Tattoos on the body of the slain Sikh temple gunman and certain biographical details led the FBI to treat the attack at a Milwaukee-area temple as an act of domestic terrorism, officials said Sunday.
The shootings in Oak Creek, Wis., left seven dead, including the gunman, and three critically wounded. One of the injured was a police officer who was expected to survive.
A federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media refused to say whether the gunman was thought to belong to a hate group or some other violent group because the investigation was still unfolding.
Contrary to multiple panicked reports from the scene, officials say they believe there was only one shooter.
Oak Creek police handed control of the investigation to the FBI on Sunday afternoon.
Federal officials cautioned against thinking that a concrete link to a domestic terrorism group or hate group had been established.
“The investigation will have to continue to see and determine the motive,” said a federal law enforcement official who had been briefed on the early planning for the case. “We don’t know much about the motive at this point.”
Oak Creek police declined to identify the gunman or outline a possible motive.
The designation of “domestic terrorism” under the FBI’s rubric — which was not applied to the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting — implies a political agenda. The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
TMJ 4, citing police sources, reported that two semiautomatic handguns had been recovered and that police were searching a red truck in front of the temple.
Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said that two officers responded to the initial 911 call and that one of them was “ambushed” while checking on a victim and was shot several times. The gunman then shot at the other officer, who returned fire and killed the shooter, Edwards said.
“Because of the heroic actions of our officers, they stopped this from being worse than it could have been,” Edwards said at an afternoon news briefing.
The survivors have been taken from the temple and moved to a nearby bowling alley as officials begin what they described as a lengthy investigative process, he said. The victims’ bodies were expected to remain in the temple until investigators finished examining the scene for evidence, which could take until late into the night.
Officials said it took a long time to clear the scene with SWAT teams because of conflicting reports about multiple shooters. Police later said they think there was only one gunman, who has been described as white, with a large build and in his 30s.
“The city of Oak Creek is outraged by the senseless act of violence that happened in our city today,” Mayor Steve Scaffidi said at a news briefing.
In a statement, President Obama said he was “deeply saddened” by the news. “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,” he said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called the shooting “a senseless act of violence and a tragedy that should never befall any house of worship.”
The Sikh faith originated in India in the 15th century. Male followers wear turbans and women wear head scarves. In the U.S., Sikhs occasionally have been mistaken for Muslims. They have also been victims of hate crimes.
It’s the area’s second mass shooting involving a religious community in the past seven years. In 2005, a gunman killed seven and then committed suicide at a church meeting in Brookfield, Wis.