First American Fried Chicken, the restaurant that the family of bombing suspect Ahmad Kahn Rahami owned and operated in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was the target of long-running complaints by neighbors and a feud with city officials over its late hours of operation.
But the family, Muslims originally from Afghanistan, claimed in a lawsuit against the city and its police department that they were the victim of religious and ethnic discrimination.
Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage told reporters Monday the fried chicken restaurant, a 24-hour operation when it first opened in 2002, often stayed open past midnight and that noisy, late-night patrons created a nuisance.
“It was neighbor complaints, it had nothing to do with his ethnicity or religion,” Bollwage said, referring to a 2011 federal discrimination lawsuit also filed by relatives, including Rahami’s father Mohammad R. Rahami against the city. “It had to do with noise and people congregating on the streets.”
Bollwage said the family lived in an apartment above the dine-in or take-out restaurant on Elmora Avenue a few miles from Newark Liberty Airport.
“It was an ongoing problem through the years,” the mayor said, and was mostly on the weekends “when they thought there would be more business.”
The lawsuit offered a completely different take on the dispute, saying from 2008 through 2011 the family was subjected to citations and summonses even though they had a legal right to stay open past 10 p.m.
It said other nearby businesses, including a Dunkin’ Donuts, White Castle and Carvel stayed open past 10 p.m. “without incident, complaint, or being the subject of a summons by the police.”
The suit alleged that one resident, James Dean McDermott, “persisted in a course of conduct designed to intimidate and harass plaintiffs by reason of their religion and national identity and national origin.”
It said McDermott, who often complained to police about the business, commented to the family that “you are Muslims” and that “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”
McDermott on Monday denied he made anti-Muslim comments to the family, and said he was only concerned about the late-night hours and disruptions to the neighborhood, including from drunks who frequented the chicken business.
“People from the chicken shop were always out here, urinating on my driveway,” he said, adding it was frequent enough “to make me mad about people urinating on my driveway. I don’t know what your tolerance is for that.”
McDermott said he hadn’t spoken to Rahami’s father since around 2011.
The lawsuit also stated police officers told the family “there’s too much crime around here,” and that “this area by your restaurant is a known place for criminal activity” — even though there was no validity to the claims.
On June 15, 2009, two family members were arrested after officers arrived to issue another summons, the lawsuit states. One was not charged and was released after several hours, but the other was charged with disorderly conduct and preventing police from lawfully performing an official function.
The outcome of the charges was unclear Monday.
The lawsuit said that from 2002 to 2008 the restaurant operated without problem, though the mayor said that at some point neighbors started complaining about the people and noise.
By 2009, the City Council passed an ordinance to make the restaurant close by 10 p.m. The family did not always comply.
The lawsuit was ruled in the city’s favor in 2012, the mayor said, giving the city the right to close the business at 10 p.m.
Police often had to show up and tell them a city ordinance requires them to close at 10, “at which time when the police came they would close,” Bollwage said.
The mayor repeatedly denied the city’s actions were due to the family’s religion or ethnic background.
He said he did not think the attacks over the weekend had anything to do with the lawsuit or the feud with the city. “I’m not saying that this had anything to do with the vitriol that happened over the weekend,” he said.