6 dead in Sikh temple shooting near Milwaukee

Six people were slain at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee Sunday morning before police shot and killed a gunman as congregants, many of them women and children, hid inside, authorities say.

One of the first officers to arrive at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek around 10:25 a.m. was tending to a victim found on the grounds when the gunman "ambushed" him and shot the officer several times, according to Oak Creek Police John Edwards.

Another officer fired at the gunman, killing him, police said. The officers' response "stopped a tragic event that could have been a lot worse," Edwards said, calling the officers "heroic."

The officer and two other men were taken to nearby Froedtert Hospital with critical gunshot wounds: One suffered wounds to the abdomen and chest; another to the extremities and face; the third to the neck.

"Two patients have undergone surgery and one patient is currently undergoing a complex procedure," said Dr. Gary Seabrook, director of surgical services at the hospital.

Edwards said tactical officers swept the temple and surrounding area for hours and believe there was only one shooter, though the investigation continues. Initial reports said there might more than one gunman, and the police chief said officers had to be cautious about entering the building.

He called the shooting a "domestic terrorism-type" case, but he declined to describe the shooter or speculate on a motive. He said authorities had found weapons on the scene, but he would not say how many or what kind.

Police cardoned off a wide perimeter around the light stone building. An officer in a protective vest could be seen leading a golden retriever away from the temple. Other officers could be seen packing tactical gear and assault rifles into car trunks. Still others appeared to remain at the ready.

Jaspreet Singh, 16, of Oak Creek said her mother hid in a pantry with other women when the shooting started. Her mother called Singh's cousin and whispered into the cell phone to stay away from the temple before hurriedly hanging up.

Her mother was brought out safely and taken to a bowling alley across the street that police and emergency relief workers used as a staging area.

"It's really scary," Singh said. "(The temple) is a place that's so peaceful." 

Among those wounded was the president of the temple, Satwant Kaleka. His son, Amardeep Kaleka, said he was told his father was in the building when shots rang out. His father walked through the building to confront the shooter and found him in the lobby or near the office, tried to tackle him and was shot, his son said he was told.

The son said a priest who was nearby said his father was hit in the hip or leg and was "bleeding profusely." The son said he continued to struggle to get information about his father, and when asked whether his father was alive, he silently shook his head.

Kaleka also spoke with his mother, who was in another section of the building. He said he asked her if the gunfire came in burst, as from an automatic rifle, or in individual pops. She told him she heard 40 or 50 individual shots.

Kaleka managed to see beauty in the tragedy. For Sikhs, tradition dictates that templegoers be prepared to feed any visitor of any faith at any temple anytime. After the shooting, members of the local Punjabi community joined emergency relief groups and rushed to the bowling alley with traditional dishes.

Congregants ate off tables set up in the bowling alley's basement as they talked to police and groped for credible reports on loved ones.

"It's a horrible event. (The Sikhs) aren't terrorists," Kaleta said. "There's nothing to fear except things that you don't know."

Platoons of police and FBI agents interviewed witnesses in the basement. The atmosphere was intense and confusion common as police negotiated language barriers and conflicting accounts, he said.

Relatives and congregants told of a chaotic scene, with women and children hiding in closets as the gunman opened fire.

Sukhwindar Nagr, of Racine, said he called his brother-in-law's phone and a priest at the temple answered. Nagr says the priest told him his brother-in-law had been shot, along with three priests.

Nagr said the priest also said women and children were hiding in closets at the temple.

He and others -- the men in turbans, the woman in flowing traditional clothes -- waited for news in a parking lot across from the temple, separated from the building by a crowd of police in tactical gear, armored vehicles, FBI agents in protective vests, ambulances and fire trucks.

"Our little temple. Right here in Oak Creek," said temple member Arpeet Singh in disbelief. "The biggest question we have, is this a hate crime?"

Inderjeet Singh Dhillon, a temple secretary, was en route when a friend called from the scene to tell him to be careful. "Why?" he asked. "We've never had any problem here."

Harinder Kaur, 22, of Oak Creek said she was with a friend Sunday morning when her friend received word of the shooting. The friend's grandfather was shot, Kaur said, and the extent of his injuries remains unclear.

"I would just like to know what this person's motive was," she said. "We are like family."

Harvinder Ahuja, a member of the temple, was at a different church Sunday morning when the shooting took place. The incident took place more than an hour before an 11:30 a.m. service, which 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."

Harpreet Kapur is a temple member but he too had planned to go to a different temple Sunday. He watched live TV reports about the attacks on his people, who he described as "harmless."

"It felt as tragic for me as9/11," he said. "I felt the same thing I felt that day," he said, cradling his young son.

Jagpal Singh was on his way to the temple when he heard of the shooting. "If it had been another hour, I'd have been there," he said.

He went to the bowling alley after the shooting, and hé said people were desperate to explain why they were targeted.

"Over and over, (the congregants) keep asking themselves. . .Did we do anything wrong," he said.

The congregation of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin has between 350 and 400 members, according to its website. The temple also contains several living quarters for priests.

It was founded in 1997 by a few dozen families that gathered regularly on the south side of Milwaukee in rented facilities before building a permanent facility in Milwaukee. After outgrowing the "Gurudwara," meaning house of worship, the congregation completed construction on a 17,500-square-foot temple  in Oak Creek, just south of Milwaukee, a few years ago.

According to the temple's website, it includes parking for 100 cars, a library and educational space for children, and living quarters.

There is one Sikh temple in Chicago, in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the Far North Side, according to police. In light of the tragedy in Milwaukee, the district commander is giving the temple special attention, police said in the statement.

A 500-year-old religion, the Sikh faith originated in India. It is a monotheistic religion, meaning followers believe in one God. Religious institutions operate without a central government, relying instead on religious communities at-large.

"It’s a democracy," said Surinderpal Singh Karla, a delegate of the World Sikh Council and congregate of the Sikh temple in northwest suburban Palatine. "It all depends on the individual community."

Sikhism was founded by Sri Guru Nanak Sahib Ji and follows the teachings of nine "Gurus."

"Guru means a leader who takes a person from darkness to light, meaning from ignorance to knowledge," Karla said.

The Sikh holy book, called the Guru Granth Sahib, contains scripture and philosophy. "It teaches that God is there for everybody and we are all his sons and daughters," Karla said.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that he and his wife Michelle were "deeply saddened" by the shooting. The White House said the president was briefed on the shooting by FBI Director Bob Mueller, Chief of Staff Jack Lew and Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan, and that the president had called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi and trustee of the Sikh Temple Charanjeet Singh to express condolences.

The full statement from Obama:

"Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn of the shooting that tragically took so many lives in Wisconsin. At this difficult time, the people of Oak Creek must know that the American people have them in our thoughts and prayers, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded. My Administration will provide whatever support is necessary to the officials who are responding to this tragic shooting and moving forward with an investigation. As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family."

Mitt Romney, the presumed GOP presidential challenger, released a statement calling the shooting a "senseless act." The full statement reads:

"Ann and I extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims of today's shooting in Wisconsin. This was a senseless act of violence and a tragedy that should never befall any house of worship. Our hearts are with the victims, their families, and the entire Oak Creek Sikh community. We join Americans everywhere in mourning those who lost their lives and in prayer for healing in the difficult days ahead."

Tribune reporters John Huston and Erin Meyer contributed to this report.

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