Small, Tight-knit Wisconsin Sikh Community Shocked by Shooting

Dozens wait in basement of a neighborhood bowling alley on Sunday to hear whether their loved ones and friends are among the six gunned down at a temple nearby.

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Dozens of shocked members of a tight-knit community of suburban Milwaukee Sikhs waited for hours in the basement of a neighborhood bowling alley on Sunday to hear whether their loved ones and friends were among the six gunned down at a temple nearby.

Outside, dozens more Sikhs, many men wearing the colorful turbans of their faith, came and went from the site where police said a lone white, male gunman shot dead six people before a police officer killed him. Two other Sikhs were wounded, along with a police officer, who was one of the first to arrive on the scene.

"They're grieving," said Zorina Lopac, a woman raised as a Sikh who was allowed into the basement to comfort some of the family. "They're hurt. And they're angry."

Authorities were tight-lipped about the identities of the victims, upsetting some of the Sikhs who were still waiting for the names of the dead hours after the shooting. The gunman began shooting before the start of a Sunday morning service at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in the suburb of Oak Creek, south of Milwaukee.

The gathering of friends and family to comfort others was typical of the small Sikh community in southern Wisconsin, where members said everyone either knows other Sikhs directly or indirectly through friends.

"It is like a big family," said Satwant Rehal, 62, who has lived in the area since 1974.

There are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 families of the Sikh religion in the Milwaukee area and two temples. The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where the attack took place on Sunday, was founded in October 1997 with a community of 20 to 25 families, according to its website. It has 350 to 400 people in its congregation and has grown rapidly, the group says.

The other temple, or gurdwara, as Sikh places of worship are called, is in Brookfield, Wisconsin, about 30 miles away in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee.

The two temples serve as community centers for Sikhs as well as houses of worship, community members said. Many holidays, not just those of their own religion, are celebrated there in a festive atmosphere, they said.

This was a typical Sunday morning, with people starting to gather by midmorning when the gunman entered the kitchen and opened fire, said Jagpal Singh, a local Sikh.

Several people who survived locked themselves in bathrooms, Singh said.

Manminder Sethi, a member of the temple, said most members of the congregation were not there at the time of the attack because services did not begin until around noon.

It was a stroke of luck that the gunman entered and went on his rampage an hour or more before most of the community had shown up.

"If he had chosen noon ... I don't know how much damage that guy would have done," Sethi said.

Two of the victims were believed to be the president of the congregation and a priest, said Lakhwinder Singh, a member of the congregation.

"It will take a long time to heal. We're hurt very badly," he said.

It an impromptu vigil in downtown Milwaukee, people gathered in a park and held candles. Sikhs were joined by other members of the community.

Parwinder Virk, who was at the vigil, said she knew two of the victims.

"A lot of people don't know about our religion. They get it mostly confused with the Muslims. That is where people need to get educated. We are two different peoples, and we have different beliefs than Muslims," she said.

Authorities said they have no motive for the shooting but some of the Sikh community said they thought it was a case of mistaken identity. Sikhs have sometimes been targets since the
Sept. 11, 2001 attacks perpetrated by the al-Qaida Islamic militant group.

Jagjit Singh Kaleka, brother of the president of the temple, who apparently was one of the victims, said he had no idea why the gunman would attack the congregation.

People light candles during a vigil at Cathedral Square to honor victims of Oak Creek in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin August 5, 2012.Credit: Reuters