We spent an afternoon outside the NYC bombing suspect’s fried chicken shop
People who live near the intersection of Linden and Elmora Avenues in Elizabeth, New Jersey, were stunned by the news about Ahmad Khan Rahami. For more than a decade, the 28-year-old Afghan immigrant was a fixture behind the counter of First American Fried Chicken, his family’s restaurant. And then, on Monday morning, he was suddenly the most wanted man in America, accused of a string of bombings in New York and New Jersey.
Dozens of neighbors were gathered outside the chicken shop on a drizzly Monday morning, standing behind a cordon of yellow crime scene tape and watching as FBI agents wearing blue shoe-coverings and gloves hauled box after box of evidence out of the restaurant and the Rahami family’s residence on the floors above. Hours earlier, Rahami was arrested after a shootout with police in the nearby town of Linden.
“I can’t believe it,” said Stephen Lopez, who had lived in the area for more than 15 years, and was glued to the crime scene in front of him. “All this time we’ve been sleeping next to the bad people.”
Rahami’s father Mohammad opened the restaurant in 2003. It became a popular stop in the predominantly Hispanic and Jewish neighborhood for cheese fries and fried chicken on the cheap. The storefront is sandwiched between a computer repair shop on the left and a hair salon on the right. At one point, the owner of the computer store barged across police lines with three miniature poodles in tow in an attempt to check on his business, but he was quickly shooed away by the FBI.
The owner of a computer store next to the Rahami family’s restaurant barged across police lines with three miniature poodles. (Photo by Tess Owen/VICE News)
Jamie Reyes, the owner of the hair salon, told VICE News that he was having breakfast that morning when he heard Rahami’s name and saw his photo on the news. “It was very hard to swallow this morning,” Reyes said. “He’s the guy everyone’s looking for?”
Miguel Lopez has lived one block from the chicken shop for five years, and in Elizabeth for 20 years. He woke up for his construction job at 5 a.m. on Monday and was greeted by a heavy police presence. “I never thought something like this would happen,” he said. “It’s very sad. It’s a nice quiet place. A nice community. Then something like this happens.”
The media spotlight thrust onto Elizabeth by the drama was unusual, residents said. Some perceived it as bothersome, others appeared to enjoy it. Marcella Perrotti, who owns a beauty shop on Elmora Avenue, ordered a giant pizza and put out hand towels, bowls of lollipops, and water bottles as refreshments for the weary cops and reporters.
Jorge Vasquez, who owns a printing shop one block from the chicken restaurant, described the community as “business oriented,” and said people shop locally. Vasquez printed menus and posters for First American Fried Chicken. He said Rahami’s father Mohammad always seemed like “a very humble person.”
“He would go in the back and do his prayers,” he said, adding that the family never seemed to socialize much. “They kept it to themselves.”
But neighbors, including Vasquez, were all aware of the Rahami family’s legal troubles. Mohammad and his sons liked to keep First American Fried Chicken open late — sometimes until 3 a.m., five hours after the city’s 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants. This rankled some more than others.
Neighbors gather in front of the beauty shop next door to First American Fried Chicken. (Photo by Cassandra Giraldo/VICE News)
James McDermott Dean, who lives around the corner from the restaurant, was one of the main complainants. Dean alleged that Rahami was keeping the restaurant open too late, and wasn’t letting customers use their bathroom, telling them instead to go around the corner.
As a result, Dean told VICE News, Rahami’s customers were frequently urinating in his driveway. When Rahami discovered that Dean was the source of the complaints behind filed against him, things got more tense.
In 2011, Rahami filed a lawsuit alleging that Dean and city officials had violated his civil rights. Rahami and his sons accused Dean of repeatedly singling them out because of their religion, saying things like “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”
Dean dismissed the allegations. “He sued everybody and their brother,” he said.
So far, Mohammad and his other sons have not been accused of being complicit in Ahmad’s alleged bombing spree. But on Tuesday, FBI officials revealed that Mohammad had reported his son as a terrorist to authorities in 2014 after a domestic dispute. “He stabbed my son, he hit my wife, and I put him to jail two years ago,” Mohamad told reporters outside the shop on Tuesday.
Mimi Dwyer, Sara Jerving, and Cassandra Giraldo contributed reporting.