What started out as a single flag in tribute to his friend has taken on a life of its own for a Lewes businessman.
On July 10, Dave Repass put up a blue, black and white flag, known as a Thin Blue Line flag, on the northbound side of Route 1 over the Nassau Bridge following the sudden death of his friend, Delaware State Police Master Cpl. William Matt.
“I thought it would be that simple, and then all this crazy stuff started,” Repass said.
The first flag was removed by a Wilmington woman who was charged July 13 with theft, criminal mischief and traffic charges. Repass then put up a second flag, which was also removed. He put a third flag up the day of Matt's funeral July 16.
Since then, six more flags put up by someone else have joined the one Repass secured to the guard rail, and a sign naming the bridge “Bill's Bridge” was bolted to speed limit signs on the bridge.
Now a second woman faces charges for tampering with the flags. She was charged July 24 with attempt to commit theft under $1,500 and criminal mischief. In court documents, police said, they saw a car stopped in the center median of Route 1 northbound near the bridge at 2:42 a.m. The 23-year-old woman was standing next to six Thin Blue Line flags that were lying on the ground. She had a cut on her hand and there was blood on some of the flags, records state. “She stated that she was taking the flags down because she did not think it was right that they were up there,” court records state.
The woman told police she did not think it was right because the flags are not red, white and blue, records state.
Repass said he does not know who put up the other six flags, or the signs.
C.R. McLeod, director of community relations for the Department of Transportation, said neither DelDOT nor the Delaware State Police installed the signs, which looked official with gold lettering and a stencil of a trooper over a dark blue background. The sign unofficially designated the bridge as Bill's Bridge with “Thank you for 30 years of dedicated service” inscribed beneath. The Delaware State Police seal with a black and blue stripe across it is at the bottom of the sign.
“While a very nice gesture in honor of Master Cpl. Matt, it will be removed as it is not an approved highway sign which are regulated by the Federal Highway Administration,” McLeod said July 24.
The signs were removed July 25. McLeod said the unnamed citizen who put up the signs took them down.
“We explained why we can't have them attached to our existing signage out there,” he said.
Originally, McLeod said there are no plans for DelDOT to remove the flags. “We do not remove roadside memorials unless they are creating a hazard for motorists or maintenance,” he said.
On July 26, McLeod said, the flags would be removed from the bridge guardrail and placed in a median away from the road while officials work on an formal recognition in honor of Matt.
Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe of the Delaware State Police said neither the flags nor the signs are property of the Delaware State Police.
She would not comment on the amount of time police have spent monitoring the flags and charging people for tampering with them. “This is handled as any other criminal mischief or theft,” she said.
She also would not say whether the flags had caused a concern for public safety. A constant stream of cars travels across the bridge to beach destinations in the summer months – many exceeding the 45 mph speed limit.
Repass said Matt was known to park on the bridge and ticket speeders along Route 1 – possibly with some notoriety. Hence the Bill's Bridge moniker.
“He was always writing tickets,” Repass said.
While Repass said he disagrees with vandalizing the flags, he said, he has been shocked by social media attacks and threats made against the Wilmington woman.
“I'm not happy that she tore it down,” he said. “From what I understand, she started getting death threats. Nobody should have to deal with that.”
Repass said he saw a post by the woman who has apologized for taking the flag. He said he never meant for his good gesture to blow out of proportion, and he is about ready to move on.
“I don't know at this point if I'm going to continue to do all this,” Repass said. “I was just putting a flag up for my buddy to honor him. I had actually planned to take it down after the funeral.”
Only American flags should be flown to honor an officer, according to some.
In a letter to the editor July 27, Ronald Nicholls of Rehoboth Beach said he is appalled by the Thin Blue Line flags on Nassau bridge in honor of Matt.
He said Thin Blue Line flags are pro-law enforcement but are also a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The proper flags that should be flown are the only flags this country should ever fly: The Starts and Stripes and not a perversion of it,” Nicholls wrote. “I think a more fitting and less divisive tribute would be to fly the American flag.”
The Thin Blue Line flags on the Nassau bridge are not the only flags that have drawn ire in the community.
In early July, Peter Zoll of Millsboro was offended by a Blue Lives Matter flag flown on the Lewes fire truck. In a letter to the editor, he wrote, “I believe, along with most, that blue lives do matter, as do black lives, white lives, yellow and purple lives. In fact all lives matter, and certainly a public entity charged with saving those lives should believe the same. The Lewes Fire Department should be ashamed of flying a divisive banner like that.”
Lewes Fire Department spokesman Glenn Marshall said the flag is still on the fire truck, but it was placed on the truck out of respect for police.
“Our guys were making a statement that they support the guys in blue,” Marshall said. “The blue stripe flag was not done to anger anyone. It was done to support our brothers and sisters in police service.”
Marshall said Lewes firefighters are committed to serving the community no matter what a person's beliefs.
“We're going to go out and do our job no matter what,” he said.