Just down the street from West Virginia University in the city of Morgantown, sandwich shop owner George Pierre Tanios had a terrible reputation. Ex-employees say he’d berate employees in public and physically fight customers. Online reviews show he’d even shove Trump propaganda in your face.
So it was no surprise to Cory Denkert, a former employee, when he checked Facebook one day and saw a selfie Tanios took during the insurrection on Jan. 6—one that law enforcement later determined was taken at the U.S. Capitol Building. It matched an FBI flyer of Photograph #254, a MAGA hat-wearing bearded guy wanted for assaulting a federal officer, including one Capitol Police officer who died. Tanios was even wearing a hoodie with his shop’s name emblazoned on the chest, “Sandwich U.”
“I was laughing,” Denkert told The Daily Beast. “This is exactly what George would do. He’s always been angry, trying to start fights with people. It doesn't matter how wrong he is, he's going to be outspoken, in somebody's face, trying to start something.”
Denkert sent Tanios’ selfie to the FBI with a curt message: Hey, I know this guy. This is George Pierre Tanios. It was taken off of his Facebook.
After a few weeks, Denkert received an afternoon phone call while driving home from work. The FBI special agent wanted to be sure this was Tanios. Was there someone else who’d seen him recently? Denkert connected him with a Morgantown businessman whose partnership with Tanios had fallen apart.
According to an FBI affidavit reviewed by The Daily Beast, that ex-business partner—who Tanios allegedly owed $435,000—told the FBI special agent that he was “100%” sure it was Tanios. The Daily Beast searched Monongalia County court records and found that the only person who sued Tanios seeking nearly half a million dollars was Kenneth Dufalla.
“I’m surprised it took this long for him to do something stupid,” Dufalla told The Daily Beast.
“He’s an embarrassment, to fellow hard-working, God-fearing, humble citizens of Morgantown and fellow Trump supporters,” Dufalla added. “I can’t imagine how many of his former employees and fraternities are enjoying his apparent downfall right now. He was easily the most hated man in Morgantown.”
The FBI special agent asked both of them to keep quiet, concerned that Tanios would run if he discovered the FBI was onto him. The Bureau was about to connect Tanios with the attack on Officer Brian Sicknick, the only cop who collapsed and died after fighting insurrectionists. A few days later, on Sunday, March 14, FBI agents from Washington and Pittsburgh teamed up to arrest Tanios at his West Virginia home.
Former employees at Sandwich University were ecstatic. The Daily Beast spoke to four people who all said they were forced to endure years of abuse by their boss. Tanios once used a bullhorn to scream at employees, said Denkert. He fired people on the spot without apparent reason, and frequently threatened to mace rowdy customers in the face, said another, Daniel Dentzler.
“This has really been a long time coming for him,” Denkert said. “He's always treated people badly, and he's always acted like he's gonna get away with something. He thought he was untouchable.”
Tanios and a fellow college-town restaurateur from another state, Julian Elie Khater, were indicted on March 17 for attacking three police officers at the Capitol with bear spray. In court documents, federal agents described how they used several different pictures and videos to piece together how Tanios carried the chemical irritant in his backpack and directed his buddy. Prosecutors allege that the pair intentionally timed their attack on the officers with the pepper spray “to coincide with other rioters’ efforts to forcibly remove the bike rack barriers that were preventing the rioters from moving closer to the Capitol building.”
“Give me that bear shit,” Khater allegedly said to Tanios while they stood on the Lower West Terrace of the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to court papers. Prosecutors say that entrance is where Sicknick and at least two other officers were standing guard behind metal bicycle racks.
“Hold on, hold on, not yet, not yet… it’s still early,” Tanios responded, according to the court documents.
The feds say Khater then deployed the powerful spray into the faces of Sicknick, U.S. Capitol Police Officer C. Edwards, and District of Columbia Police Officer B. Chapman.
The Daily Beast reached out to several of Tanios’ family members, who did not respond to phone calls or direct messages on Facebook. And the publicly funded defense attorneys now representing Tanios in federal court declined to comment. But S. Sean Murphy, an attorney in Morgantown who represented Tanios on business matters for years, said: “George was never anything but a consummate gentleman or kind to me. I never heard him say anything untoward or aggressive in my presence.”
“I like George. I genuinely liked him,” he said.
According to two former employees, Tanios had a long history of using mace.
Daniel Dantzler worked at Sandwich U for five years and eventually ran the place as a night shift manager. The small shop was a hotspot for drunk West Virginia University students, who occasionally got out of control.
“We always had a can of pepper spray behind the counter, and there's been several times he would pull it out and mace somebody,” Dantzler said.
But the fight was usually started by the shop owner himself, several ex-employees said. Online reviews on Google and Yelp dating back to 2015 allege several instances in which Tanios would offend customers—then threaten or harass them if they responded.
Dantzler said: “He would usually come out from behind the counter and, you know, be confrontational with them. Then he'd say to the register girl: ‘Give me the mace.’
“He sprayed people in the shop, on the way out the door, outside the shop, on the street,” Dantzler said, incredulously. “I'm not sure if the surveillance footage still exists. It'd be pretty funny.”
Tanios’ business lawyer, Murphy, had this to say in his defense: “It gets wild on High Street at two o’clock in the morning. All kinds of shit goes down there. I wouldn't be surprised. People are fighting left and right on High Street every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night.”
Tanios embraced the caricature of an overly aggressive shop owner so thoroughly that Dantzler and Denkert say he even referred to himself as “The Sandwich Nazi,” and kept a framed photo of the Seinfeld character “The Soup Nazi” behind the counter—next to photos of customers and ex-employees who were no longer allowed inside the restaurant.
“I guess it was a role model for him,” Dantzler said. “He'd say: ‘No sandwich for you!’”
One reviewer in 2019 summed it up this way: “complete asshole self entitled owner with zero empathy and total lack of basic social cues.” More recent interactions complain that Tanios was an obnoxious Trump supporter and COVID denier.
Tanios did, however, receive a COVID-related bailout through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, according to publicly available records. He got a $52,110 small business loan to support 18 listed employees for his sandwich shop in May 2020. The money went to Lebanese Connection LLC, which does business as Sandwich University, according to state business records.
Tanios did run into money troubles. Dufalla, the ex-business partner, sued him a decade ago alleging that Tanios breached their contract and embezzled the business proceeds. Tanios rejected that accusation but finally decided to strategically declare bankruptcy last year to get rid of the embezzlement lawsuit, according to Murphy and the bankruptcy attorney he hired for the case, John Scott.
Online reviews are full of horror stories, as well as sharp rebukes from Tanios himself, who frequently responded to customers with gleeful malice.
Last year, Emily Fitzgerald wrote, “My goodness this is no way to run a business. No, the customer is not always right, but these immature responses, from the owner—wow. Men are wildly emotional, in a bad way.”
Tanios responded with this: “Thank you for your review. Please contact noone@sandwichU.com to complain about your previous visit. We will gladly give you a $0 Gift Card for a future visit.”
According to the Morgantown Police Department, things escalated in October 2020, when someone threw a brick through his sandwich shop window. Tanios told cops he felt that it was a hate crime—retribution for the Trump 2020 sign he had outside.
Three months later, prosecutors say, he stormed the Capitol. Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael John Aloi ordered Tanios to remain behind bars pending his trial. In court, prosecutors said the FBI had received a tip that his mother allegedly planned to find a way to get him to his family’s native country of Lebanon. It was an accusation Maguy Tanios later denied, saying: “Who tell you that?... This is my country. God bless the United States... We are American.”
Tanios and his alleged co-conspirator, Khater, have not been charged with causing the cop’s death, as the Washington medical examiner has not yet completed Officer Sicknick’s autopsy results. On Tuesday, the medical examiner’s office told The Daily Beast it will make the results public when they are ready.
“I don't think it's a deep-seated hatred of blue. Nor do I think that what happened was because he was a Trump supporter,” Dantzler said. “I don't think Trump brainwashed him into macing a police officer. George liked to be in the middle of chaos.”
“He's been doing things the same way with no fear of repercussions for so long, and it finally bit him,” said the other employee, Denkert. “Karma is a thing, and it finally got him.”
—with additional reporting by Pilar Melendez