OAK CREEK, Wis. (MCT) — A violent attack that killed six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin has left congregants desperate for answers.
“Over and over, (the congregants) keep asking themselves ... ‘Did we do anything wrong?’” temple member Jagpal Singh said.
The shooting happened just as the temple’s members were gathering to sing, eat and pray Sunday morning.
Shortly after 10 a.m., the gunman entered the temple, which is in a suburb just south of Milwaukee along Lake Michigan, and started shooting, police said. The cracks of gunfire sent many inside scurrying for a hiding place, including a group of women who sought refuge in a pantry while one telephoned a relative and warned her in whispers not to come to the temple.
The gunman also injured three people, including a police officer, police said.
A 20-year veteran of the Oak Creek Police Department responded to a 911 call about 10:25 a.m. and was tending to a victim outside the temple when the gunman ambushed him, police Chief John Edwards said. Another police officer shot and killed the gunman, he said.
Police did not release the gunman’s name, but on Sunday evening a large convoy of law enforcement and fire department vehicles had surrounded a duplex and authorities were evacuating a neighborhood in Cudahy, a Milwaukee suburb just north of Oak Creek and about six miles from the Sikh temple.
FBI Milwaukee Division spokesman Leonard Peace confirmed that a federal search warrant was executed on a home in the 3700 block of East Holmes Street in Cudahy. The warrant was related to the Oak Creek shooting, he said.
Police had cordoned off a long stretch of East Holmes Avenue. Cudahy police Patrol Officer Aaron Agenten said that the FBI agents were on the street. Neighbors milled around the dark street, exchanging what little information they had, as red and blue police lights illuminated houses on the 3700 block.
Earlier in the day, police refused to speculate on the gunman’s motive, but Edwards called it an act of “domestic terrorism.”
Tattoos on the body of the slain gunman and certain biographical details have led the FBI to classify the incident that way, according to a White House administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
He would not say if the gunman is believed to belong to a hate group or some other violent group, as the investigation that was handed to the FBI on Sunday afternoon is unfolding.
But federal officials cautioned against thinking that a concrete link to a domestic terrorism group or hate group had been established.
“We don’t know much about the motive at this point,” said a federal law enforcement official who had been briefed on the early planning for the case.
Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims because of the religion’s requirement that men wear turbans and leave their beards uncut. There have been incidents after Sept. 11, 2001, in which Sikh members have been victims of hate crimes, said Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, noting vandalism at gas stations, beatings of cabdrivers and instances of school discrimination.
“Given that overview, when something like this happens, our first thought is that this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s an outgrowth of a xenophobic trend toward our community members,” Jasjit Singh said.
For hours after the shooting, there was a chaotic scene outside the temple as family, friends and congregants gathered to wait for details, which came slowly. After the shooting, platoons of police and FBI agents interviewed witnesses in the basement of the bowling alley across the street but restricted them from initially contacting their family or friends.
Conflicting reports of multiple gunmen slowed police during their initial sweep of the temple, Edwards said. He said he did not have details on the number of people inside the temple at the time of the attack, and he declined to provide information on the shooter or any of the victims.
Edwards confirmed that authorities found weapons on the scene, but he declined to say how many or what kind.
With temple members eager for information about their loved ones, police established a telephone number for friends and family to call for status updates on the wounded.
One shooting victim was Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the temple, said his son, Amardeep Kaleka. He was told his father walked through the building to confront the shooter in the lobby or near the office, tried to tackle him and was shot, Kaleka said.
He said he was also told that a priest near his father during the incident was shot in the hip or leg and was “bleeding profusely.”
The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin provides residential housing for several priests, congregants said.
Sukhwindar Nagr, of Racine, said he called his brother-in-law’s phone and a priest at the temple answered. Nagr said the priest told him that his brother-in-law had been shot, along with three priests.
The priest also told him women and children were hiding in closets at the temple, Nagr said.
Amardeep Kaleka also spoke with his mother, who was in another section of the building. She told him the gunfire came in individual pops, and that she heard 40 or 50 gunshots, he said.
The gunman opened fire about an hour before an 11:30 a.m. service, which temple member Harvinder Ahuja estimates about 350 people attend each Sunday.
“It’s a good thing it happened at 10 o’clock,” Ahuja said. “If it happened at 11:30, a lot more people would have been injured or died.”
Three people were taken in critical condition to nearby Froedtert Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Beth Strohbusch said. One was shot in the abdomen, and another was shot in his extremities and face, Strohbusch said. The third was shot in the neck, according to the hospital.
Strohbusch declined to say if any of the victims are police officers, suspects or priests.
Jaspreet Singh, 16, of Oak Creek, said her mother hid in a pantry with other women after the shooting started. Singh said her mother called a relative and whispered into the cellphone to stay away from the temple before hurriedly hanging up.
Her mother safely made it out of the temple and to the bowling alley across the street.
“It’s really scary,” Singh said.”(The temple) is a place that’s so peaceful.”
Harinder Kaur, 22, of Oak Creek, said the congregation gathers on Sunday to pray, sing and eat. “I would just like to know what this person’s motive was,” Kaur said.
Harpreet Kapur, waiting with other temple members Sunday afternoon to learn details about the victims, said the incident “felt as tragic for me as 9/11.”
“I felt the same thing I felt that day,” Kapur said, cradling his young son.
Chicago’s Sikh temple, in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the Far North Side, was given special police attention Sunday as a result of the Wisconsin shooting, according to an emailed statement from Melissa Stratton, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department.
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney issued statements condemning the shooting. Obama said he was “deeply saddened” by the incident, and Romney called it a “senseless act.”
Chicago Tribune reporters Erin Meyer and Jeremy Gorner contributed.