ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Before Jan. 6, a man who drove by St. Louis County Officer Michael Coletti’s house said he would have rolled his eyes if he noticed the black Three Percenters flag flapping from the officer’s flagpole.
He knew the FBI had linked the Three Percenters to a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor.
Surely, a police officer would know that, he would have thought.
Then, the FBI linked the group to the Capitol attack.
The man who took the picture noticed the flag there Jan. 6.
Surely, the officer will take it down now, he thought.
Instead, it kept flapping.
The officer's squad car sat in his driveway not far away.
So, the man snapped a few pictures of it and sent it to the police department to lodge a complaint.
He also sent it to his college roommate, an ATF agent.
He asked me not to use his name or anything that could identify him because he is fearful of retaliation for speaking out.
“He’s saying he’s for insurrection, ‘I’m for what happened at the Capitol,’” he said. “I don’t know what else to think.
“It’s like someone flying an al-Qaeda flag the day after 9/11. I saw so many county police cars over there while the flag was up, you start to think it must be OK in that culture. I don’t want to live in a world where I’ve got militia men enforcing the law.”
Coletti declined my request for an interview to understand why he flew the flag.
St. Louis County Police Department spokeswoman Officer Tracy Panus and the police union business manager Officer Matt Crecelius both said Coletti believed the flag represented his conservative beliefs and did not know how the group had become attached to extremism.
They said once he learned more about the group, he no longer supports it.
Karen Aroesty finds that hard to believe.
"You kind of have to be under a rock not to know there's something out of place with that," said Aroesty, director of the Anti-Defamation League Missouri chapter.
Her organization has worked with the county police for years in training sessions, including trips to the Holocaust museum.
"The frustration I have with this particular incident is there are a lotta good officers out there trying to do the right thing by the community," she said. "Every time one of the incidents happen, it's kind of like death by 1,000 pin pricks to undermine what in this region is fragile territory."
The Three Percenters flag has since been replaced by a Thin Blue Line flag. The horizontal line through the middle of a black and white American flag represents the police who form the line to protect the innocent from the evil.
The police department and police union differ on how the Three Percenters flag came down.
The department said the officer took the flag down voluntarily.
The police union said he was ordered to do so.
Either way, the man who took the photo said he didn’t get results until he turned to the civilian police board, which oversees the chief and the department.
He got some luck when he sent the photo and an email on Feb. 23 to the newest member of the board, Richard Banks, at Banks’ law firm.
“I appreciate you bringing this to my attention,” Banks wrote. “I have forwarded the information down the chain of command. If you want to follow up with me please feel free to contact me on my St. Louis County email.”
The man responded: “Over the last five weeks, I have contacted numerous people in the department and in the FBI, ATF, state patrol. It's still flying. I guess in the St. Louis County Police culture this sort of thing is acceptable. It makes me and many others trust the department much less.”
“I'm not familiar with the flag or what it symbolizes,” Banks responded. “Can you enlighten me? The image you sent is not very clear.”
“It's a right wing anti-government militia group involved in the insurrection and in the attempted kidnapping of the governor of Michigan,” the man responded.
“I have forwarded down the chain-of-command sir for investigation as stated sir,” Banks replied.
“I’ve been talking to people for weeks,” the man wrote. “He still flies it and terrorizes the community. I think it is time the media is made aware.”
The next day, Feb. 24, Banks followed up.
“I was told the flag will be removed today. Please keep me posted if that happens and thank you for bringing it to my attention.”
The man reported back to Banks the next day: “Still looked like the black 3 Percenter flag to me this morning when I drove by. Although it was hanging down and it scares me to death to drive by at this point and didn’t see the police car. For all I know you and others are letting Mr. Coletti know who I am.”
At some point after that, the flag did come down.
The man who took the pictures said he’s not anti-police.
His son is studying criminal justice with aspirations to become a police officer.
The FBI warned of planned violence in Washington, D.C. Thursday from the Three Percenters.
On Thursday, the man who took the pictures contacted Banks again after seeing Coletti pictured next to Chief Mary Barton during a groundbreaking ceremony this week at the police academy.
“It saddens me to see the chief breaking ground with someone acting like a 3 Percenter flag following 1/6 is just another conservative symbol. Leading up to 1/6, there were a lot of signs and intelligence about what was going to happen at the hands of militia groups and extremists. I hope obvious signs are not being ignored again with the oh ‘Oh, it’s a white police officer what could he possibly do?’ When someone tells you who they are believe them.”