OAK CREEK, Wisconsin - The Associated Press
Police SWAT officers surround the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin where at least one gunman stormed the mass and opened fire. AFP photo
The gunman suspected of killing six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was a 40-year-old white man who once served in the military, a law enforcement official said Monday.
US media identified the suspect, who was shot dead during an exchange of gunfire with police on Sunday, as Wade Michael Page.
The law enforcement official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the alleged shooter was once assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was no longer on active duty at the time of the killings.
Seven killed in Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting
A gunman opened fire yesterday and killed six people at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee before he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the first officer to respond to the chaotic scene, authorities said.
The shootings happened before 10:30 a.m. local time, when witnesses said several dozen people were gathering at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin for a service. Hours of uncertainty followed as police in tactical gear and carrying assault rifles surrounded the temple with armored vehicles and ambulances.
A crowd gathered outside as officers descended on the temple and some spoke of talking or exchanging text messages with people inside. Some said they had heard there were multiple shooters, others spoke of women and children held hostage.
The first official word from police was that they didn’t know how many victims or suspects were involved. But a short time later, after an extensive search of the temple, authorities said they did not believe there was more than one shooter.
Jatin Der Mangat, 38, of Racine, said his uncle Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s president, was one of those shot. Mangat didn’t know how serious Kaleka’s injuries were.
"This is nerve-racking. No one really knows what’s going on. Nothing like this has ever happened before," Mangat said. Later, when he learned of the deaths, he said, "It was like the heart just sat down. This shouldn’t happen anywhere."
Greenfield Police Chief Bradley Wentlandt said the gunman was shot to death by the first officer to arrive at the temple. Tactical units went through the building and found four people dead inside the temple and two outside, in addition to the shooter.
It’s unclear how many others were wounded. Wentlandt said he had been told the officer who shot the suspect and another person had been taken to hospitals. He said the officer was shot multiple times, but was in surgery and is expected to survive.
The spokeswoman for the area trauma center said three victims were being treated there, including the officer in surgery.
Wentlandt did not identify the suspect or say what might have motivated the shootings. Family members identified some victims.
Sukhwindar Nagr, of Racine, said he called his brother-in-law’s phone and a priest at the temple answered and told him that his brother-in-law had been shot, along with three priests. The priest also said women and children were hiding in temple closets, Nagr said.
Devendar Nagra, 48, of Mount Pleasant, said his sister was in the temple preparing a meal when the shooting started. He said he spoke with her and she escaped injury by hiding in the kitchen, but a priest told him that his brother-in-law, the temple’s caretaker, had been shot in the leg.
Nagra’s spoke to his sister as she was evacuated from the temple to a nearby bowling alley. LeRon Bridges, 16, of Oak Creek, works at the bowling alley and said he was in a supply closet when he heard four gunshots. He looked outside, saw police coming and went to get his boss.
"There were more and more police showing up," he said. "They all pulled out their assault rifles and ran toward the building."
Bridges said police brought people evacuated from the temple to the bowling alley in two armored trucks. At one point, about 50 to 60 people were at the bowling alley, including police officers questioning those from the temple and paramedics treating their wounds, he said.
"They were just hysterical," Bridges said. "There were kids. One big load came out of the truck."
Sikhism is a monotheistic faith founded more than 500 years ago in South Asia. It has roughly 27 million followers worldwide. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair; male followers often cover their heads with turbans - which are considered sacred - and refrain from shaving their beards. There are roughly 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S., according to estimates. The majority worldwide live in India.
The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin started in 1997 with about 25 families who gathered in community halls in Milwaukee. Construction on the current temple in Oak Creek began in 2006, according to the temple’s website.
Sikh rights groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Washington-based Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents in the U.S. since then, which advocates blame on anti-Islamic sentiment. Sikhs don’t practice the same religion as Muslims, but their long beards and turbans often cause them to be mistaken for Muslims, advocates say.
The New York Police Department issued a statement saying it was increasing security around Sikh temples in the city as a precaution in the wake of the Wisconsin shooting, which happened two weeks after a gunman killed 12 people at movie theater in Colorado.