How dispute over placement of American flags led to death threats in McHenry County village

  • Terry Trobiani shows the area where he placed two American flags outside Gianelli's restaurant on Route 176 in Prairie Grove, leading to two citations and a controversy that's sparked death threats against village leaders.

    Terry Trobiani shows the area where he placed two American flags outside Gianelli's restaurant on Route 176 in Prairie Grove, leading to two citations and a controversy that's sparked death threats against village leaders. Matthew Apgar/Matthew Apgar

 
By Cassie Buchman
Shaw Media
Updated 8/15/2021 12:44 PM

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

While Trobiani claimed he was cited for flying 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.

One ticket was for the flags not being set back a minimum of 15 feet from the property line. The other was because the flags were not on permanent poles, as required.

Trobiani said he was not told by the village that the tickets are to be dismissed and plans on going to an adjudication hearing scheduled Aug. 25 regardless.

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"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 aired 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 flap 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, officials said.

Calling some of 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 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 flagpoles or staffs."

Still, the story sparked outrage, resulting in many threatening emails and phone calls, Underwood said. Death threats against him and other village board members came in, and some threatened to burn the village down.

At one point, Underwood's address was posted on the internet. He said the situation really got personal 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.

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

People also have reached out to Trobiani, although he said it's mainly been messages of support.

"(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, Canada said when he talked to callers about the situation, most of the conversations ended well. Some even prayed with him, he told Gallagher on the radio show.

"That was refreshing," Canada said.

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