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June 25, 2018
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Police say hate crimes in Sonoma County are uncommon

  • A gay pride rainbow flag, like the one shown here, was stolen twice from the Russian River Chamber of Commerce in Guerneville earlier this month in an alleged LGBT hate crime. Creative Commons

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
May 25, 2018

After an alleged LGBT hate crime took place in the quiet, river town of Guerneville earlier this month where an LGBT flag was stolen multiple times with serious threats of the detonation of a pipe bomb, local authorities are saying hate crimes are uncommon throughout the county, especially in Rohnert Park and Cotati.

Cotati Chief of Police, Michael Parish said there has been little to no hate crimes in Cotati and so far, no LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) related hate crimes in town.

“So far, there hasn’t been any,” Parish said of LGBT hate crimes. “The first year I arrived here in 2011, at the downtown area at the bars, we did have a hate crime against someone perceived to be Muslim. There was an assault and we did file it with  Sonoma County. There was also one patrol officer who took a report of vandalism — there was a swastika painted on a car. We do have a synagogue in Cotati, but we haven’t had any problems.”

Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, Commander, Aaron Johnson, also said that there have been no hate crimes or hates crimes targeted towards sexual orientation.

And according to Brian Staebell, Chief Deputy for the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, cases like the one in Cotati and Guerneville are relatively uncommon.

“We don’t have a huge number of these instances in Sonoma County,” Staebell said, and that is why the Guerneville case is both alarming and surprising as the county is known to be one of the more liberal counties in California. For instance, in conjunction with San Francisco, the City of Santa Rosa hosts its own gay pride parade during pride week every June.

Yet, the unnerving Guerneville incident seemed to be directed to the LGBT community, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The incident started back in April when the LGBT, rainbow-colored flag was stolen from the Russian River Chamber of Commerce at 16201, 1st St. A report was taken on the theft and a deputy started the investigation.

Meanwhile, a replacement flag went up at the chamber office, however, that too was stolen on May 5.

“As they were conducting the investigation into the theft of the rainbow flags, sheriff deputies were made aware of threats to manufacture a pipe bomb for the purpose of detonating it at the Guerneville Safeway and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Substation. The intent was to injure members of the LGBT community and deputies,” according to a report from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Ultimately sheriff deputies established probable cause that the perpetrator of the theft and threats was 55-year-old Vincent Joseph O’Sullivan.

“This is definitely not common place (to see hate crimes such as these),” said Joe Langenbahn, media coordinator for the district attorney’s office.

According to the 2011 California Hate Crime report, which is compiled every year by the California Department of Justice, there were a total of seven hate crime events for Sonoma County, eight offenses, seven victims and five suspects. Rohnert Park reported two events and both Cotati and Petaluma only reported one event, offense, victim and suspect, although it is unclear how many of these cases were LGBT related.       

The most recent so-called LGBT hate crime occurred in 2013 with the assault of a gay teenager at El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma. An 18-year-old was walking through campus and was jumped by suspected gang member, Emeliano Serna, 19, of Santa Rosa. In addition to the assault, the victim had his phone and wallet stolen and the victim’s friend told sheriff’s deputies that the aggressive attack may have been due to his sexual orientation. 

There was also an alleged race related hate crime arrest in Rohnert Park in 2009 after a Rohnert Park man allegedly beat in a man’s face with brass knuckles in a Denny’s restaurant parking lot. Authorities say the 19-year-old suspect, David Michael Summers, made derogatory comments to the victim about Mexicans. The victim suffered a facial fracture and was taken to the hospital and the suspect was arrested.

As for the Guerneville case, O’Sullivan was arrested, booked into the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention facility and is now facing one felony charge of making a criminal threat with special allegations of a hate crime.

Staebell said it is sometimes hard to find someone guilty of a hate crime since you have to prove that one of the main reasons the person committed the crime was because of the victim’s gender, race or sexual orientation.

“You have to be able to say right off the bat that one of the sole reasons they committed the crime was because of one of the factors (Gender, race, sexual orientation) and not just a common crime,” Staebell said, who also mentioned that they do take alleged cases very seriously. “We do take reports from agencies and consider them.”