - New York man hit with hate crime charges in serial theft of LGBT rainbow flags from church

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  • Rusty Writer

    If he thought he hated gay flags, how do you think he will like being a prison punk?

  • JuPMod

    What a jerk. If he had stolen all the other flags, it would have been seen as theft, but since he solely targeted the rainbow flags and he had done so more than once, it is clear he is against the LGBT community. Is this a hate crime? It can be interpret that way according to the law, yet it is up to the defense to convince the judge it is not a hate crime.

  • CaptnBlynd

    This belittles the purpose of hate crime laws.

  • Citizen

    That's a hate crime but burning the American flag is allowed wow I'm glad that's what has become of America

  • SarcasTex

    Never could understand homophobia. Personally, I wish more men were gay, it'd leave more women for me and I love the ladies.

  • Bongs&Thongs

    what a stretch as a hate crime

  • Joshua

    There are a few people who stole Trump/Pence posters worried about hate crimes.

  • TBC

    At 21, doesn't this guy have anything better to do with his time?

  • Nick

    He's the shame of the Witt family...or at least half of them.

  • jonnie

    Its theft not a hate crime. Its a hate crime to charge him with a hate crime.

  • Chuck Heston

    Being gay is the new cool for sure now and I support it!! This loser should pay for his crime.

  • Lee-Anne Griffin

    OK, he's a goon. We can agree on that but I still don't like hate crimes. It's a crime pure and simple to steal. Leave it at that.

  • ROBOTIX JONES

    Trump supporter.

  • AG99

    Why would anyone do something like this? If you don't like gays, simply don't go in that church. No one's forcing you.

    Was he just being petty? Did he think the church would leave his neighborhood or change its welcoming doctrine? Would his actions have escalated eventually if the flags kept coming back? There's something mentally wrong with this type of person.