The neighbors would have understood if businessman Jay Patel had boarded up his Dunkin' Donuts shop and never looked back.

More than once, Patel thought about doing just that after robbers shot to death two of his employees, left one for dead and torched the place in an attempt to cover their inhumane act early one morning last October.

But drive past the popular doughnut shop near Allentown Road and Branch Avenue, in Camp Springs, and you'll see that bright, colorful banners have replaced the yellow police tape.

Patel is back in business, and for that, he should be congratulated.

Perhaps the decision to reopen in the same spot had something to do with business. From all appearances, the shop sells an awful lot of doughnuts. But Patel seems sincere when he says his decision was more about courage.

"After the incident, my employees told me they were scared to work at this location," said Patel, who took over the business in 1996. "I told my employees, I'm scared, too, but we have to reopen. We can't let the bad guys win."

On Saturday, the community around the shop joined Patel and his family in celebrating the reopening. The Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. and the Community/Police Partnership of District IV sponsored the event with free food and drinks.

"At the time, it was like a blackout," Patel said, recalling the long days after the slayings. "A blackout is when you don't know what to do. But I got a lot of support from family, friends and the community. I just got some energy to open again."

Neighbors wrote letters expressing their sorrow, urging Patel to stay, to reopen, to send the killers a message that their night of destruction could not kill the spirit of a community. Patel, who owns two other doughnut shops--one in Bethesda and another in Hyattsville--says he was touched by the outpouring of support.

Some African Americans, worried that an entire race would be blamed for the brutality of the slayings in which three African Americans were suspects, even wrote letters of apology.

"I got a lot of letters from people saying don't hate us because we're black," Patel said. "That really shook me. When somebody says something like that, it really touches your heart. . . . I know there are good and bad people of all races."

Patel opened for business June 11, just days after the trial began for one of the bad guys, Trone Tyrone Ashford, 27, the alleged triggerman. After a nine-day trial that ended Thursday, jurors found Ashford guilty of two counts of felony murder but acquitted him of two counts of first-degree murder.

Ashford, of Temple Hills, also was found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder. He still could face the death penalty, which prosecutors are seeking.

Prosecutors argued that Ashford forced three employees into a back storage room between 3 and 3:39 a.m. Oct. 15, shot them, poured gasoline in the shop and set it on fire. Two of the workers, Kanu Patel, 28, and Mukesh Patel, 35, Indian immigrants who worked the overnight shift, were killed. They had moved to the United States in hopes of making enough money to send for their families.

A third employee, Ashvin Patel, 44, was seriously wounded but survived when firefighters rescued him from the burning building.

Another suspect, John Lemon Epps IV, 20, is awaiting trial for two counts of first-degree murder and other charges in connection with the slayings. Alicia N. Holloway, 17, who authorities said looted the cash register, pleaded guilty June 4 to two counts of felony murder and could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison.

When he decided to reopen, Patel also decided to remodel, replacing the dull gray tables and walls in the shop with fuchsia and white, making the shop a much more cheerful place. He also decided against keeping the shop open 24 hours. It will close every evening at a time that will fluctuate.

The doughnut shop, near Andrews Air Force Base, is one of a few bright spots in the mostly boarded-up Allentown Outlet Mall, once a thriving shopping center. The owners of the doughnut shop have changed over the years, but residents say the business has a long history in the area.

On a recent Friday morning, a group of three military retirees and a grandson of one of the men sit in a back corner with coffee and doughnuts spread over two small tables pushed together. For years, they have met here this way, to argue about politics, swap old war stories and vent whatever frustrations they feel at the moment.

"You name it, and we talk about it," said G.M. Curles, who is retired from the Navy.

"Like why in the hell the U.S. is sticking its nose in everybody else's business," another of the men, who asked not to be identified, chimed in, referring to the NATO war in Kosovo.

During the eight months that the business was closed, the men moved their social to a Dunkin' Donuts farther down Allentown Road, in Morningside. They say they were saddened for the men who lost their lives in the shop.

They regretted having to go elsewhere to socialize. Now, they are glad to be back. Patel's shop is closer to their homes.

Their return to the old gathering place is not just about doughnuts and coffee. Those are easy to find. It's not just about conversation, either. That, too, can take place anywhere.

Their daily presence is a simple thank you to a business owner who had enough courage to stay.

To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at; or call me at 301-952-2083.

CAPTION: Fire department paramedic Patti Southland unfurls a U.S. flag at the Dunkin' Donuts celebration.

CAPTION: Customers crowd the counter at the Dunkin' Donuts on Saturday afternoon.