49-year-old Tina Diakos and 40-year-old Ozkan Cengiz, girlfriend and boyfriend and also co-owners of the Jerzeez Diner in Vernon, NJ, burned down the diner to collect the insurance payout back in March 2016. However, both have been spared prison terms after pleading guilty to third-degree arson charges and were sentenced to five years of probation late last month.
According to the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office and NJ.com, Diakos and Cengiz admitted that Diakos researched combustible materials and how to starts fires, and that Cengiz drove his girlfriend’s BMW 335 series from their home in Butler, NJ to the diner at approximately 2:45am on March 8th, 2016 to light the blaze, which was caught on surveillance video from a nearby Exxon gas station, all for the purpose of collecting the insurance money. Luckily, no one was injured.
It didn’t take long to get the attention of investigators, as the fire was deemed suspicious just one day after the Route 94 diner had burned down. Just one week later, Diakos was charged with witness tampering, as an anonymous caller told Vernon police that she was in Pilgrim Diner three weeks prior asking to use another individual’s phone to search for combustibles and how to start a fire, told an acquaintance that “she wasn’t going to lose all her money again” and that she “will burn it down before she closes it down,” and offered to pay the individual $480 not to speak to police with another $5,000 payment after the insurance was collected.
The motive? The diner just wasn’t doing well, they couldn’t pay their vendors or even afford to pay their employees, and the Department of Environmental Protection was forcing the owners to make a decision regarding the replacement of the diner’s two temporary 1,000 gallon septic tanks, close the business, or make arrangements to tap into city sewer by February 24th, 2016. 13 days later, the diner was burnt and gutted.
In addition to their probation sentences, Diakos and Cengiz are also required to pay $323,000 in restitution and complete community service.