Gunman Kills 6 Sikh-Americans in Gurdwara in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USASTEVEN YACCINO, MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ and MARC SANTORA
Oak Creek, Wisconsin, USA
The granthis had gathered in the lobby of the sprawling gurdwara here in suburban Milwaukee, and lunch was being prepared as congregants were arriving for Sunday services.
Instead of worshipers, though, an armed man stepped through the door and started firing.
In an attack that the police said they were treating as “a domestic terrorist-type incident,” the gunman stalked through the gurdwara around 10:30 a.m. Congregants ran for shelter and barricaded themselves in bathrooms and prayer halls, where they made desperate phone calls and sent anguished texts pleading for help as confusion and fear took hold. Witnesses described a scene of chaos and carnage.
Jatinder Singh Mangat, 40, who was on his way to the gurdwara when he heard reports about the shooting, said he had tried to call his uncle, the gurdwara's president, but reached the head granthi, Gurmail Singh, instead. “He was crying. Everyone was screaming,” Jatinder said. “He said that my uncle was shot and was lying on the floor and asked why you guys are not sending an ambulance and police.”
Gurmail Singh, he said, had locked himself in a bathroom with four other people, including two children.
Six people were killed and three others were wounded on Sunday, August 3, 2012 at the 17,000-square-foot Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, a city of about 35,000 just south of Milwaukee, officials said.
The gunman’s rampage ended when one of the first police officers to arrive shot and killed him. Another police officer, who tried to aid a victim, was ambushed by the gunman and shot multiple times. He was in critical condition but was expected to survive, the authorities said.
The police did not release any details about the gunman or a possible motive for the shooting, beyond raising the prospect of terrorism. Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the killer was a 40-year-old white man.
John Edwards, the Police Chief in Oak Creek, said at a news conference that weapons had been found at the scene. He said the F.B.I. would lead the investigation.
“This remains an active investigation in its early stages,” Teresa Carlson, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Milwaukee division, said in a statement. “While the F.B.I. is investigating whether this matter might be an act of domestic terrorism, no motive has been determined at this time.”
The shootings reverberated from this small community to Washington and beyond, including Punjab and the subcontinent, where the religion was founded and many of the congregants have family ties.
President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, released statements on Sunday expressing sorrow.
“Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn of the shooting that tragically took so many lives in Wisconsin,” the US President said. “At this difficult time, the people of Oak Creek must know that the American people have them in our thoughts and prayers, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded ... As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family..”
Mr. Romney called the shootings “a senseless act of violence and a tragedy” that he said should never befall any house of worship.
“Our hearts are with the victims, their families and the entire Oak Creek Sikh community,” Mr. Romney said. “We join Americans everywhere in mourning those who lost their lives and in prayer for healing in the difficult days ahead.”
Many members of the close-knit Sikh community here said the attack had shattered their sense of security.
“Everyone here is thinking this is a hate crime for sure,” said Manjit Singh, who goes to a different gurdwara in the region. “People think we are Muslims.”
Though violence against Sikhs in Wisconsin was unheard of before the shooting, many in this community said they had sensed a rise in antipathy since the attacks on September 11 and suspected it was because people mistake them for Muslims. Followers of Sikhism, a monotheistic faith founded in the 15th century in the Punjab rehion of South Asia, typically do not cut their hair, and men often wear colorful turbans and refrain from cutting their beards.
“Most people are so ignorant they don’t know the difference between religions,” said Ravi Kaur Chawla, 65, a businesswoman who moved to the region from Punab in the 1970s. “Just because they see the turban they think you’re Taliban.”
There are well over half a million Sikhs in the United States. The gurdwara in Oak Creek, one of two large congregations in the Milwaukee area, was founded in 1997 and has about 400 worshipers.
Threats against Sikh-Americans have become acute enough that in April, Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York and co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus covering Sikh-American issues, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. urging the F.B.I. to collect data on hate crimes committed against them. In the previous year alone, he said in the letter, two Sikh men in Sacramento were slain, a gurdwara in Michigan was vandalized, and a Sikh man was beaten in New York.
“The more information our law enforcement agencies have on violence against Sikh-Americans, the more they can do to help prevent these crimes and bring those who commit them to justice,” Mr. Crowley said in a statement at the time.
By Sunday evening, the F.B.I. had cordoned off a street in Cudahy, a town about five miles from the gurdwara, where it was executing a search warrant related to the shooting, Ms. Carlson said at a news conference. “It’s going to be a long night,” she said, declining to give further details. A law enforcement official said some residents on the street had been ordered to leave their homes.
At a news conference, Chief Edwards described a dramatic scene when officers arrived at the gurdwara soon after the first 911 call. After the gunman ambushed the first officer, Chief Edwards said, another police officer exchanged fire with the gunman, bringing him down.
Bradley Wentlandt, the Chief of Police in nearby Greenfield, said the wounded officer was a 20-year veteran whose actions probably saved many lives.
Four bodies were found inside the gurdwara and three outside, including that of the gunman, Chief Wentlandt said.
Three men with gunshot wounds were admitted to Froedtert Hospital, the Milwaukee region’s main trauma center, said Nalissa Wienke, a spokeswoman for the hospital. One victim had been shot in the head and extremities and another in the abdomen. The third was described as having neck wounds.
There were initially conflicting reports about whether there was more than one gunman and whether hostages had been taken inside the gurdwara. Local news agencies, citing text messages from people inside, reported that two or more gunmen could have been involved.
“The best information is that there was only one gunman,” Chief Edwards said at a news conference.
The shooting came about two weeks after a gunman killed 12 people and wounded nearly 60 in an attack at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
In response to the shooting on Sunday, the police in New York said security was being increased at gurdwaras in the city. “There is no known threat against gurdwaras in New York City; however, the coverage is being put in place out of an abundance of caution,” the New York police said in a statement.
Outside the gurdwara here, friends and relatives were struggling to understand what had happened. Many in the community had contacted friends and family who were in the gurdwara when the shooting broke out.
Harpreet Singh, a nephew of the gurdwara president, said his aunt, the president’s wife, was in the kitchen with other women preparing food for services when they heard gunshots.
“She said they heard a bang, bang, bang,” Harpreet, 36, said in a telephone interview from the basement of a bowling alley near from the gurdwara, where the police and F.B.I. agents were interviewing survivors.
Recounting the shooting as told to him by his aunt Satpal Kaur Kaleka, he said the women had hidden in a nearby pantry. The women escaped, witnessing the gunman’s carnage along the way, he said.
Harpreet was on his way to services with his wife, his two children and his parents when the police stopped them outside the parking lot. “There were police cars running into the complex,” he said. “A couple of weeks ago, some kid had set off a fire alarm, so we thought something like that had happened.”
People begin gathering at the gurdwara as early as 6:30 a.m. on Sundays, but most arrive around 10:30 or 11 for services, Harpreet said. He believed about 30 to 35 people were inside when the shooting began, but had the gunman arrived just 15 minutes later, he said, 100 to 150 people would have been inside.
Conversation about this article
1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), August 06, 2012, 8:30 AM.
This is so sad. Where are the Sikh organizations in all of this? The so-called World Councils and the like!
2: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), August 06, 2012, 9:51 AM.
Is anyone really shocked that this happened? It was only a matter of time before some white American with a chip on his shoulder would go after the Sikh community in America in such a disgusting manner. This follows the annual trend of the murder of 2-3 Sikh men in the United States after 9/11 in hate crimes. These are just those that the media has chosen to report. It is seldome reported as a hate crime. But do you know what the most disgusting and horrible thing about this event is? Even after having the Sikh-American community brought in the limelight in such a horrible way, white Americans will still continue to discriminate, stereotype and possibly even murder Sikhs as they misidentify the community as Arabs and Muslims.
3: Harry (Willowbrook, Illinois ), August 06, 2012, 10:42 AM.
Sunny, the way you say it, it sounds like it's okay if the victims were Muslims and Arabs. I'm sure you did not mean it to sound that way.
4: Raj (Canada), August 06, 2012, 11:25 AM.
Cost of worshiping truth, living truth and preaching truth; you get butchered by Mughals in North India, become target of ethnic cleansing in '47, burnt alive in the streets of Delhi by Hindus, and shot in the cities of U.S.A.
5: R. Singh (Canada), August 06, 2012, 11:57 AM.
Let us cool it please and not start looking for someone to pin the blame on. No organisation could have foreseen something like that. This is a tragedy born out of ignorance and bigotry, and would have been no less tragic if it has been a Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Hindu place of worship. Everybody is united in our grief, and is standing with us and desiring to help those affected.
6: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), August 06, 2012, 12:12 PM.
Harry, that was never my intention. I was just making it clear that hate crimes, especially the most violent ones perpetrated against Sikhs are the result of Americans confusing us with Arabs and Muslims. Absolutely if this had happened in a mosque it would be just as tragic, however, this has been happening to a group of people who have been repeatedly mistaken for Muslims since 9/11. It's a double whammy, to be considered someone you are not, and then being punished for being that person!
7: H. Singh (British Columbia, Canada), August 06, 2012, 12:47 PM.
Call it whatever, this massacre is a hate crime. The murders are a direct result of the US politicians and law officials letting down the ethnic communities of the USA and more so the Sikh community. Even now the US is obsessed with calling a it a domestic terrorism situation'. As if calling it something connected to terrorism somehow justifies this horrific act. Wake up, USA. It is a hate crime! THE USA passed a hate crime law after the 9/11 and over 700, make that 701, incidences of this have been reported by Sikhs and I bet you not many perpetrator have been charged for those hate crimes by any US law enforcement authorities. I know it first hand, as my family was directly at the receiving end of one such incident. I met the police chief in my town and he did nothing. I called the field officer at the FBI, he did nothing, I called the Attorney General of the state I lived in, he did nothing and I even called the Sikh Coalition for help and they did nothing too. If Sikhs think that somehow overnight the USA is going to change, they are mistaken. The US system will kill any such change and hope and after this brouhaha dies down life will be back to the American way of more discrimination and ignorance against minorities. The only salvation out of this is to grab the media attention now and have competent Sikh spokespersons articulate a clear statement that Sikhs are neither Muslims nor Hindus, and the Sikh turban is distinctly their article of faith. We need to change the mindset. Sorry, Muslim brothers and sisters, but to be clear, we are not suggesting that Muslims deserve to be targeted. But certainly Sikhs should not be paying the price with their lives for the misdeeds of those who do commit crimes.
8: Harry (Willowbrook, Illinois, USA), August 06, 2012, 1:54 PM.
Sunny: There is big sign outside the gurdwara that reads "Sikh Temple of Wisconsin". So, its likely the gunman knew he was attacking Sikhs and not Muslims. Therefore, its unlikely that his motivation to kill Sikhs has to do with mistaking them as Muslims. To add to that - do you also think Sikh travelers who are treated like potential terrorists at the US Airports is a case of mistaking them for Muslims? I don't think so! After all that Sikhs have done to teach the federal government about Sikhs, the fact remains that Sikhs continue to be perceived as potential terrorists by the federal government. Therefore, what do you expect from nutcases when the federal government - that knows who Sikhs really are - treats Sikhs as potential terrorists? They are certainly not being mistaken.
9: Harman Singh (California, USA), August 06, 2012, 2:24 PM.
This is a time to invite our neighbours into our homes and gurdwaras and educate them on who Sikhs are ... through dialogue. We fear those whom we do not understand, and from fear stems hate. My gratitude for Officer Murphy who put his life on the line and prevented this from becoming an even bigger massacre. He can be reached at email@example.com, if anyone wishes to express his/her thanks!
10: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), August 06, 2012, 3:52 PM.
Harry, to be fair, a Sikh man who is wearing a turban on his head pretty much has a big sign saying "Hey, I'm a Sikh"!. Yet day after day Sikhs face discrimination by the American public because they are considered, incorrectly, to fit the Arba description. In the mind of Americans, Muslims are dark skinned men who have turbans and wear beards, therefore the Sikhs are the physical embodiment of the stereotype of Muslims which Americans have drummed into their skulls. Why is it that high profile killings don't happen against Muslims? It's because the imagined turbaned Arab does not exist in the west, at at least not outside of the mosque. The Sikhs are the closest thing that the American public has to vent their anger towards. Once again, I am not insinuating that Muslims should be killed, I am just stating that one community is clearly taking the brunt of the hate and the fact that turbaned men are the victims shows that there is a psychological connection between imagination and reality for bigots. I agree that the federal government is also to blame for this predicament.
11: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), August 06, 2012, 4:22 PM.
Harry, I think many Americans think Sikhs are a sect of Muslims, like the Shites and Sunnis. Note that Shites and Sikhs sound similar to people who don't know these communities. I am wondering how the police would have reacted if this had happened in India! The hero was the American policeman who almost died saving the Sikhs. Our Tenth Master told us to be prepared at all times! We have changed!
12: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), August 06, 2012, 11:50 PM.
The government and the media have failed us miserably since they have not cleared misconceptions and mistaken identity of the Sikhs. This has led to several acts of violence specifically targeting Sikhs all over the US.