The aftermath of the Nazareth Restaurant attack

Tami Kamin Meyer
Bill Foley finally is playing guitar again, something that was no guarantee after he was severely injured by a machete-wielding attacker last year.

2016 was supposed to be a good year for Hany Baransi. Plans for a major expansion of his popular Gahanna-area Mediterranean restaurant were well underway, with construction permits awaiting approval. If all went according to plan, The Nazareth Restaurant and Deli would nearly double, adding space for almost 100 more patrons when combined with the neighboring 1,100-square-foot space on North Hamilton Road.

It was a lot of work, and through the first month of 2016, Baransi was clocking virtually all of his waking hours at the restaurant, often showing up at 6 a.m. and not leaving until 10 p.m. It's where he felt at home, and it showed. He greeted customers with a friendly “Merry Christmas,” no matter what time of year it was, and ended most conversations with his trademark, “I love you, man.”

But all that changed on Feb. 11 when a machete-wielding man walked into the crowded restaurant. Debbie and Gerald Russell, sitting near the entrance, were the first victims, as Mohamed Barry began swinging his long blade at Gerald, who curled up, stunned, covering his head with his hands and arms. When Debbie jumped to her husband's defense, he was able to escape, running toward the back of the restaurant to seek help. In the scramble, Barry turned his attention to Bill Foley, the acoustic guitar player who entertained at Nazareth most Thursdays. Foley fought back as his attacker began to gash him, but not before being seriously injured.

As quickly as Barry had entered, he was gone, fleeing the restaurant and jumping in his Toyota Corolla, driving north.

A few blocks later, police spotted his car near Morse and Stelzer roads close to Easton. Barry jumped out of the car, machete in hand, and confronted police. He was shot dead at the scene.

The story didn't end there, though. For the Russells, Foley and Baransi, their recovery—both physically and emotionally—was only beginning.

A Mysterious Stranger

Anyone who knew Hany Baransi before the events of Feb. 11 say he was a hard-working, fun-loving, affable man who adored America and the opportunities this country afforded him.

An Arab Christian born and raised in Israel, Baransi immigrated to the United States in 1983, and he's extremely proud of his slice of the American Dream, his restaurant. He loved to work the dining room, joking with patrons, usually toting a Louisville Slugger baseball bat slung over his shoulder, a gift from a friend, along with a toy Chevy and an apple pie, when Baransi earned his U.S. citizenship in 1992.

During the last week of January, Baransi recalls striking up a conversation with a customer he'd never seen before. “[A man] came in to ask me about the restaurant and the food,” he says. “He told me his name was Tom. He told me his wife is a Palestinian and he wanted to try the food. I got him a tableful of samples.”

As the two men conversed over the meal, Tom told Baransi he was a Palestinian activist. Baransi says his first reaction was, “Great!” He says he told Tom, “‘Maybe we can start peaceful conversations, as I am an Israeli. If two people can't agree, how can we expect two countries to agree?'”

Baransi says he told Tom the restaurant's 25 employees were a diverse group and that all were welcome. Then the men and a female cook who hailed from Jordan posed for a photo together. The restaurateur says Tom asked to display the flag of Palestine at the eatery, since a small Israeli flag adorns the restaurant's front door. “I told him I can't hang the flag of every customer that comes here,” explaining he flies the Israeli flag because he is proud of his heritage.

It's unknown whether Tom was an acquaintance of Barry's or the visit was just a strange coincidence. Two weeks after the attack, the FBI issued a release that said there was no evidence that Barry had cooperated with or was directed by anyone else in carrying out his violent act. Baransi, however, insists they were wrong.

A Rare Day Off

With the anticipated expansion growing closer on the horizon, the long work hours were starting to take their toll on Baransi. Headaches were becoming a daily companion, and they were getting worse. “An employee told me if I needed help, to call him,” Baransi says.

On Feb. 11, Baransi arrived to work early, as usual. But by midafternoon, “I did call him because I had a terrible headache. I went home, took my dogs out, took aspirin and fell asleep,” he says.

Around 5:30 that evening, his cellphone rang. “I woke to answer it, but they hung up. It was one of my employees. I thought if it was important, they would call back. I laid back down. A minute later, I get a text saying a guy with a machete is attacking people and customers and to please come right away,” he says.

A second, even more ominous text followed. It read, “Bill is dying,” in reference to Bill Foley.

“As I was driving to the restaurant, I wasn't thinking terrorism. I thought some crazy guy in the neighborhood,” says Baransi. “After I arrived, I learned his name was Mohamed and that he was from Guinea, Africa, an illegal immigrant who was on FBI watch for four years for extreme Islamic beliefs.”

According to various accounts, approximately 30 minutes before the attack, Mohamed Barry, 30, entered the eatery and asked an employee about Baransi and his nationality. He inquired if Baransi was available and was told he was not. Barry left Nazareth, only to return to embark on his rampage soon thereafter.

The Guitar Man

Bill Foley was a Nazareth mainstay. The singer-songwriter had performed at the restaurant's north location for four years before Baransi relocated to the Gahanna area three years ago. “Playing at the Nazareth was like playing for family,” says Foley.

On Feb. 11, Foley arrived, as usual, a few hours before his 6:30 p.m. show to relax, eat dinner, mingle. He settled into a booth near the back of the restaurant, near his gear, facing the restaurant's front door. Foley's wife, Cresha, normally a constant Thursday companion, had other plans that night.

Foley says he noticed Barry enter the eatery more than once. “He came in at least two to three times as I sat there having dinner,” Foley says. He didn't give it much thought, he says, until he saw Barry enter with a machete and begin attacking Gerald Russell.

“I was on my phone, watching him attack people, but my brain didn't register what was going on,” says Foley. “Then I was like, ‘What the hell?'” Suddenly, “He was on top of me and hit me with the machete on my head four times. I backed up in my booth to get away.” Foley recalls pushing Barry hard enough that the attacker toppled backward. “His eyes bulged when I pushed him back. I threw him off balance. I was covered in blood,” he says.

Foley continued to punch the assailant, but remembers being frustrated that he could not loosen the perpetrator's grip on the machete. It was only during the grand jury proceedings months later that Foley learned Barry had secured the machete to his right wrist with a leather strap.

“I was terrified. I was screaming and flailing. We knocked over tables. Blood was dripping in my eyes. I lost five pints,” says Foley.

The guitar player spent 11 days in ICU, the first three on a ventilator. He underwent three surgeries, one on his liver and right lung and two on his hands. He spent countless hours in occupational therapy to regain the ability to perform everyday tasks, such as feeding himself and touching his thumb to his pinky finger. For a time, it wasn't clear whether he would ever play guitar again. But he was determined.

Barely six weeks after the horrible attack, Foley returned to perform at Nazareth. He recalls more than 200 people filled the restaurant that night. “The atmosphere was electrifying. It was cool to walk through that front door, a huge victory, since the last time I saw it I was being carried through it,” Foley says.

But something had changed—namely, Baransi. The attack on his restaurant, his customers, had gripped him in anger.

Baransi was convinced the attack had been politically motivated, a terrorist act even though the FBI did not identify it as such. He made angry statements to the press, calling out authorities and Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther for refusing to use the word “terrorism.”

Baransi's insistence and anger began to affect his relationships. Foley only learned later that on the night of his March return to Nazareth, his wife, Cresha, had a heated exchange with Baransi as she was helping to set up for the show. Baransi says the argument was sparked when Foley's wife insisted that he stop constantly trying to persuade everyone that he'd been the victim of a terrorist attack. “I was at a hand-therapy session, but [Cresha] had gone ahead to set up my gear,” Foley says. “Had I known, I would not have performed.”

Foley stopped playing Nazareth two months later. “[Baransi] is not the same,” Foley says.

Last month, Baransi and the Foleys had a reconciliation of sorts, with Baransi apologizing to Cresha. “My frustration with government officials got me so upset I didn't behave like myself,” he says. “I was blinded, angry and selfish and didn't stop to consider what other people went through because of the attack. I was focused on my loss only.”

A night out turned nightmare

Debbie Russell had a craving for a gyro. While she and husband Gerald had eaten at the Nazareth's previous locations, Gerald had never visited its Gahanna-area site.

The Johnstown couple arrived at the eatery around 5:30 p.m. As is his custom, Gerald sat facing the front windows. He noticed Barry enter. “He walked in the door and looked out of sorts. He was rushing in. He looked at me and made eye contact. He stared at me. I thought he was mad about something,” Gerald says. “He raised his arm, and I immediately raised my arms to cover my head to block him. He didn't talk.”

The attacker had a “blank stare,” says Debbie Russell. As a health care worker, she says she is familiar with the nine levels of anger. She says Barry was at the “top level. There was nothing there.”

Her protective instincts were instantly ignited. She jumped from the booth and started yelling expletives at the attacker as he swung his machete at her spouse. That caused Barry to turn his attention to her momentarily. “I was hit three, four, five times. I had no cuts on my head, but my hands took the brunt,” she says.

Gerald pushed the attacker and ran toward the back of the restaurant looking for help. Debbie Russell says she didn't realize the extent of her injuries at the time because Barry had severed the nerves in several of her fingers. “I wasn't in pain,” she says.

Meanwhile, her husband was out back, trying to figure out what had just happened and what to do. He ran south to a nearby carpet store “and was yelling to call 911. I was bleeding everywhere. People from Hany's [restaurant] were coming in. It was chaos. It took me a few minutes to realize Debbie was still in the restaurant. I ran out the door to head to the restaurant. I met up with her in front of the T-Mobile store” near Nazareth, he says.

His sliced hands were bleeding through the paper towels he wrapped them in at the carpet store. Debbie recalls telling her husband, “I am hurt very bad, and I need help.” She held the fingers dangling from her right hand with her left.

The couple was taken to Grant Medical Center, where it was determined the machete severed two tendons and several nerves on Debbie's right hand and cut into her right wrist bone. On her left hand, the tendons and nerves of her middle and ring finger were severed, while the artery of her middle finger was disconnected. After a delicate five-and-a-half-hour micro-hand surgery, the digit was reattached.

Another casualty was Debbie's beloved wedding ring, which had to be cut off her finger. She decided not to endure the pain of having it removed. To this day, she doesn't wear any rings on those fingers since she still experiences tingling. “It just doesn't feel right,” she says.

The Russells determined not to let the attack ruin their lives. Still, like the tingling fingers, there are remnants. For instance, says Debbie, her ability to type—crucial for her job—has slowed, and she almost always misstrikes the “s” key.

They also say they will never again sit at the front of a restaurant. For her part, Debbie says she is “jumpier” than she used to be. Both of them earned their concealed-carry permits since the attack.

A Very Personal Attack

A day after the unthinkable had occurred, Baransi found himself inside his trashed restaurant, repositioning tossed tables and chairs and mopping up unspeakable amounts of blood. News media pursued Baransi, who resolutely announced his embattled eatery would reopen.

But the complications only magnified. Rent was still due, but the restaurant remained closed, except for a few special events Baransi held to thank his countless supporters. He had no money coming in, yet the bills continued to mount.

Baransi became increasingly incensed and outspoken that his business was stolen from him by an undocumented immigrant who had been on a terrorist watch list, even as the FBI refused to label the incident an act of terrorism. The attack brought Baransi notoriety and media coverage across the world. In May, Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, invited Baransi to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual convention in Washington, D.C. Dermer also bestowed an honor to Baransi rarely granted to a civilian: the privilege of raising the Israeli flag on Israel's embassy in the capital.

Still, Baransi couldn't shake his anger. He couldn't pay his bills. His marriage crumbled, and ended in divorce. He felt the government was ignoring his plight.

(Ironically, in February, the White House included the attack on the Nazareth restaurant among its list of 78 incidents that it dubbed terrorist attacks that President Trump claimed had gone under-reported in the U.S.)

Baransi did eventually finish the restaurant expansion, and business has remained steady since then. His loyal patrons supported his efforts to rebuild following the horrific attack, as evidenced by a giant poster signed by hundreds of friends, family and customers in May. But life took another cruel turn for Baransi. On Dec. 6, a robber was fleeing pursuit by the Gahanna police through the city's streets, and though police had called off the chase, the driver continued to drive erratically and dangerously before smashing head-on into the vehicle Baransi was driving, totaling it.

The thief then fled on foot, carjacked another vehicle and got away, according to a Columbus police crash report. The crash left Baransi with a broken neck and several other broken bones. He spent much of December in the hospital and, as of February, continues to rehab in a local medical facility. He still can't eat solid food, wears a heavy neck brace and suffers intense pain in his left shoulder.

Nazareth remained open while Baransi was hospitalized. One waitress was promoted to day manager while another employee handled nighttime duties.

As for Baransi's future with the restaurant, he says, “I am going to play it by ear day by day. I'm not sure I can commit myself physically and financially after the accident, but I want to try. It's scary, but as long as I have my staff and I have the strength, I hope to stay open another 27 years.”

And while he's still frustrated with the response from authorities—“What happened to me, my restaurant and the victims of the machete attack was not a fender bender; this is the city's, state's and government's problem and they didn't give a damn”—he admits that the long hours spent recovering in the hospital after his December crash helped him regain a more positive outlook. “I want to laugh again,” he says. “I want to enjoy life again.”