Gallery: Friends in Dayton, Tenn., rally around Hindu businessman subjected to nasty Facebook gossip
DAYTON, Tenn. — Over the course of the lunch hour, a continual stream of blue-collar, born-and-bred Rhea County men passed through the doors of B&E Convenience, a small gas station and convenience store on Market Street still known to locals as the old Pilot.
Sunny Patel, the kind-faced, mustachioed owner of this store for 10 years now, knows them all.
And they know him.
Which is why the regulars didn't believe the Facebook rumor circulating last week that Patel was celebrating the fatal shooting that had occurred 40 minutes away in Chattanooga.
"To anyone who goes to the convenience store near Bi-Lo," one Dayton man posted last Friday, "the owner personally told a customer yesterday that he was happy about what happened in Chattanooga yesterday regarding the shooting and the killing of four Marines."
That post referred to the deaths of four Marines and a Navy petty officer at the hands of 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who subsequently was shot to death by Chattanooga police. FBI investigators looked at whether Abdulazeez, an American and a Muslim, had become radicalized but since have said they've found no evidence of outside influence.
As of this week, the post has been shared more than 2,600 times and has almost 30 comments, nearly all disgusted that someone in their community would harbor such feelings about the shooting.
Only, Sunny Patel was vacationing in Washington state last week, including the day he allegedly bragged to a customer about the Chattanooga shooting.
And Patel is Hindu.
"We don't do anything wrong here, you know," he said this week. "That's the way we grow up, you know."
Patel was raised in India and came to the U.S. when he was around 20. Patel moved from Wisconsin to Chattanooga in 2001 and settled in Dayton in 2005.
He is a self-described "pure Hindu."
And he was devastated when his brother, Charlie, called last Thursday and explained what was happening in Chattanooga.
"War is a painful and terrible thing," said Patel. "When I heard, it was painful."
The following day, Charlie called back, and he told his brother about the Facebook post.
"I said, 'No way,'" Patel recalls.
In 15 years of living in Chattanooga and Dayton, the Patels have never been harrassed for being either Indian or Hindu in a predominantly white, evangelical Christian community.
"They're good people," said a Dayton police officer this week. "They've always been good to us."
Charlie Patel approached local police last week about the Facebook post aimed at his brother. B&E Convenience is staffed by members of the Patel family — a sobering thought considering someone in cyberspace was conjuring up feelings that could logically lead to violence against the store.
"If somebody wanted to be here, and shoot us," said Charlie, trailing off. "That's why we just worried."
No official report was filed, said police this week. There was nothing to file, they said, nothing they could do about what someone said in the Wild West world of Facebook.
But they said they're keeping a close eye on the store.
And one man who lives near B&E Convenience said he has seen police cruisers passing by with more frequency than usual.
Still, Becky Guile, a food vendor for several convenience stores in the area, feared something like this might happen after last week's shooting.
"I think the general public needs to understand the difference between Muslim and Hindu," she said. "Between Pakistani and Indian."
It's easy to lump enemies into groups — dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes — Guile said, and not distinguish between Hindu and Muslim, or radical Muslim extremists and peaceful Muslim neighbors.
It's unclear why or how the rumor about Sunny Patel was started. He and others at B&E Convenience said they don't know the man who appears to have posted it first — and who didn't respond to requests for comment.
The Patels also remain adamant that nobody in the store would have said anything that could be taken as celebrating the Chattanooga shooting.
Fortunately, the post doesn't seem to have had any lasting effect, said the Patels.
Though Saturday evening "this place was dead," said Matthew Revis, a friend of the Patels, and the man who, following last week's incident, opened a B&E Convenience Facebook page complete with a profile picture of the store overlaid with an American flag.
"People don't realize the power of social media these days," Revis said.
Or maybe they do, said Sunny.
Maybe the post was an attempt to slow down business at B&E, he speculated. Maybe it came from a rival, or from a disgruntled customer. Maybe it was just mean-spirited.
Whatever the intention, it isn't stopping regular Dave Rice, who stops in every afternoon after work.
Or Marion Couch, who stops by almost daily for a Diet Coke.
"I read it on Facebook, but I didn't believe it," he said. "I know them better than that. They're too good of people to say that kind of crap."
Contact staff writer Alex Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6480.