April 18, 2021 10:09:28 am
For decades now, Sikhs have come by the thousands to Central Indiana seeking good jobs, quiet lives and affordable homes. Some became doctors or police officers, but many others worked as truckers or in warehouses, toiling overnight and out of the public eye to support their families.
They were people like Jaswinder Singh, who was active at his temple and was excited about his new job. And Amarjeet Kaur Johal, a grandmother in her 60s who loved to watch Indian soap operas. And Amarjit Sekhon, who had two teenage sons. And Jasvinder Kaur, who planned to make her famous yogurt this weekend for a family birthday party.
But late Thursday at a sprawling FedEx facility near the edge of city limits, Singh, Johal, Sekhon and Kaur were among eight people killed by a gunman who had previously been investigated by the FBI and whose motives the police have still not described. The gunman also killed Matthew Alexander, Samaria Blackwell, Karli Smith and John Weisert before killing himself at the FedEx facility where he used to work.
The deaths, and the gunshot wounds suffered by at least seven others during a shift change on a chilly night, jolted a nation where mass killings are commonplace. At least four of the victims were members of the Sikh community, and the attack renewed the fears of American Sikhs, who have over the years been accosted for wearing turbans and attacked in a house of worship.
“The shock wave went through the entire Sikh community,” said Kanwal Prakash Singh, who has watched the Indianapolis-area Sikh population grow from a handful of individuals to thousands since he arrived in the late 1960s. “Why would a 19-year-old,” he asked, “do that to these innocent people?”
The gunman, identified by the police as Brandon Scott Hole, had in 2020 been reported to the police by his mother, who warned last year that he might attempt “suicide by cop,” officials said. At that time, authorities seized a shotgun and placed him in detention for mental health reasons.
Hole was armed with a rifle during the attack at FedEx, officials said. His family released a statement Saturday that apologized to the victims and said, “We tried to get him the help he needed.” Authorities have not said whether hate or bias might have played a role in the attack.
Members of the Sikh community still recall the painful aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when, in a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, some Americans also targeted Sikhs with taunts of “Go home” or “Osama bin Laden.” And Sikhs continue to mourn the killing of six people by a white supremacist at a Wisconsin temple in 2012.
“We don’t know whether this was targeted or a coincidence,” said Dr. Sukhwinder Singh, 29, a leader at his gurdwara, or Sikh temple, southeast of Indianapolis. “We are all so numb. This is something that will take weeks to process.”
As vigils were planned Saturday across Indianapolis, the grief was not limited to the Sikh community. Flags atop the Indiana Statehouse were at half-staff. And in the parking lot of a Baptist church on the city’s west side, activists whose families had been impacted by gun violence gathered to express their support.
Weisert, who at 74 was the oldest victim, had once been a mechanical engineer and liked to play country and western and bluegrass music on his guitar, said his son, Mike. He had been considering retirement.
“He was hunched and arched over with his back,” Mike Weisert said. “The job was killing him by inches, slowly. His career had been winding down, and some of us were worried.”
Alexander, 32, had once attended Butler University. He loved to watch St. Louis Cardinals baseball and had worked at FedEx for several years, according to a friend, Ryan Sheets. He had recently bought a home in Avon, an Indianapolis suburb, Sheets said.
“Matt was someone who was the perfect friend,” Sheets said. “Not a jealous bone in his body; he was generous.”
Blackwell, 19, had worked as a lifeguard and dreamed of becoming a police officer, her parents said.
“On the court or the soccer field, she had a tough game face, but that quickly turned to a smile outside of competition,” Blackwell’s parents said in a statement provided by a family friend. “Samaria loved people, especially those of advanced age. She always found time to invest in the older generation, whether it was by listening or serving.”
Smith, also 19, was a softball player and fan of hip-hop music whose family said she graduated from high school last year. “She was the kind of girl that if she saw someone having a bad day, she’d go out of her way to make them smile,” said her brother, Brandon Smith. “She made a lot of people happy.”
At Sikh temples across Indianapolis, members gathered Saturday to mourn, pray and reflect on the circumstances of the shooting. Many of them described the victims from their community as hard workers, dedicated to their families and committed to their faith, which is known for its tradition of service, including supporting victims of natural disasters and organizing food drives during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many Sikhs were among the 875 employees at FedEx’s 300,000-square-foot sorting facility near Indianapolis International Airport where parcels are whisked away into an automated system where they are digitally scanned, weighed and measured, shuttled around by conveyor belt and sorted. A job posting for package handlers at the facility promises up to $17 per hour.
Jaswinder Singh, a new hire at FedEx who was excited to receive his first paycheck, was a daily presence at a temple in Greenwood, just outside Indianapolis, where he would cut vegetables for temple visitors, mop the floors and serve food. He sometimes stopped by the temple before heading to work.
“He was a simple man,” said Harjap Singh Dillon, whose sister was married to one of Jaswinder Singh’s sons. “He used to pray and meditate a lot, and he did community service.”
Jigna Shah, who got to know Sekhon through their temple, said her friend was a regular at Sikh services, where she prepared lentils and served food to visitors. “She was a very sweet person,” Shah said. “She was like an aunt to our family.”
Rimpi Girn said Sekhon, her aunt, had moved to Indiana from Ohio to be closer to family. Sekhon began working at FedEx about six months ago on an overnight shift from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m., Girn said, and had two sons, ages 14 and 19.
“We can’t even think of what to tell him,” Girn said of the younger son. “All of a sudden last night, his mom went to work, and she never came back today.”
Girn also knew Kaur, the mother of her sister-in-law. She said Kaur had planned to make a yogurt recipe that she had perfected for her granddaughter’s second birthday on Saturday and hoped to soon get a driver’s license.
“And today we’re gathering to plan a funeral,” Girn said.
With few details being provided by law enforcement by Saturday afternoon, there was debate within the Sikh community about whether bias motivated the shooting and about how they should discuss that possibility in public. Some members of the community suggested it may have been a tragic coincidence in a country awash in gun violence, while others were skeptical of that conclusion.
“These events didn’t take place in a vacuum,” said Taranjit Singh, 27, a history teacher at an Indianapolis school, after he and others at his temple met to discuss what language to include in a news release about the shooting. “There is no way you can’t talk about gun violence and white supremacy.”
As the Sikh population in Indianapolis grew over the past few decades, as many as 10 temples opened across the city and its suburbs. A Sikh Day parade became part of the city’s social calendar. New community members continued to come to Indiana, some directly from India, but many others from states on the East and West coasts.
Johal, matriarch of her family of 25, followed that path to Indiana. Like many others in the community, she moved to the United States decades ago to be closer to her children and their families, part of a broader wave of Sikh migration to North America that began in earnest in the 1980s. She lived for a time in California before coming to Indianapolis.
Johal, a FedEx employee for about four years, had worked a half-shift Thursday and was planning to celebrate a relative’s birthday when she got home that night. She was waiting for her carpool outside the building when she was shot, a grandson said.
“We all told her there was no need for her to work,” said Komal Chohan, 25, a granddaughter. “She could stay home and live leisurely, spending time with her grandchildren. But she wanted something of her own, she wanted to work, and she was great at her job. She built a community at FedEx.”
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