The hate-crime trial of Adolfo Martinez had been unusually volatile.

Unlike most defendants who try to stay out of jail, Martinez, 30, seemed to actively court punishment, Pastor Eileen Gebbie of Ames United Church of Christ observed. Martinez spoke out of turn. He made violent arm gestures. Yes, Martinez told the judge, he was indeed trying to make a statement about gay people when he ripped down AUCC’s rainbow-striped pride flag on June 11 and set it on fire in a nearby strip club parking lot. And no, he wasn’t sorry.

“He said he wants to ‘cut us out of the land of the living,’ ” Gebbie told The Washington Post on Friday as she recalled Martinez’s angry rhetoric targeting queer people like herself at a time when hate crimes against LGBTQ people have risen sharply over the past three years in cities throughout the United States.

On Wednesday, Martinez was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison on convictions of committing a hate crime, third-degree harassment and reckless use of fire as a habitual offender. Given that Martinez had a lengthy history of harassment and felony offenses and showed no remorse, Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds suggested the maximum possible sentence, to which the judge agreed.

During the trial, Gebbie said Maritnez would reference her directly, sometimes describing her appearance, other times saying his actions weren’t about her, yet affirming his belief that as a lesbian, she was a problem.

As he was led away after sentencing, Martinez addressed her one last time.

“I’ll see you when I get out,” he said.

The night of Martinez’s arrest, he was kicked out of Dangerous Curves, a bar and strip club a block away from AUCC. Outside, he told one of the bar’s patrons, who he knew is transgender, that he was going to “burn their banner,” according to police records. Martinez made the short walk to the church, where above the door hung a multicolored pride flag printed with the message, “God is still speaking.”

Police say Martinez yanked the flag down, dragged it back to the club’s parking lot, doused it with lighter fluid and set it on fire.

The attack rankled congregants in the 225-person congregation, where Gebbie estimates 15 percent of the church body identifies as LGBTQ. AUCC is the oldest church in Ames, Iowa, and has been a “welcoming and affirming” house of worship for queer, questioning and interfaith people for nearly two decades.

Some congregants saw the crime as an act of vandalism — “it’s just a banner” — while others felt scared to come to church, she said. Acts of violence against churches, like the 2015 massacre at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, were on Gebbie’s mind.

Gebbie and the church were targeted for what they believe. An attack wouldn’t shake their belief in love and inclusion, she said.

“Mr. Martinez can hate me all he wants. But I will not let that hate define my relationship with him."

A scrap of the LGBTQ pride flag at Ames United Church of Christ remained after the flag was stolen and torched in June 2019.
A scrap of the LGBTQ pride flag at Ames United Church of Christ remained after the flag was stolen and torched in June 2019. (Eileen Gebbie)

‘I burned down their pride’

Despite pleading not guilty to the charges, Martinez never denied what he did. When police questioned him at the scene, Martinez admitted to everything and said a church should not be supporting LGBTQ people.

“It was an honor to do that. It’s a blessing from the Lord,” Martinez told the station. He had no regrets whatsoever.

“I burned down their pride.”

Adolfo Martinez has been sentenced to more than 16 years in prison for burning an LGBTQ flag that was flying at a church in central Iowa.
Adolfo Martinez has been sentenced to more than 16 years in prison for burning an LGBTQ flag that was flying at a church in central Iowa. (Story County, Iowa, Public Safety Group/AP)

The flag had for years been a symbol in Ames that people were welcomed and loved at the church, Gebbie said. It gave many members in heavily closeted central Iowa a feeling of safety where the passive-aggressive attitude of “Iowa nice” prevails. “It is toxic and forces [queer people] to deal with hatred on their own.”

Even among AUCC’s non-LGBTQ congregants, the flag burning stoked fears of violence. The rise of hate crimes and the era of mass shootings have already proved that not even schools or places of worship are immune to attack.

James Coppoc, an AUCC congregant with two school-aged children, wrote in a victim impact statement for Martinez’s sentencing that his attack on the church has tinged the churchgoing experience with “fear that no child should have to carry and no parent should have to navigate.”

“Mr. Martinez is not the first to threaten our church family, and certainly won’t be the last, but the very public nature of his threats and the symbolic act of burning our flag does put a face on the potential violence and bring the fear to a head,” Coppoc wrote. “In this way, despite the fact that he was caught and arrested, Mr. Martinez has accomplished exactly the harm he set out to do.”

How the church responded

“For the congregation, it’s been a real test of practicing what we preach and not living in fear,” Gebbie said.

Since the Wednesday verdict, Gebbie said the church has received hate mail from people who object to their inclusive beliefs or fault them for the length of Martinez’s sentence.

The church didn’t even press charges against Martinez; it asked if it could pursue restorative justice alternatives as a way of disposing the case, but the state ultimately pursued the case against him with a sentence stiffened by what prosecutors argued was a dangerous, remorseless pattern of behavior.

After the trial, the church asked if it could pay Martinez’s court fees, but the judge had waived them, Gebbie said.

Church members learned he had three children who don’t live with him, all under the age of 13, and wondered if there was a way to support them and their mother financially during Martinez’s incarceration.

“This man has nothing. He doesn’t have any family or friends,” Gebbie said. “It’s heartbreaking. He’s all alone in this world.”

The church is still looking for ways to help Martinez while he’s incarcerated.

Meanwhile, the church is preparing for business as usual Sunday, which coincides with the final week of the Advent season. In Christian liturgy, the theme for the fourth and final week of Advent is love.