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A tiny cafe in Santaquin has become the center of a social media "war zone" after a former cook's anti-police post drew hundreds of commenters to the restaurant's Facebook page and led to the employee's firing.
"We're just blown away by this," said Leslie Broadhead, owner of Leslie's Family Tree, a family-owned cafe with a Facebook page that normally focuses on daily specials and weekend entertainment.
But this week, the cafe's Facebook rating began to plummet as negative reviews poured in. In the comments under food photos, people were posting the image of a man in uniform lying on bloody pavement with a bullet through his forehead, accompanied by the text: "This is what a good cop looks like."
The image appeared to have been captured from a Facebook comment by Shawn Peterson, a cook at the restaurant.
"It just went crazy from there," Broadhead said Wednesday.
Peterson said he shared the photo, which was being passed around Facebook, on Thursday or Friday after seeing commenters praising police on a news story posted to Facebook.
"When I get on my Facebook every day, the first thing I see is what this cop did what that cop did. The cops killed this person or that person," Peterson said. "People were praising these cops, and I wasn't thinking and posted that."
Peterson said he never intended to involve the restaurant, but a nationwide network of officers, possibly a Facebook group, apparently got wind of his post and captured images of it to post on the restaurant's page.
"I didn't tag [the restaurant] in the comment or anything like that," Peterson said. "A member of [a police group] shared it within their group, and they all attacked the restaurant."
Peterson apologized on the restaurant's Facebook page, saying, "I regret my post to the fullest and I understand it was a horrible representation of my distrust," but also said that he has a constitutional right to express his opinions and that his post doesn't represent Leslie's Family Tree.
As reactions continued to flood the site, Peterson called Broadhead.
"The only way we're going to be able to solve this is if you fire me," Broadhead recalled Peterson saying.
"I said, 'I think that's the only way we can solve this, too,' " Broadhead said. "I can't have people thinking I condone this because I do not condone what he did."
Peterson confirmed Broadhead's account.
On Tuesday, the restaurant announced on Facebook that Peterson had been fired and offered free meals to law enforcement officers.
"We are disgusted to hear the opinions of our FORMER employee," read the statement, posted Tuesday. "Fortunately we live in a country that gives us the freedom of speech. Unfortunately it can also hurt people who are innocent. … We do respect our law enforcement and appreciate all the work and sacrifices you make to keep us safe."
The restaurant's post ignited its own firestorm, attracting hundreds of comments from law enforcement and supporters from around the country, including remarks from a Utah County sheriff's sergeant. While they seemed to be calmed by Peterson's firing, local civil rights advocates and police watchdogs were incensed.
"Now they're lashing out at the restaurant for firing me," Peterson said. "I am grateful there are people who are standing up for me, but there's no need to take it out on the restaurant. I told [Broadhead] she needed to fire me. They are great and amazing people, and they didn't deserve any of this."
Among those protesting Peterson's termination was the family of Darrien Hunt, the 22-year-old whose fatal shooting in September by police in Saratoga Springs was deemed justified by Utah County prosecutors this week.
Cindy Moss, Hunt's aunt, wrote that she was "sickened" by the restaurant's decision.
"My sister still hasn't been able to pay for her son's funeral and you are giving a free meal to the guys who killed her son because they were cowards and CREATED the death of an innocent man!" Moss wrote.
Peterson said he is sympathetic to Hunt's family and much of his anger with police stems from that and other shootings this summer in Utah, including those of Geist, a weimeraner, and 22-year-old Dillon Taylor by Salt Lake City police.
"I've gotten frightened from all the media hype, and I expressed it in the wrong way," Peterson said. "But I never meant for anything to go on the restaurant. They were completely innocent."
After more than 200 comments were left on the announcement of Peterson's termination, the restaurant deleted the post mid-day Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Broadhead's daughter, Jody Dansie, who set up the restaurant's Facebook page in 2011 on the suggestion of a social media marketing expert, was frantically trying to purge the page of the captured images of Peterson's original post.
"I don't feel it is appropriate to have that picture reposted over and over again," Dansie said. "But every time I think I've got them all, I find them in a different thread."
Said Broadhead: "It wouldn't matter if it was a police officer or just another person. I would not want that on my Facebook."
Dansie also was trying to respond to angry reactions and even allegations that Peterson was poisoning the restaurant's food, posted by commenters who apparently hadn't heard that Peterson was fired.
Other reviewers were revising their ratings, with several out-of-staters leaving 5-star comments upon the announcement of Peterson's firing.
But with so much attention to a now-former employee's views on law enforcement eclipsing information about the restaurant's food and service, Dansie and Broadhead are considering removing the page altogether.
"We've been turned into a political war zone, and it's destroying our business," Dansie said.