BRADENTON, Fla. — As the week began, there was Terry Jones, infamous burner of Korans and the No. 2 target on an al-Qaeda hit list, in plain sight at a Florida mall. Around the world, millions were mourning victims of the massacre in Paris who included another target on the hit list, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, but Jones was at the food court in DeSoto Square running his french fry stand.
The canned music, the display at Vitamin World — this was the landscape of America’s most brazen offender of Islam, working the counter at Fry Guys Gourmet Fries with a 9mm strapped to his ankle.
“Crispy fries,” Jones said to his employee, surveying the less-than-golden spuds beneath the heat lamp. “We want our fries good and crispy.”
The 63-year-old preacher has faced hundreds of death threats. He’s got a $2.2 million bounty on his head from the Islamist group Jamaat-ud-Dawa. But until the attacks in Paris, few knew he had just opened a business at a struggling mall on U.S. 41 in Bradenton. When fears of global terrorism were once again stoked, Jones moved back into crusade mode. Fry Guys became a strange pulpit of defiance and chili cheese dogs, and people came to see him for both.
“Burning the Koran, that’s not radical,” he said during a lull. “I can understand if you don’t agree with so-called burning someone’s holy book. But I don’t know how you can agree with sharia. You don’t see Mennonites going around chopping people’s heads off.”
A woman with white-blond hair appeared at the counter — Mary Reiter, 62, petite, high-heeled sandals, a pink pedicure, fresh off a yoga class. “We’re with you,” she told Jones. Usually, Reiter shops at the other mall with the Macy’s, but she brought her husband and son and a friend to support Jones and have lunch at Fry Guys.
“I give you credit for standing up for your beliefs,” she said, looking up at the white-haired preacher.
“Thank you,” he said.
“I’m a history buff,” Reiter continued. “The same thing happened in Nazi Germany. People didn’t stand up and fight. Aren’t you proud of Americans?”
“Yep, sure am,” Jones said, adding that he was running low on brown gravy and hoped he wasn’t out.
“Has it been busy?” Reiter asked, curious to know how many others had stepped forward. “At least there’s still some decent people then.”
Business at Fry Guys picked up after the local paper reported that Jones was at the mall. Notoriety has its benefits, he has learned, especially compared with obscurity, which he experienced in late summer when he set fire to hundreds of Korans at a protest rally and was largely ignored.
Four years ago, it was entirely different. Jones was in Gainesville, Fla., and pastor of Dove World Outreach Center, a Christian fundamentalist church where he sent congregants’ children to school in T-shirts that said, “Islam is of the Devil.” When he announced plans to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary by burning copies of Islam’s sacred book, the ripples were immediate and global.
Hundreds of death threats followed, with protests in Afghanistan and Indonesia, and soon Jones was taking calls from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who told him his actions were endangering the lives of U.S. military personnel. “They never once told me, ‘Don’t do it because it’s not true,’ ” is what Jones said he remembers about those calls.
He ended up not burning any copies of the Koran in 2010, but the following year, he was at it again, holding a mock trial in which he accused Islam of evil and appointing himself as judge. The proceedings were held at Dove Outreach, in worship space that doubled as a warehouse for an e-Bay furniture business Jones ran on the side. This time a Koran was burned, sparking rioting in Afghanistan that reportedly left 20 dead, including several U.N. workers. Soon after that, an Iranian cleric called for Jones’s execution, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League added him to their watch lists of hate groups, and Jones bought a gun for self-protection and then another.
What he didn’t do: shrink from sight. In 2013, sheriff’s deputies in Polk County, Fla., pulled him over in a truck towing a smoker-style barbecue grill that was filled with hundreds of kerosene-soaked copies of the Koran. He was charged with the unlawful conveyance of fuel, but this time, instead of outrage and pandemonium, the reaction was more of a shrug.
Jones, by then, had relocated with his wife to a 12-acre spread outside of Bradenton. He had broken with Dove Outreach, leaving most of his remaining 15-member flock behind except for his associate pastor, Wayne Sapp, who over the years had soaked countless Koran in kerosene and now was at Fry Guys, squirting hot sauce on Buffalo wings. “Man, that got such a reaction,” he said, in between customers, recalling the first time he put up an anti-Muslim sign at Dove Outreach and someone ran over it with a truck. “We said, ‘Let’s do it again!’ ”
Sapp, squat with a goatee, stirred the blue cheese sauce and the ranch sauce as another customer came up to talk to Jones.
“I don’t even usually come to this mall,” said Andy Zelenak, 66, of Bradenton. He told Jones that he wanted to thank him in person for his courage. Jones shook his hand and went off to fix Zelenak’s fried cod sandwich.
Waiting at the counter, Zelenak said that he personally wouldn’t burn a Koran but that Jones had a right to protest radical Islam however he wanted. “They burn churches, behead people, kidnap girls; they all get raped and sold into slavery,” he said. “When people can burn the American flag and the court says they have freedom of expression to do it, then we have the right to burn their Koran.”
Jones labored over the fish sandwich with care, although there’s not much on his menu that he would eat. He prefers organic food, and he drinks mostly juice and water. He also enjoys red wine, a taste he cultivated while living in Germany as a church pastor. Jones, who does 100 sit-ups each morning, used to punish disobedience in his church academy by making the wayward clean barnacles from his boat. “Either they run around the block or they do something constructive like wash your car,” he said. “I thought it was a great thing. People are not interested in discipline.”
When the fish sandwich was ready, he turned to Zelenak. “All right,” he said, holding the paper boat. “Would you like anything on it?”
“Ketchup,” Zelenak said. “The old traditional.”
“The old traditional,” Jones repeated, squeezing on some ketchup.
Britney Spears piped over the food court’s speakers. Steam came off the fried rice next door at China Max. You could hear the bouncy organ music from Fletcher Music Center, where a saleswoman at the keyboard confided that she felt uneasy with Jones at the mall. “I’m afraid,” she said, and went back to playing “What a Wonderful World.”
Jones kept working, kept selling, kept talking.
“I’ve had them ask me, what if we burned a pile of Bibles? I would pray for them and feel sorry for them. The Bible is the word of God. At the same time, the Bible is a book. I can go down and get me another one,” he said.
“There you go, good and hot,” he said.
“We have no intention of standing down,” he said.
That’s how the week began. It ended when the mall manager asked for a meeting. The disruption was too much, Robert Tackett said. It would be good if Jones would steer clear for a while and also remove his name from the lease. Jones agreed. He said he didn’t want any trouble, at least not this kind of trouble. He took off his plastic gloves and left Fry Guys, a wanted man, a possibly hunted man, in search of his next place to remain in plain sight.