An Elkton man was arrested Wednesday after deputies said he threatened a group of people with a switchblade and a stun gun at a St. Augustine McDonald's.
John Jay Smith, 60, was released from the St. Johns County jail after posting $8,500 bond on felony charges of aggravated assault with a weapon, burglary with assault and armed trespassing.
The charges stem from a dispute between Smith and four other people that unfolded outside the McDonald's on U.S. 1 about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to Smith's arrest report.
The victims told deputies they were minding their own business when Smith, who was carrying a knife, launched into an unprovoked outburst, saying, "Get out of my country. You do not deserve to eat here."
Witnesses said the victims had retreated to their car when Smith went to his vehicle and returned with a stun gun. That's when they said Smith reached into an open window with the weapon in hand.
The driver, who leaned away to avoid the weapon, backed into a pole while trying to get away.
McDonald's could not provide surveillance video of the incident, but a manager present said she witnessed what happened. Her statement backed up the victims' version of events.
The report stated Smith, who appeared intoxicated, suggested the victims instigated the dispute by taunting him. It also noted that he acknowledge brandishing the stun gun.
Deputies recovered a knife and stun gun from Smith. Once in custody, Smith kept repeating the following phrases: "They killed my son. My son was a Marine."
According to the report, while in a deputy's patrol car, Smith said, "I am American and the guys by the vehicles were making a ruckus, so I told them to get out of here and one of them pulled a gun."
The report said no gun was located.
It's unclear whether hate crime charges will be filed. A spokesperson for the State Attorney's Office acknowledged the language used in the incident would be considered in the case.
“Was the prejudice the defendant had toward the victims caused by their ethnicity or where they’re from? If the answer to that is 'yes,' then it can be classified as a hate crime," said attorney Randy Reep, who is not affiliated with the case. "You have to understand what’s in the mind of the defendant when they’re committing the act. If he comes out and tells you, ‘I did it because of these things,’ then that’s one of the best ways for the government to prove that element of the crime.”
Florida is one of 45 states that investigate hate crimes without relying on the FBI to conduct a federal investigation.
While prosecutors decide on whether they will enhance the charges to a hate crime, the victims said they remain fearful after their run-in with Smith.
Prosecutors could not verify whether Smith had a son who was killed in action overseas.
The victims told News4Jax they are exchange students from Egypt and are of the Muslim religion.
One of the victims said in a phone interview that the whole episode has the group scared. From now on, he said, they plan to be much more careful when they go out in public.
"We are scared from the whole situation, not because he got out, but the whole thing. It was scary from the beginning," said the victim, who wished to remain anonymous. “We’re just mentally, physically and subconsciously drained right now. This is just too much for us."
A spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida released a statement in response to the incident, which reads, in part:
As a Muslim American and as a human being, I am saddened and appalled by the tragic incident. First and foremost, I am saddened and can empathize with John Smith for having lost his son. But his loss does not give him a right to threaten and harm other innocent human beings."
The Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations also released a statement, which reads, in part:
Our community is under attack. Last year 145 anti-Muslim incidents were reported in the state. Florida is listed #5 nationwide with having the most hate-related incidents with children, women, and elders frequently among the victims."
Reached by phone Wednesday, Smith had no comment.