Online lynch mob

Diner owner defends right to question patron with service dog

The Cranston Herald ·

The owners of Eddie’s Diner, Eddie and Paula Azevedo, say that they have been harshly – and wrongfully – attacked on Facebook and Yelp following an incident involving John Sears, his son Michael, who has autism, and Michael’s service dog. The Azevedos think that the truth surrounding the incident has been misconstrued – or downright lied about – and a “lynch mob” has formed online seeking to denigrate their restaurant.

The incident, which was covered in a Herald story last week, happened on Saturday, June 30, when the Sears’ brought their dog into Eddie’s Diner and John and Eddie got into a verbal confrontation about whether or not the dog could be allowed into the restaurant.

The video footage from inside the restaurant that day, which doesn’t have any audio attached, shows Eddie walking out of the bathroom and to the kitchen as the Sears enter the restaurant with their dog. Azevedo then turns around and begins talking to the John Sears, who is near the door. After exchanging words from across the restaurant, the Sears walk out of the door and Azevedo follows them outside, which is the extent of what the video footage shows.

Azevedo said that he had never seen Sears or the dog before that morning and when he saw the dog he immediately thought about the food code and how the dog being in there might have an effect on the other customers in the restaurant. He said he’s had seeing-eye dogs in the restaurant before, but asked if this dog was trained because it “wasn’t obvious” that Sears needed assistance.

“I was focused only on the dog and the handler,” Azevedo said. “I wasn’t focused on the child.”

The child is seen in the video standing behind Sears, who is the one holding the dog’s leash.

The law regarding service dogs in restaurants, according to the Secretary of State’s office, states that service dogs are allowed in this situation:

In areas that are not used for food preparation and that are usually open for customers, such as dining and sales areas, service animals that are controlled by the disabled employee or person, if a health or safety hazard will not result from the presence or activities of the service animal.

Azevedo reasons that because John was the one handling the dog at the time, he was within his rights to question him about having the dog inside the restaurant.

Sears, in a conversation Tuesday morning, said that he and his wife handle the dog when they bring it out because their son is only 8 years old and doesn’t know the right commands. Sears also referenced American Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations through the Department of Justice, which state that service dogs (a term that applies to any dog specially trained to assist a disabled person) are allowed to accompany the person around a restaurant.

Sears said that during the incident, Azevedo asked if the dog was a “seeing-eye dog” and when he said it wasn’t they began arguing about what the laws were, and Azevedo “blew up on him.”

Sears said that Azevedo began swearing at him and he didn’t say anything confrontational back. However, Azevedo said that Sears yelled a profanity at him as he was leaving the restaurant, which he said prompted him to follow him outside and tell him he shouldn’t be acting that way in front of his son. Azevedo said that Sears “went off on him” after he questioned whether the dog was a seeing-eye dog.

Azevedo also has contentions about some of the reporting that has been done on the incident, especially on Facebook. One of his issues is with Julie Cotoia, who told the Herald last week that she was in the restaurant at the time of the incident and witnessed the confrontation.

Cotoia said in a conversation Monday that she was in the bathroom when the “yelling” began, and went outside to join her friends while the argument between the two men was ongoing. Video surveillance, however, doesn’t show anyone leaving the bathroom or moving at all in the restaurant during the incident, and furthermore nobody comes out of the restaurant in the minute following the incident.

Sears said that he’s never met Cotoia before and she “hunted him down on Facebook,” adding that maybe she “wants to put her nose into something.”

Cotoia said she wanted to “help” in any way she could in solving the issue.

“I don’t have anything against the restaurant, against the diner,” she said. “But I think the owner could have taken a better approach. I felt bad for the family. I figured I was doing the right thing by speaking as a witness. I just hope they resolve this.”

Cotoia, in addition to her statement to the Herald, joined a group of people who posted online about the incident in the days since. Cotoia posted a long Facebook statement that included a claim that she was served raw eggs at the diner.

Sears originally got the ball rolling when he posted on Facebook that day, writing that they were chased out of the restaurant while the owner was swearing at them. He also encouraged the readers of the post to “boycott Eddie’s Diner.”

“He needs to know the laws, the right thing to do in that situation,” Sears said about why he took to Facebook to tell other people about the incident. “What if I was a serviceman and that dog was mine? I was in the Army for 22 years. A disability isn’t always something you can see, he has to know what’s right.”

Azevedo, who says that he stays current on all the regulations and laws regarding restaurants because he “has to” to find any success as a diner-owner, said he runs an “immaculate” establishment and that is proven by the Department of Health only making one visit per year.

He also said that after Sears posted that on Facebook, a “lynch mob” has formed to denigrate his diner, and he’s now found a lawyer to work with because people are “lying” about the diner in their online postings, which included reviews on both Facebook and Yelp. The Yelp reviews began when Eddie’s Diner deleted their Facebook page during the ordeal.

In screenshots that the Azevedos took from the past week and half, many individuals, most of whom weren’t in the restaurant at the time of the incident, left negative reviews about Eddie’s Diner. One review posted by someone with the Facebook name “Jenna Marie” said this: “The fact that the owner would kick out an autistic child and his service dog along with his mother out of his s****y establishment is beyond belief.”

Another comment thread on Facebook includes a man named Jay Bombardier Jr. telling people to “go to their [Eddie’s Diner’s] Facebook page and leave a comment” as well as a woman named Pam Tameo commenting that she had “just left review.”

Sears, in addition to his original post, continued interacting with people on Facebook, such as a man named James Scanlon, who commented “surprised you didn’t knock him out when followed you to your truck. Lol.” Sears responded: “Well trust me. The only reason he didn’t catch a beating was because I had my son with me. I had to be the bigger man in this one!!”

The Azevedos deleted their Facebook page to limit the comments, at which point they said the people took to Yelp to leave bad reviews. Eddie said he’s “scared to re-open this week” after they were closed for what was a planned vacation this past week.

Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office, said it all depends on the circumstances in regards to the Azevedos pursuing legal retribution for the comments and reviews that have spread rapidly online.

She said that it could be a type of cyberbullying, depending on the exact nature of the comments, and the matter could be brought to Cranston police if Eddie and Paula felt threatened by the language being put out there online. She said it “depends on a lot of things when it comes to issues of cyber harassment.”

Azevedo said he’s continuing to receive “nasty messages and voicemails” as recently as this week.

This story was originally posted by The Cranston Herald. Click here to view the original story in its entirety.

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