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Annette John-Hall: Sad outcome at Fort Dix

You can't miss the billboard that rises out of the rolling farmland near Cookstown in Burlington County, on a long stretch of road coming from McGuire Air Force Base.

You can't miss the billboard that rises out of the rolling farmland near Cookstown in Burlington County, on a long stretch of road coming from McGuire Air Force Base.

It's a public Christmas card. "Thank you," it reads, "to our servicemen and women for their sacrifice." It goes on to wish them a happy holiday season.

With McGuire right there, and the Army training center at Fort Dix only a couple of miles down the road, this is a tight-knit community. A place where military members live and work alongside farmers, where all stand united in love and loyalty for flag, country and each other.

They are close like family - and everybody knows you don't mess with family.

But on Monday, jurors in Camden convicted five foreign-born Muslim men - three in the country illegally, one a U.S. citizen and another a legal immigrant - of conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix. The quintet were all raised in Cherry Hill.

One of the convicted, Serdar Tatar, 25, had family ties here. And through its pizzeria business, the Tatar family had ties to this community as well.

But everything's unraveled. The family's once-thriving restaurant, a spacious pizzeria on Wrightstown-Cookstown Road, just a stone's throw from McGuire, is closed, and the Tatars are long gone. They moved out of Cookstown almost as soon as the case became public last year.

They knew they couldn't keep their military customers when their son - the one who delivered pizzas to Fort Dix - was accused of providing a map of the Army base to his co-conspirators.

It's not as if the Tatars didn't try to make a go of it. They even changed the pizzeria's name from Super Mario's to Palermo's in an effort to make a fresh start.

But nobody bit. In fact, some took offense at what they perceived as a lame do-over.

Many a family has suffered the consequence of a member who's taken the wrong path. But not only did the Tatars have the stigma of Serdar's actions hanging over their heads, they were Muslim. Which makes Strike Two and Three against them among most folks here, who still remember 9/11 as if it were yesterday.

"When I see someone with that thing around their head, I think he's trying to kill me. . . . I don't like it," says Bob Rossell, 71, a retired welder and a farmer who has lived in Cookstown all his life. "I think they were guilty, no doubt about it. I don't feel sorry for any of them."

From all indications, the Tatars were no different than most hardworking people. Only, they were legal immigrants from Turkey, trying to better themselves.

At least Jim Fitzgerald saw them that way. A mechanic, Fitzgerald did work on the family's cars.

"The old man was a good guy as far as I know," said Fitzgerald, 64. The Vietnam vet has lived in Cookstown for more than 40 years, settling here after doing his basic training at McGuire in '65.

Fitzgerald is a regular at VFW Post 6590, along with plenty of other retired Air Force and Army personnel.

During the trial, tape-recorded conversations revealed that the men targeted Fort Dix because Tatar knew it "like the back of his hand."

But then again, it was Tatar who tried to contact the FBI through the Philadelphia police to warn of the attacks. The FBI took a pass, preferring to employ illegal-immigrant informants, one with a record of bank fraud who was paid about $240,000. Not bad in a bad economy.

"I don't think [Serdar Tatar] was that bad a kid," Fitzgerald said. "I just can't see him plotting to hit an Army base."

Fitzgerald nursed his Jack and coke at the VFW bar and shook his head.

"The food was good there, too," he says. "Real good. . . . Damn shame."

The sticker affixed to the window of the Tatars' now-dark pizzeria is an ironic contrast to the celebratory billboard in town.

Embellished with a picture of the American flag, it reads, "United We Stand."