Local News

A story about Prairie Grove went national. Then, village hall started receiving death threats.

After national outlets wrote about a dispute between the village and a local business over the American flag, village officials say they fielded angry, threatening calls from across the country

Two $100 tickets issued by the village of Prairie Grove turned in a national story last month, leading to a flood of angry phone calls and emails, including death threats and threats to burn down the village.

The tickets are on track to be dismissed, Village President Dave Underwood said, as the business – Gianelli’s, a restaurant on Route 176 – came into compliance with the village’s ordinances.

The tickets were issued to Gianelli’s in July after its manager, Terry Trobiani, put American flags in the grass outside the business, after previously sparring with the village over its temporary sign ordinance.

One of Trobiani’s tickets was for the flags not being set back a minimum of 15 feet from the property line, and another citation said the flags must be on a permanent flagpole.

While Trobiani said the village unfairly ticketed the restaurant for having American flags, village officials said the issue was Trobiani’s placement of the flags on Route 176′s right-of-way, not the flag itself.

Trobiani said he was not told by the village that the tickets were to be dismissed and said he learned about it from friends. He said he plans on going to adjudication court on Aug. 25 regardless.

“The status of the tickets are ‘will be dismissed,’” Trobiani said. “We’re supposed to take his word that he’s going to dismiss them?”

The dispute between the village and restaurant led to protests outside Gianelli’s and multiple news stories.

After the Chicago Fox affiliate TV station released a story on the fight, it was picked up by the national Fox News channel and Trobiani went on the morning talk show “Fox and Friends” a few times to tell his side of the story.

The story then caught the attention of conservative-leaning websites with large followings. Although the local Fox station reached out to Underwood, some other outlets did not reach out to Prairie Grove officials.

Calling the pieces “clickbait journalism,” Prairie Grove Police Chief Lawrence Canada said the way they were written was one-sided.

“They look to anger people,” he told one radio station, KPRC AM 950 in Houston, in an interview that was posted on the village’s website.

What these outlets were presenting is “a very distorted version of the truth,” Underwood said.

“The American flag is a symbol of our freedom, democracy and the liberties we hold dear,” the village said in a lengthy news release last month. “For that reason, the village upholds its high standards and requires all U.S. flags to be flown from permanent flag poles or staffs.”

Still, the story sparked outrage, resulting in many threatening emails and phone calls, Underwood said.

Death threats against Underwood and other Village Board members came in. People would threaten to burn the village down or harm village officials.

Speaking to the Mike Gallagher Show in July, shortly after the story had been widely publicized, the police chief said at one point the village fielded more than 1,500 calls in four days.

“[We were] just trying to catch up with the wave that hit us,” Underwood said. Speaking to the Northwest Herald on Saturday, Underwood said these messages have since stopped.

At one point, Underwood’s address was posted on the internet, but he said the situation really got personal for him when people in his daughter’s life began harassing her about what they read online about her father.

“I am very proud of her for holding her ground and encouraging them to seek both sides of the story from reputable sources before drawing conclusions,” Underwood said.

People also have reached out to Trobiani, although he said these have been mainly messages of support. He said he did not expect the village would get any negative response or backlash over the flag situation.

“[They’ve been] sending me letters [saying] don’t stop, support the flag, don’t let them win,” Trobiani said.

Despite the anger people had when they called the village of Prairie Grove, Canada said when he talked to callers about the situation, most of the conversations ended well. Some even prayed with him, the chief told Gallagher on his show.

“That was refreshing,” Canada said.