By Daniel J. Demers, special to California Catholic Daily.
This is a story that it is right for all the wrong reasons and wrong for all the right reasons. It is about Harry Siegel, a likeable local thug who died in 2015.
In July, 2014 Guerneville’s St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church was burglarized and robbed. The burglars broke a stained glass window to enter the church in the early morning hours. They stole money for the poor from an offering box, a silver-gold crucifix, holy water aspergillum (wand), an incense thurible and several religious clothing items. The crime was reported to the local Sheriff’s office. The town was outraged that anyone would vandalize, let alone steal, from a church.
It turned out that the thieves were a couple of homeless men. Apparently, as it turned out one of the perpetrators, Nick, boasted about the break-in with his confederate Paul. In fairness the vast majority of the local homeless, themselves, were livid about the thefts.
Harry Siegel lived in the Guerneville area all his life. He spent nearly a third of his fifty-eight years in and out of San Quentin—mostly for drug related crimes. He was particularly proud that he held the record for the highest recidivism of anyone from Sonoma County. His record, largely due to parole violations, had returned him forty-three times to the Big House. He claimed he had problems with authority figures which was the root cause of his recidivism. “Jesus had problems with authority figures, too,” he told me once with a sly smile. It was his unorthodox way of connecting with the Lord.
Known to locals as “Big Harry”—he was 6’8”, muscular and rugged and Frankenstinian. His hands were the size of Easter hams and he was quick to use them collecting drug dealer debts. Big Harry was intimidating. He was never known to be religious but, for some reason, when he heard about the church theft he was incensed.
Harry was like a flame attracting moths—in this case the various street people, vagabonds and homeless men and women. Big Harry was the de facto mayor of this soft underbelly of the town. All the street people wanted to brag they were his friend. It was important to count Harry as your friend.
Unknown to local sheriff or church authorities, Harry broadcast to this local population that he was looking for Paul and Nick. For two weeks the thieves moved from camp to camp to avoid Harry but their movements were diligently reported by Harry’s street people. He finally found Nick sleeping behind the dumpster of a local coffee shop. Cornered, Nick acknowledged his involvement and gave up Paul who had disposed of the stolen goods. When Harry confronted Paul, he refused to snitch and give up the fence who purchased the stolen religious items. You know the idiom: “honor among thieves.”
Harry had had decades of experience with reluctant hoodlums. Towering over the thief, Harry told Paul to strip naked. He then duct-taped him to a tree. He told Paul to think about it, he’d be back in a couple of hours.
When he returned, Harry calmly asked the thief again if he was prepared to rat-out the possessor of the stolen goods. Again Paul refused. Harry ripped the duct tape off—Harry said he liked doing that because it hurt so much. He then re-taped him and threw him into the trunk of his car and drove into a vacant lot with rutted roads. There he did a series of high-speed donuts. After five minutes of this vehicular torture, Harry opened the trunk and looked down on the bloodied, black-and-blue Paul. Without hesitation Paul gave up the old man who had bought the purloined articles. It turned out the buyer was an old guy who liked to dress up and make believe he was a priest.
The goods were quickly returned to St. Elizabeth’s. Now Harry figured Paul had been punished enough with the duct taping and donuts. Nick was another story. Harry slapped Nick with that big hand—a slap that was heard across the town. It really hurt. Further he was instructed to go before the church’s congregation and apologize. Alas, before that happened, Sheriff’s deputies picked the duo up and charged them with multiple petty crimes. Neither have been seen in town since.
In the end the stolen items were returned and Guerneville Glass’ Bill Aguirre repaired the stained glass window gratis—he genuflected first. Justice had been done—albeit the vigilante way. Big Harry made it simple and just. He is missed.
This story originally appeared in North Coast Catholic.