Café Patou target of hate crime?

A popular local restaurant with a French name that specializes in serving French and Italian cuisine was the target of an apparent attempted arson and/or hate crime early Sunday morning, March 23. French immigrant, Philippe Forcioli, is the owner of Café Patou, 3929 Broadway. Forcioli speculated the break-in may have been motivated by the French government’s opposition to the United States’ war against Iraq.

Last week, Forcioli authored guest columns that appeared in The Rock River Times and the March 19 Rockford Register Star. The guest columns were a response to a March 13 Rockford Register Star article on the front page of that paper’s Life & Style section. That article keyed on the French bashing going on in the U.S. because of the Prime Minister Jacques Chirac’s promise of a veto in the U.N. against the Iraq war. French fries were renamed “Freedom Fries” in the cafeteria of the U.S. House of Representatives, and various private and public officials were avidly anti-French, including U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo (R-16).

The Register Star article listed Forcioli’s restaurant as among the many things French that would be banned, if the prohibition became widespread. The list was only about a third of a page long, but was repeated several times, and was partially covered with a large graphic of the Eiffel Tower and the headline “Au Revoir,” which means “goodbye” in French. A breakout box appeared at the bottom of the article, saying it was time to “lighten up” on the French issue.

Forcioli described the Register Star article as “a misguided attempt at humor,” and that the large “Au Revoir” in French next to the Eiffel Tower spoke louder than the attempt at humor.

When asked if the Rockford Register Star felt at all responsible for the burglary, Executive Editor Linda Grist Cunningham said, “No, and I have no further comment.” Forcioli said he closed and locked the restaurant at about 3 a.m. Sunday. About two hours later, Forcioli received a telephone call at home from the restaurant’s alarm service company representative, who informed him that the restaurant’s motion detector had been triggered. Approximately 30 minutes later, Forcioli reported the incident to police, immediately after his arrival at the restaurant.

The police report said the suspect gained entry to the restaurant by unlocking the front door from the outside, after smashing out one small window on the door. According to the report, the suspect poured an unknown liquid on the wooden front desk, wooden front and back bar and boxes of wine in the dining area.

The report said there was a “strong odor of some sort of solvent” inside the restaurant. Forcioli said he thought the odor was consistent with gasoline. Forcioli said the strength of the odor forced him to report the incident to police from outside the building.

Police report that the unknown solvent ruined the surfaces of the wooden fixtures. Police estimate $800 in damage to the desk, $75 to the front door and an unknown damage amount to the bar and wine. Forcioli set the physical damage and cost clean to it up at $10,000.

The incident at Café Patou occurred about one block from Al-Baraka Bakery, 3848 Broadway. The bakery was also the target of a similar crime shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Washington, D. C., New York City and plane crash in Pennsylvania

Bakery owners and Muslim Americans Falah Alaboudy and his wife Alia Zeidan were targeted for a death threat and vandalism that forced them to temporarily close their business in 2001. That case remains unsolved.

Forcioli said Rockford Police detectives came to investigate the incident the following day, March 24. Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said he was confident law enforcement officials would apprehend whomever was responsible.

Logli said he met early last week with Rockford Police Chief Steve Pugh and Winnebago County Sheriff Dick Meyers to discuss their agencies’ response to possible hate crimes. Logli added that there is no room in our community for such crimes.

Mike Zemites, supervisor for the Rockford office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said his agency is not currently involved in investigating the incident as a federal crime.

Zemites said for his agency to investigate, the crime would have to be of such a nature that the motivation specifically pointed to the victim’s race, gender, religion or other affiliation.

Zemites said he was familiar with the details of the crime and referred all other questions to the Rockford Police Department.

In February, the FBI determined that the fire that destroyed the Lao Buddhist Temple on South Mulford Road in early 2002 was not a hate crime or arson. The temples first location had been fire-bombed in the mid-1980s.

In the case of Café Patou, Dominic Iasparro, deputy chief for Rockford Police, said federal inspectors have not been asked to investigate because they have yet to find evidence that a hate crime was committed. Iasparro added that there is no suspect(s).

About one mile west of the Café, another ethnic restaurant, the Stockholm Inn, was also a crime target on Sunday morning. In that incident, a rock was thrown through one of the restaurant’s windows, Iasparro said. However, Iasprarro said there were reports of similar crimes in the area. Therefore, the Stockholm Inn and Café Patou incidents appear unrelated, Iasparro said.

Forcioli said his first reaction to the incident was shock because calls from the alarm company are nearly always false. Forcioli replaced the entire bar and refinished the desk by Monday evening’s opening. On Sunday, efforts to clean and repair the restaurant took a crew of 10 about 24 hours, and the floor was partially repainted Monday night. Repairs are ongoing.

Forcioli believes the crime was an isolated incident that doesn’t reflect poorly on the Rockford area or the country. Although an exact cause is difficult to identify, business at many restaurants has been slower since the beginning of the war, Forcioli said.

Roger Gustafson, frequent diner and occasional host at the Café, said: “It’s important for people to realize that Philippe [Forcioli] and the restaurant are American. If we [Rockford-area citizens] drive out committed Americans like Philippe, what is the future of this community?”

For the full text of Forcioli’s column reacting to the Register Star’s “Au Revoir” article, see page 9 in last week’s issue of The Rock River Times.

Of the 14 comments on the daily’s Web site about the “Au Revoir” article as of Tuesday afternoon, 11 comments agreed with Forcioli and three comments agreed with the daily.

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier, also contributed to this article.

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