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Corvallis Arts Center flag-burning not believed to be a hate crime
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Corvallis Arts Center flag-burning not believed to be a hate crime

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The Arts Center in downtown Corvallis is hoping to replace three flags that were destroyed this week in what appears to be a random act of vandalism, not an act of intimidation as some had feared.

Staff of the nonprofit art gallery and education center at 700 SW Monroe Ave. arrived at work Tuesday morning to find the charred remains of three colorful nylon banners at the base of a scorched lamppost on the plaza in front of the building.

Two of the banners were part of a public art piece that stood next to The Arts Center’s main entrance, facing Central Park. The piece by artist Jason Saunders was designed as a memorial to Esther Strom Henderson, a longtime member of the city’s parks board who died in 2000.

The third was a rainbow flag denoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride that hung near the front door.

At 12:26 a.m. Tuesday, Corvallis police were called to the plaza for reports of a burning flagpole. Officers arrested Diana Leigh Roberts, 37, near the scene and charged her with reckless burning, resisting arrest and attempted assault of a public safety officer.

Roberts, who also had a half-dozen warrants for her arrest for failure to appear in court on theft, criminal mischief and other charges, is being held in the Benton County Jail on $115,000 bail.

After information about the incident was posted on The Arts Center’s Facebook page, some people on social media expressed concern that it might have been a hate crime. Not only was a rainbow pride flag set on fire, but The Arts Center is hosting an exhibition by artist Annette Sabater, titled “An Iris Stands Tall,” that deals with transgender issues.

“That community was very afraid at first,” said Cynthia Hadlock-Spencer, The Arts Center’s executive director.

“I have to say it was a bit of a shock to have this happen when we’re trying to build bridges and have some awareness.”

After speaking with someone from the Benton County District Attorney’s Office, however, Hadlock-Spencer said she’s confident there was no intent to intimidate the transgender community or even to target The Arts Center.

Lt. Dan Duncan, a spokesman for the Corvallis Police Department, said there was nothing in the arresting officer’s report to suggest the incident was anything other than an act of vandalism. He also noted that Roberts has a history of destructive behavior.

“To be honest, she’s got arrests for criminal mischief and vandalism in our city going back to 2015,” Duncan said. “She just damages things.”

Hadlock-Spencer said she feels fortunate that the fire didn’t spread to The Arts Center itself, a wooden Gothic-style structure built in 1889.

“We’re just thankful it wasn’t worse,” she said.

The three flags are damaged beyond repair and will need to be replaced at an estimated cost of $500-$600, Hadlock-Spencer said. Because the large banners were part of a public art piece, the Corvallis Parks and Recreation Department would be the agency to take the lead on replacing them.

Hadlock-Spencer said she’s been encouraging people to make donations to the Friends of Corvallis Parks & Recreation, a nonprofit group that supports the department.

Gifts can be made online at http://www.lovecorvallisparks.org/donate/.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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