Jihadi neighbors "never saw it coming" paintball, animals in yard, women sent away-kids yanked from school -"just a regular family"
May 9, 2007
MIM: MENSA club membership is definitely not on the horizon for Michael Levine. Despite the fact that 14 Muslims lived in a one family home near his where men came and went carrying mysterious packages at all hours, and the women had been sent away and kids yanked from school they still seemed like "regular people". Even the paintball practice in the front yard, escaped roosters and goat intended for slaughter left him clueless. So clueless in fact that Levine doesn't believe that there were any terrorists or terror plots- at least until he sees more proof.
MIM:The only thing that did prompt him to call the police however -was concern about the FBI surveillance car parked outside the house.(!)
'We never saw this coming'By: JOHN REITMEYER (Wed, May/09/2007)
CHERRY HILL, N.J. — The quiet, suburban neighborhood where three men accused of plotting a terror attack on Fort Dix were living looks much like any other in South Jersey.
That's exactly what scares neighbors of a two-story home on Mimosa Drive, where federal authorities said three men involved in the plot, Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka, lived with their families.
"We never saw this coming and didn't expect it," said Michael Levine, who lives on Mimosa Drive on the same side of the road as the Duka home. "It's a little scary."
"You don't think it's going to happen in suburbia," he said.
The neighborhood in Camden County, just across the border from Evesham, Burlington County, was quiet Tuesday afternoon, except for several news vans parked near the Duka home.
A dark BMW sedan and a white minivan were parked in the driveway of the home, but there was no sign that anyone was inside. A landscaped front yard and a fenced-in back yard surround the home, which neighbors said was raided Monday night by federal authorities.
Maple Shade, N.J., resident Joseph Nicholl, a friend of Levine's, said the occupants of the home seemed like any other in the neighborhood.
"They were a normal family," Nicholl said, adding that he estimated at least 14 people lived in the home at one time until recently. "They brought over vegetables in the summertime."
Looking back, however, the two men said there were some clues that something wasn't right with the Dukas.
They recently pulled their children out of school and everyone but the men moved out of the home, they said.
One of the Dukas was also observed shooting a paintball gun at a tree in the neighborhood. Federal authorities have said the terror suspects practiced their attack at a location near Scranton, Pa., using paintball guns.
"I didn't think anything of it," Levine said of the Dukas' use of a paintball gun in the neighborhood.
Levine also saw a suspicious vehicle in front of the home a few months ago and contacted Cherry Hill police. The officers told him they were aware of the vehicle and not to worry about it.
Still, even after watching the police raid the house Monday night, Levine said it's hard to believe he lived just a few doors from men who the FBI says are would-be terrorists.
"They were decent people," he said. "They were just everyday people."
Dukas' neighbors filed many complaints
Authorities made frequent calls to the Cherry Hill home of the men suspected of a Fort Dix terrorist conspiracy.
By Jan Hefler
Inquirer Staff WriterDAVID MAIALETTI / Daily News This is the Duka home in Cherry Hill to which authorities often were called for complaints involving traffic, sanitation and disorderly persons. The men are accused of conspiring to kill Fort Dix soldiers. » More images RELATED STORIES
Before the Duka brothers were accused in the Fort Dix terror plot, some of the people who live near them on a quiet Cherry Hill street say, they were bad neighbors.
They say lambs were slaughtered in the backyard with a kitchen knife.
Fetid diapers were tossed into an open trash Dumpster that sat in the driveway, near an array of cars and pickup trucks without license plates.
Roosters ran about.
Police cited them repeatedly on disorderly persons charges and for traffic offenses.
Despite the attention from Cherry Hill code enforcers and police officers, the Dukas' troublemaking continued until they and three other men were arrested earlier this month on charges of conspiring to kill soldiers at the Army base.
Now that the Dukas are jailed without bail, their neighbors in one of the Philadelphia region's biggest suburbs are wondering why it took an alleged jihadist plot to stop the violations of local ordinances and traffic laws.
Brothers Dritan Duka, 28; Shain Duka, 26; and Eljvir Duka, 23, are ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia who were smuggled into the United States from Mexico as children in 1984. Later they moved to a four-bedroom house on winding, tree-lined Mimosa Drive with a grandmother, their parents, two siblings, two wives, and Dritan's five children.
Authorities say the three men and their father, illegal immigrants, worked for the family roofing company and pizzeria.
Another of the six men arrested in the alleged plot, Mohamad Shnewer, also lived in Cherry Hill, in a house in the Kingston Estates section that also had been the target of complaints from neighbors about trash and tall grass. He is the Dukas' brother-in-law. Some of the Dukas' neighbors describe the family as friendly.
"They waved to us every day," said Michael Levine, 38, recalling how the family would share fresh vegetables from their backyard garden.
Township records obtained by The Inquirer and further interviews paint a more complex picture. The records show that the police and township property maintenance officials were called to the Duka home at least 10 times over the last seven years. There were complaints about the Dumpster, the lamb, "sheep noises," a loud party, "juveniles running around," juveniles in the street with fireworks, unregistered cars, an illegal commercial sign on the front lawn, "running roofing business from home," and the parking of large trucks in the neighborhood.
Zoning Officer John Thompson, who responded to many of the complaints, called them "minor things." When he investigated the lamb complaint last month, for example, the Dukas told him that they had "babysat" a lamb for a few hours and that it was gone, he said.
Thompson said the Dukas complied with his other orders in recent months to remove the Dumpster, the commercial sign, and the unlicensed and unregistered vehicles.The township zoning officer said Ferik Duka, the brothers' father, had told him he needed the Dumpster to clean out the basement. The officer said he spotted "general debris" and roofing materials inside it and ordered it moved because it was a hazard.
Greg Hilbert, who lives near the Dukas, said the trash receptacle sat there for months.
Dan Keashen, an aide to the Cherry Hill mayor, said he didn't know the total number of complaints the township received about the Dukas because the township doesn't keep records of unverified complaints.
"Unfortunately, neighbors tend sometimes to have personal agendas when making complaints on another neighbor's home," he said.
Cherry Hill, with a population of about 71,800, has a reputation for stellar schools, high taxes and tolerance.
Hilbert said the Dukas "just didn't fit in with the suburban neighborhood," even though he said people who live on the street are of various races and nationalities. Because of the Dukas' behavior, Hilbert said, two families moved.
A couple who requested that their last name not be published because they fear reprisals said they were one of the families who moved. They agreed to the use of their first names, Mark and Patty.
Patty, 35, said the Duka family moved into the four-bedroom Colonial next to them in 1999.
"First, they cut down all the trees for firewood," she said.
Then came the barnyard animals and the watermelon vines growing between their houses. On weekends, dozens of visitors would arrive in vans with New York license plates, the couple said. "The straw that broke the camel's back was when I looked out my kitchen window and saw the women slit a lamb's throat with a kitchen knife," Patty said. "I was so upset, I called my husband on the phone. He said to call the police and I said, 'No, call the Realtor,' " she said.
Mark, 39, said the couple complained several times to the township, "but they would say that the Dukas are taxpayers, too."
Township ordinances require property maintenance, limit household occupancy, and prohibit livestock in residential areas, according to Keashen, the mayoral aide. Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt said the township responds to all complaints.
"It's a very progressive community, and we're looking to maintain our properties and are strict about it," he said.
Other records show the Duka brothers had plenty of run-ins with police. From 1996 to 2006, Cherry Hill police charged Dritan Duka and Shain Duka with assorted disorderly persons offenses, including marijuana possession, improper behavior, prowling, disturbing the peace, and obstructing the administration of law. They were fined between $20 and $830 on various occasions and sent home, according to court records.
The three brothers were also issued about 50 traffic citations between 1997 and 2006 - more than 20 by Cherry Hill police - for speeding, driving without licenses, driving while on the suspended list, failure to appear in court, and other charges.
Lt. Bill Kushina Jr., the Cherry Hill police spokesman, said it was up to the arresting officer to decide whether to take the unlicensed Duka men into custody and impound their cars.
"It's not black and white. There's a lot of gray that goes into the decision," he said, adding that officers would be reluctant to pack traffic violators into the county's overcrowded jails.
The Shnewer home on Tampa Avenue also was the object of neighborhood grumblings.
When FBI agents raided the house in the terror arrests, the yard was overgrown with weeds and littered with trash. White sheets covered the windows. A rusting, two-story antenna and three satellite dishes leaned precariously atop the roof.
Neighbors said they complained to the township about the mess. Township records show the Shnewer property had been cited for stagnant water in the backyard pool, debris around the property, a large red truck in the driveway, and a pile of dirt and grass in the street. The citations were dismissed in court after the Shnewers corrected the violations, according to records.
Four days after the FBI arrested Shnewer, township workers arrived and ordered the property cleaned up, neighbors said.
"They finally mowed the lawn and got rid of tons of trash that was all along the whole side of the house," neighbor Tim Hughes said, adding that he pays $7,000 a year in taxes. "And the township towed a minivan that was just sitting there for six months."