String of flag burnings engulfs Westridge

String of flag burnings engulfs Westridge
Richard Cohen's neighbor, Amanda Van Hooser, hangs up a new flag outside Cohen's home (Courtesy Photo)

By Evan Berkowitz |

Alexandria police and fire officials are investigating eight instances of flag vandalism that put some residents in the West End neighborhood of Westridge on edge from early May
through mid-July.

The Times directly confirmed five incidents of flag disruption — including four burnings and one incident where miniature flags were placed in a gutter — with affected residents.

Those residents indirectly confirmed three further incidents that had affected their neighbors. The fire marshal confirmed all eight incidents, using dates and addresses, by email through city Spokeswoman Andrea Blackford.

Richard Cohen’s burnt flag lays on a tree stump (Courtesy Photo)

Lisa, a resident on the 2300 block of Sibley Street, was on vacation for Independence Day when a neighbor discovered the flag on Lisa’s property had been burned on July 7 or 8, she said.

The incident, which the neighbor reported to police, was among a string of others that affected four houses, said Lisa, who declined to give her last name, citing a security clearance-related employer policy.

The earliest such incident occurred May 9 at Mike Rosenberg’s property on the 5700 block of Rayburn Avenue, Rosenberg said. He said his wife noticed that their 8-by-10inch “novelty” flag had been burned that morning in the planter it occupied.

“It was like, WTF, what the heck!” he said. “Why would someone waste their time to come onto our property and do that? … We were upset.” Rosenberg said flags in the planter were stolen twice more after the burning incident, although these thefts were not confirmed by the fire marshal.

During the second theft, Rosenberg said he captured surveillance video of the alleged perpetrator, which he said he handed over to police.

This first string also hit the home of 90-year-old disabled veteran Richard “Dick” Cohen, whose flag burning story has captured heavy media attention since first reported by NBC-4.
According to Joyce Dexter, a former Westridge resident who publishes a community email newsletter, Cohen lives on the 5600 block of Harding Avenue. He told NBC-4 he joined the Army at 17 and served during World War II.

He was awarded a bronze star as well as a purple heart after taking German machine gun fire in 1945, DCW-50 reported.

Cohen found his flag burned and in tatters between July 3 and 5, according to NBC-4 and fire marshal reports. Cohen did not return requests for comment from the Times.

“That flag means I gave a lot of service in my late teens,” Cohen told NBC-4. “I bled pretty

Amanda Van Hooser and Richard Cohen with a new American flag Van Hooser bought for Cohen. (Courtesy photo)

profusely for it, so I take that flag as a symbol that’s very importantly in my life.” He told NBC-4 he was “in a state of shock” after the flag burning and had “never seen anything like that before.”

Neighbor Amanda Van Hooser helped Cohen hang a new American flag outside his house, NBC-4 reported, one that DCW-50 reported is bigger and brighter than its predecessor.

“Since we’re both Army veterans,” Van Hooser told NBC-4, “I thought it was a nice little touch that from two different generations, we were able to replace it.”

On July 8, resident Jim Kelley discovered that several flags from his property’s garden were “thrown in the gutter” some time the night of July 7, Kelley’s mother, Barbara Harris, wrote in an email.

After learning about Cohen’s flag being burned in Dexter’s newsletter, Harris reported the incident to police July 10. She and Kelley live on the 5600 block of Harding Avenue, according to Dexter.

Lisa’s flag was again burned the night of July 16, she said. She was about to turn in for the night when a neighbor informed her that the flag — “still crackling” about 10 feet from Lisa’s bed, she said — was ablaze.

“It is absolutely horrible that somebody would burn the flag, but it’s also arson,” Lisa said in a phone interview. “That’s my home, that’s where me and my kids live. … I was a little bit freaking out.”

Lisa said this second burning was part of another string of four incidents. Lisa confirmed the newsletter’s account and media reports that Kathleen and Ian Pfaff, who live on the 5600 block of Harding Avenue, had their flag burned July 16. Neither Kathleen nor Ian Pfaff
could be reached for comment on the incident, first reported by the Old Town Alexandria Patch.

The fire marshal confirmed a burning that date at that address, but did not name the property owner(s).

Harris confirmed that her property was disturbed again as part of the second string, this time with a flag burning, the night of July 16.

“The police were already in the neighborhood when [Kelley] went outside to investigate,” Harris wrote in an email.

Neither Lisa nor Dexter could name the fourth property owner. The fire marshal confirmed they live on the 2300 block of Sibley Street.

Reacting to the volume of incidents, Rosenberg said he was surprised that Westridge would have such an experience.

“Sibley is an out-of-the-way street, so I find it curious that they’ve had so many incidents,” he said.

“The Alexandria Fire Marshal’s Office and the Alexandria Police Department are conducting an ongoing investigation to identify the subject or subjects responsible for the burning and destruction of American flags,” Blackford wrote in an email.

Officials “are fully committed to putting a swift end to these incidents.” Anyone with information is asked to call the fire marshal at 703-756-4444.

The Times used Dexter’s tally of incidents to name and find affected residents and help corroborate and collate media and fire marshal’s office reports.

Following the string of flag desecration incidents, residents of Seminary West — the West End neighborhood that includes Westridge — held a Neighborhood Flag Day “as a gesture of solidarity and support,” Dexter wrote in an email.

“This idea has generated a positive response throughout Seminary West,” she wrote.
While she decried the flag desecrations, Lisa said the incidents have only strengthened
community resolve against them.

“It’s brought our little neighborhood together a bit more,” she said. “If nothing else, the person has brought us back together a little tighter.”