Suspect vandalizes Vermont farm, steals pride flag and leaves homophobic letter

An image from the Sandy Bottom Farm’s security camera shows the suspect. (Courtesy Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department)

An image from the Sandy Bottom Farm’s security camera shows the suspect. (Courtesy Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department)

By EMMA COTTON

VtDigger

Published: 01-08-2024 5:26 PM

ISLE LA MOTTE — The Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department is looking for a suspect who recently vandalized a local organic farm, citing the farm’s displayed pride flag in a letter left behind.

At around 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, a person trespassed on to Sandy Bottom Farm, stole the flag and slashed holes in the farmers’ greenhouses where their vegetables are overwintering, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage, a farm co-owner said.

“They left me an American flag and suggested I hang that instead,” said Patrick Helman, who owns the farm with his wife, Mary Catherine Graziano, who also serves as the chair of the Isle La Motte, Vt., selectboard. “And then they went through my entire property and cut the plastic on three of my greenhouses, to the point where that all has to be replaced.”

It isn’t the first time pride flags have been tampered with in Isle La Motte. In 2022, the same farm had its flag stolen, and elsewhere, someone burned pride flags displayed outside a home.

In a letter, which accompanied the vandalism and which Helman posted to Instagram, the perpetrator used expletives and homophobic language, objecting to the family’s use of the pride flag. 

The letter blamed Helman and his family for being “polarizing” and “making things binary.” Even as the perpetrator caused extensive damage to the farm — including carving obscenities into the plastic greenhouse coverings — they claimed in their letter, “we do not hate gays!” and “this has nothing to do with trying to make people afraid.”

Helman and Graziano produce more than 50 different types of organic vegetables and sell them through community supported agriculture shares, also known as CSAs. They also sell their produce at farmers markets and through wholesale. 

Friends have come by to help tape up the greenhouses, making what Helman said are temporary repairs. So far, the family’s insurance has declined to cover the damages, and a friend has organized a GoFundMe in an attempt to recoup some of the losses. The farmers plan to funnel any donations they don’t use for repairs to Outright Vermont, a Burlington-based organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ youth.

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Helman has been working with the Grand Isle Sheriff’s Office on the case, he said. 

Sergeant Blake Allen, with the sheriff’s department, said officers have distributed images of the perpetrator, caught by the farm’s security cameras, to local media outlets. 

Officers are going door-to-door to neighbors and other residents, seeking more information about the suspect. They’re also looking through previous cases to see whether the suspect’s physical description matches any people who are known by the department. 

It’s clear to the department that the suspect knows the area and may know Helman and Graziano, Allen said. 

“We’re just looking for anybody that has any information to contact us,” Allen said. “And that if anything seems suspicious, to not think that it’s too small, and to contact their local law enforcement.”

People with information can call the department directly, or use an anonymous tip line on its website, Allen said. 

Helman said he knew, when he started displaying the pride flag in front of his business, that “probably some people weren’t going to stop here because of that, and buy my vegetables.” He said he accepted that. 

“But I think that the problems we’ve had since we started just really show that, whatever people might think, there’s a real problem with hatred in the state — more broadly than just my community, than just the Isle La Motte community.”

Helman said he usually spends January and February completing farm maintenance that he can’t get around to in the busy summer months, and he typically has a schedule full of tasks. 

“They certainly do not include emergency repairs on three greenhouses that were in perfectly fine condition previously,” he said. 

Asked whether he feels safe in his home following the incident, Helman thought for a moment. 

“I’m sure that a lot of people who have heard about this feel less safe now,” he said. 

Amanda Rohdenburg, associate director of Outright Vermont, said in a statement that the “hard truth” is that “we’re not surprised by what happened to Sandy Bottom Farm.”

“It’s a clear indication that even in a progressive state like Vermont, we are not immune to the wave of anti-queer and trans hate and the violence it brings along with it,” Rohdenburg said.

She addressed those who may feel less safe following the incident in Isle La Motte and across the state, saying “we are here for them and we’re a source of support where they can find their people.”

“We see this as a call for both state and local leaders to denounce acts like this,” she said, “and for allies and other community members to be visible and vocal supporters of the LGBTQ+ community.”

In a statement on behalf of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Lindsey Brand, a spokesperson called the “recent prejudice-fueled vandalism” at the farm “truly disheartening.”

“We stand in solidarity with them,” the statement read. “Sandy Bottom Farm is an important part of the community, growing food for their neighbors and fostering a healthy local ecosystem.”

The organization also noted that it has an emergency fund available to “member farms experiencing a crisis, including vandalism like this.” 

The farmers already have plans to display another pride flag, Helman said.  

“I think as somebody who’s relatively privileged, the least I can do is hang a flag to support the people that I love,” he said. “That’s why we do it.”