Hours after a lone gunman began shooting congregants inside of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, the scene outside was surprisingly calm. In the parking lot for the Learning Edge Child Care center, about 1,000 feet from the temple, 150 people—split between news media and members and friends of Milwaukee’s Sikh community of about 2,000 families—stood together baking in the August heat, waiting for news. Oak Creek Police clustered around the taped-off area, but didn’t enter it.
There was no wailing or mourning in the parking lot as Sikh men with high turbans and flowing beards stood in clusters, tensely speaking Punjabi. As reporters dashed back and forth to find eyewitnesses and new details, people stood by with a sense of patient and solicitous concern rooted in both Sikh and Midwestern tradition, while volunteers circulated offering food and water.
The temple itself, about 1,000 feet away, and with all roads approaching it cut off by local police and the FBI, was hidden behind a small grassy hill, only the flagpoles outside it visible in the distance. Just down the road, an armored FBI armored tactical vehicle sat silently, while at another intersection a policeman turned away an elderly woman trying to go to a nearby bowling alley for Sunday bingo. No one had told her that it was where survivors of the horrific shooting were being questioned about the shooting by the FBI.
At a press conference Sunday afternoon, Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said that because the shootings were considered “domestic terrorism,” the FBI would lead the investigation with assistance from local police.
After receiving multiple 911 calls beginning at 10:25, Oak Creek police quickly arrived on the scene, said Edwards. The gunman “ambushed” one veteran policeman, shooting him several times although not fatally. The gunman was then shot and killed by another officer, who was himself shot, again not fatally. Police reported seven fatalities, including the gunman and temple president Satwant Kaleka, and three others including the two police officers shot and wounded, though expected to survive.
After the shooter was felled, tactical officers swept the building, said Edwards, and determined that contrary to early reports, there were no additional assailants.
Sunday evening, police had surrounded a house in the blue-collar suburb of Cudahy, about five miles from the temple. Law enforcement, including helicopters and an FBI armored vehicle, had cut off power to the house and had their guns drawn.
Unnamed officials told NBC News that the suspect had served in the U.S. army, had many tattoos, and held “some kind of radical or white supremacist views” but was not known to be affiliated with any radical group. The suspect had only traffic tickets on his criminal records, the officials told NBC News.
Jaspereet Singh, a 16-year-old girl wearing traditional Indian garb with henna on her wrists, said she was home when her mother called her from inside the temple. Her mother, Jaspal Kaur Singh, had been one of 15 women cooking the communal vegetarian meal usually served after the service to several hundred worshippers, when they heard the gunshots. The women rushed into a nearby pantry and locked the door behind them for safety, the daughter said, adding that her mother was whispering on the phone to avoid detection.
The killings—carried out by a well-armed white man against an ethnic and religious minority—was quickly labeled by police as an act of domestic terrorism. Sikhs who had been mistaken for Muslims were targeted in a wave of hate crimes after 9/11. Edwards did not speculate about the shooter's motive, and said he would provide further detail at a press conference Monday morning.
Gaganjot “G” Khurana, a heavily bearded and turbaned young man raised in the United States was somewhat hopeful that this tragedy would educate Americans about his religion. “Ninety-nine percent of people you see with a turban and a beard are Sikh,” he said.
Dale and Susan Selby, a middle-aged white couple, had run down to check on the welfare of Gaganjot Khurana’s parents, who are regular templegoers. Khurana is best friends with their son—and served as the best man at his wedding. They arrived to find that the Khuranas were safe—they had gone to the other Sikh temple in Brookfield that morning—and they shared an emotional embrace.
Others did not receive such happy news. Ed DiPietro, a man in his 30s who had been close friends with Sam Kaleka’s two sons since their days together at Bay View High, rushed down to scene, after hearing that his friends' father had been shot. He was at a loss for words, calling the events “horrible and disgusting.” When DiPietro originally arrived, he said, he hoped he could just “pick up [his friends] and rush to the hospital" where they could see their father. Instead, he was still anxiously waiting hours later, fearing the worst.
As people waited in the parking lot, worshippers from the Sikh temple in Brookfield brought over their communal meal to feed the hungry at the scene.
Badri, a non-Sikh who declined to give his last name and who was passing out bottles of water, said he had rushed down to offer what comfort he could.
“Indian or non-Indian,” he said, what counted was that everyone practiced the simple credo of “love thy neighbor.”