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7 killed, including shooter, at Sikh Temple in Oak Creek

7 killed, including shooter

Amardeep Kaleka, whose father is Satwant Kaleka, the president of the temple who was shot and killed, prays in a parking lot while waiting to hear information.

Amardeep Kaleka, whose father is Satwant Kaleka, the president of the temple who was shot and killed, prays in a parking lot while waiting to hear information. Photo By Mike De Sisti

Aug. 6, 2012

The children were downstairs, in Sunday school.

The women were in the kitchen nearby, cooking the weekly meal that is free to all.

And the gunman was striding into the wide-open Sikh Temple, bent on killing as many people as he could.

Then came the shots, ripped off, according to a weapons instructor who lives nearby, "as fast as you can pull the trigger."

By the time the shooter was done, six people lay dead or mortally wounded in what Oak Creek police said was being treated as a domestic terrorist incident - if so, one without precedent in Wisconsin.

Counting the gunman - fatally shot by an Oak Creek police officer - the death count stands at seven.

"This," a temple leader said later, "is insanity."

It is also the most deadly U.S. attack on Sikhs - who often have been mistaken for Muslims and targeted in hate crimes - in recent memory.

Within three hours of the mass slaying at the five-year-old temple, built on S. Howell Ave. to accommodate the Milwaukee area's growing Sikh community, a task force of federal, state and local law enforcement officers was gathering on the scene.

Sunday night, team members - some wearing military gear and carrying heavy weapons - surrounded a duplex in Cudahy.

The upper flat had been rented just one month ago by a single man in his 40s, the landlord, Kurt Weins, said.

"I had him checked out and he definitely checked out," said Weins, who refused to name the man. "The cops told me they don't want me to say nothing right now."

An FBI official later confirmed that the police action in Cudahy, which involved numerous agencies and heavy military-style equipment, was related to the temple slayings.

FBI Special Agent Theresa Carlson said officers were executing a search warrant. The agency said they had not established a motive.

A law enforcement source familiar with the investigation said the shooter had been discharged from the Army. The source said one firearm was recovered at the temple as well as multiple magazines.

Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said officers arriving on the scene "stopped a tragedy that could have been a lot worse."

Beyond the murders, three people were injured in the rampage.

They included an Oak Creek police officer who was helping a victim outside the temple when the gunman opened fire on him.

A second Oak Creek officer returned fire, killing the shooter.

The police officer and two other men were taken to Froedtert Hospital. All were in critical condition with gunshot wounds - one to the chest and abdomen, one to the neck, and the third to his face and extremities, a hospital spokesman said.

The mass shooting occurred some time before 10:30 a.m., as members of the temple prepared for weekly worship. The first 911 calls were recorded at 10:26 a.m.

The service was to begin at 11:30 a.m., but dozens of people were already on hand.

The temple opens at 5:30 a.m. to anyone who wants to pray on their own, and in the three days leading up to the service, priests read continuously from a holy book.

In the kitchen downstairs, women were cooking for the "langar," a free, shared meal that is part of a Sikh tradition emphasizing equality and common roots.

Children were at Sunday school, where they are taught about religion, culture and the language of Punjab, the part of northwestern India that is the Sikh homeland.

Then shots rang out.

Seeking shelter

Two children ran to the kitchen, and they and the women there - 16 people in all - made for a pantry, closed themselves in and huddled, terrified.

Two priests and a few others locked themselves inside a bathroom. One used a cell phone to report that Satwant Kaleka, the temple president, had been shot twice and was lying on the floor, bleeding.

Kaleka, who died, had tried to tackle the shooter, said his son, Amardeep Kaleka.

Outside, another man, shot in the abdomen, staggered to a ranch house 300 yards away and pounded on the door.

Jim Haase opened the door to see a gray-bearded man of 60 or 70 years old standing in a blood-soaked white tunic.

"He couldn't speak English but he was pointing at it," Haase said of the victim gesturing to the wound in his mid-section.

A weapons instructor, Vietnam veteran and retired firefighter trained as a first responder, Haase knew what to do.

He grabbed a towel and laid the man on his front lawn to apply pressure to stop the bleeding.

The bullet, which made an entry hole no bigger than the diameter of a pen, appeared to go straight through the man, who remained conscious the whole time, Haase said.

He called Oak Creek police, then continued to tend to the victim until an ambulance arrived.

Police were at the temple within three minutes of the initial 911 call, but the very first call was so garbled that the gravity of the situation didn't come through.

"Squad, I'm taking report of a altercation, Sikh temple, 7512 S. Howell," the police dispatcher said. "I have a lot of noise. I'm unable to get much info, but there's a fight . . . "

Less than a minute later, however, the dispatcher added that there had been reports of gunshots. Very shortly after that, she radioed that "a bald male with glasses may have shot someone."

Four of the slaying victims were found inside the temple, 7512 S. Howell. Three were outside.

Among them was the gunman himself. He had opened fire on an Oak Creek police officer who was helping a victim, when another officer shot him.

The injured officer, who has been on the force at least 20 years, is expected to survive, Chief Edwards said at a media briefing outside the temple. He did not name the officer.

Edwards said the mass shooting is being treated as an incident of domestic terrorism. But FBI representatives later backed away from that categorization, saying they were still investigating motive.

Though the gunman was killed outside the temple not long after the shooting spree began, it wasn't until shortly before noon that a police SWAT team entered the building and brought uninjured people out.

For Parminder Toor and the other women barricaded in the kitchen pantry, it was more than an hour of terror.

Toor, 54, spoke to a reporter later Sunday at Classic Lanes, a bowling alley across Howell Avenue where uninjured temple members gathered and were interviewed by police.

The women could smell oil burning in the kitchen where they had left the food cooking, and they cried as they hid from the gunman, she said through her daughter in law, Jaskiran Toor.

When police came, the women were still wary.

"The police officers knocked on the door, (but) they were scared and didn't want to open it," Jaskiran Toor said.

She said the women were led out one by one with their hands behind their head.

As they walked through the temple, crying, Parminder Toor saw three bodies.

Others saw them too. Kulwant Kaur had hidden in the pantry, and as she was led out, a relative said, she saw her father-in-law lying on the floor, blood coming from his head.

Also in the kitchen when the shooting broke out, and taking refuge in the pantry, was the mother of Gulpreet Kaur.

"Two bullets passed by on either side of her, her friend was hit in the foot," said Kaur, 24.

Kaur, who was allowed in to the bowling alley, said her mother was traumatized by what happened and alternately cried and talked about what she heard and saw.

Obama notified

While the FBI was taking a cautious approach on the motivation for the shootings, the incident was being watched at the country's highest levels.

White House officials said President Barack Obama was notified of the shootings shortly before 1 p.m. by John Brennan, his Homeland Security adviser, and was getting updates through the day.

Members of the Sikh temple here expressed little doubt about the underpinnings of the rampage.

"It's pretty much a hate crime," said Ben Boparai, one of the temple's committee members. "It's not an insider."

That would make for a different situation than the 2005 mass shooting at a service of the Living Church of God at the Sheraton hotel in Brookfield.

There, a church member, Terry Ratzmann, 44, opened fire during services, killing seven people and himself.

According to Ri, the Oak Creek gunman first walked up to a priest who was standing outside, shot him, then entered the temple and began firing.

"It's sad, I don't know how to describe it," said Ri, who has been fielding calls all morning from around the world, including India.

"Sikhism is such a peaceful religion. We have suffered for generations, in India and even here."

Baljander Khattra's thoughts also turned to the gunman as he waited at the bowling alley for word of his father.

"I don't know what that person thinks," Khattra said. "...We are peaceful. The Sikh temple is open to anybody."

Waiting for news

Earlier Sunday groups of temple members gathered outside a day care center two blocks away, using cell phones, conferring in small groups and simply watching.

There were few tears, just shock and disbelief. As the sun beat down, a few small trees provided scant shade. Some older people sat in cars with the air conditioning on. By mid-afternoon the American Red Cross delivered bottled water.

The day care center parking lot filled with cars of temple-goers, including several yellow taxi cabs, some parked as though they arrived in a hurry.

People talked of the victims, among them Kaleka, and Parkash Singh, a priest who was killed.

Temple member Manminder Sethi, a dentist who works in Brown Deer, said Singh was in his mid 30s. The priest had lived in Oak Creek for several years, Sethi said, and recently returned to India to bring his wife, daughter and son to live with him in Wisconsin.

"He was a good guy," said Sethi, "a noble soul."

Satwant Kaleka's nephew, Gurmit Kaleka, said his uncle was 65 and was married with two grown sons, one of them a former Milwaukee police officer.

Satwant Kaleka has been president of the church - which formerly met in a south side location - since about 1996.

He has never felt threatened or unsafe in any way, Gurmit Kaleka said.

Amardeep Kaleka said his father emigrated from Punjab in 1982 with a couple of hundred dollars in his pocket, and became a successful businessman owning gas stations and other properties in the area. He co-founded and helped to build the temple.

"It was like a second home to him," Amardeep Kaleka said. "He was the kind of person who, if he got a call that a bulb was out at 2 a.m., he'd go over to change it."

Darshan Dhaliwal, who identified himself as a leader at the temple, said the temple had not been the subject of any threats or graffiti recently.

Meanwhile, Brookfield police officers were dispatched to the Sikh Temple at 3675 N. Calhoun Road as a precaution in the aftermath of the Oak Creek shooting.

At least three squads were at the temple in Waukesha County and they blocked off roads leading to the building.

About 50 people were at the Brookfield temple for a morning service and many of them went outside after they learned of the shooting in Oak Creek.

Gurcharan Grewal, president of the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin told a Journal Sentinel reporter: "People are really shocked. There was a little bit of panic. But everything is holding together."

Also, in the shooting's wake, the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, locked down the mosque at 4707 S. 13th St. in Milwaukee with a police car guarding entrance doors. During the afternoon prayer, around 1 p.m., the mosque was only allowing in attendees they recognized.

And the 128th Air Refueling Wing at Mitchell International Airport went into lockdown for a time on Sunday. No personnel were allowed in or out of the base to ensure maximum safety and security.

More than 20 million people worldwide follow the Sikh religion, established about 500 years ago in the Punjab region of India. Devout male followers must wear long beards and their hair in a turban, and in America are sometimes mistaken for Muslims; the two religions are not affiliated.

In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, at least four acts of violence against Sikhs occurred in the Milwaukee area, said Swarnjit S. Arora, a founder of the local Sikh Religious Society. Two taxis owned by Sikh drivers were vandalized, and two Sikh men were assaulted, said Arora. The crimes were not widely reported by the news media because they were overshadowed by dramatic events across the nation, he said.

About 3,000 Sikh families live in southeastern Wisconsin. A tight-knit community, they meet for religious services and to share meals at the Religious Society in Brookfield and the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in Oak Creek, which opened in 2007.

About this story

This story was written by Rick Romell with reporting by Mike Johnson, Karen Herzog, Annysa Johnson, Tom Daykin, Meg Jones, John Diedrich, Bruce Vielmetti, Don Walker, James B. Nelson, Georgia Pabst, Crocker Stephenson, Paul Gores, Raquel Rutledge, Bill Glauber, Ellen Gabler, Allan Vestal, Jenn Amur, Dan Egan, Craig Nickels, Nicole Levy, Aisha Qidwae and Emily Eggleston of the Journal Sentinel staff.

 

 

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