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Sneak attack on the homefront

On the back of a brown paper bag, Margueritagrill owner Tommy Piliouras writes the daily specials.

At the bottom, it reads "Lemon-Peppered Grouper $14.95 - All $ donated to our troops overseas!"

It's just one of the many patriotic gestures Piliouras makes at his famously red-white-and-blue restaurant.

And the patrons eat it up. In the course of a good month, he collects about $4,000 to buy phone cards that he sends to troops stationed in Iraq.

But his patriotic mission took a hit this week.

On Sunday, a thief broke in and stole about $9,000 set aside for the troops from a secret drawer of Piliouras' desk.

"It hurts me and I cry because I say that money is sacred money," said Piliouras, a spirited Greek immigrant who gets emotional when recalling his love for America. "I have to replace that money."

It was the second burglary in four days at the Hall River Road restaurant. The owner took the first one in stride, but stealing money destined for the troops unnerved him.

"I didn't say anything at first because I didn't want people to feel sorry for me," he said. "But this time I want people to be angry.

"Maybe if somebody knows that money belonged to the troops, they'll turn (the culprit) in."

Sitting at a table Thursday morning before the lunch crowd poured in, Piliouras thumbed two pieces of scrap paper very dear to him. Scribbled on them were the names of two U.S. soldiers given to him by customers. The stolen money was theirs, he said.

Piliouras keeps a list of soldiers and when he gets about $4,000 from grouper sales, he sends their units a care package full of phone cards to call home.

David Korman Jr., a 20-year-old Air Force officer in Baghdad, was at the top of the list. His grandmother, Thelma Bachert of Crystal River, told Piliouras about Korman when she was eating at the restaurant recently.

"That's terrible," Bachert said when she learned of the burglary. "Who would do such a thing?"

Only a few employees knew about the money in the drawer and the thief entered through a partially opened side window, leading Piliouras to think the burglar had help from an employee. Also, nothing else was taken, just the money, he said.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office is still investigating to determine whether it is linked to a burglary four days earlier when a thief entered through the roof, stealing a tip jar with $500 and causing extensive damage by tripping the fire alarm.

The fire suppression system even broke the expensive movie projector used to show the stirring 9/11 video that climaxes a flag-waving ceremony every Friday and Saturday night.

All this upsets Piliouras, but he vows to send the phone cards to the troops anyway. And he's confident that even if the authorities can't find the thief, the person will be brought to justice by a higher power.

"The guy who took it, by God, by misfortune, he's going to lose both his arms and both his legs," Piliouras said with confidence. "I want this guy to know that money is sacred."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 860-7312.

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