Onalaska man Caleb Nowels, 20, was arrested last month for the destruction of a large pride sign that read “Lewis County welcomes everyone” — a project by local progressive activist group the Lewis County Lollipop Guild.
The incident drew attention in September when the sign, which was located across the street from the Uncle Sam Hamilton billboard, was torn down less than 48 hours after being erected, adding to a number of instances in which the group’s anti-racist and pride signs had been stolen or valdalized.
According to an incident report by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, Nowels was arrested Dec. 18 after confessing to tearing down the sign, saying he was intoxicated at a party and that the action was not out of homophobia or hate, but because he “was frustrated during this time with what was occurring in our area and others.”
Nowels also said that since he was intoxicated, he didn’t remember the incident, but was told the morning after that he had done it. Records from the sheriff’s office indicate that a 16-year-old at the party drove Nowels to a fast food restaurant in Napavine, after which Nowels instructed the minor to stop by the sign, where he proceeded to tear it down from the top of a large storage container. According to statements by the 16-year-old, Nowels brought some of the sign with him back to the party.
Nowels was charged with third-degree malicious mischief, third-degree theft and second-degree criminal trespass. A court hearing is set for Jan. 28.
Several items were left at the scene, including two $20 bills, chapstick and a baseball hat, found by Kyle Wheeler, the founder of the Lewis County Lollipop Guild and owner of the property where the sign first set up. Wheeler — who estimated the damage to run about $200 — said the items tipped him off that it might have been a drunken incident.
“My first thought was ‘wow, someone was really drunk last night to leave all this evidence behind,’ so I knew it was a drunk, stupid person from the start,” Wheeler said.
In a Jan. 13 email to Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, Wheeler expressed that he didn’t want to characterize the incident as a hate-motivated crime, “though it certainly fits the bill.”
“Just given the messaging of our sign and the reason our sign was there, it’s really really hard to not see it from that angle,” Wheeler said. “The kid was too drunk to remember anything, so it’s really odd to me that the only thing he remembers is that it wasn’t hateful.”
Facing legal challenges to building a more permanent billboard on the property, which sits south of Chehalis, Wheeler said his plan now is to build 7-foot rainbow fences instead — reminiscent of the guild’s most recent project, the Chehalis Friendship Fence.
“The group plans to march on with their various community visibility projects,” according to a press release.