OAK CREEK, Wis. — An unidentified gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee on Sunday in a rampage that left terrified congregants hiding in closets and others texting friends outside for help. The suspect was killed outside the temple in a shootout with police officers.
Police called the attack an act of domestic terrorism and called in the FBI, but did not provide any details about the gunman or suggest a possible motive. Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards did not say whether the gunman specifically targeted the Sikh community.
During a chaotic few hours after the first shots were fired, police in tactical gear and carrying assault rifles surrounded the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin with armored vehicles and ambulances. Witnesses struggled with unrealized fears that several shooters were holding women and children hostage inside.
One of the first officers to respond to frantic 911 calls seeking help was shot several times as he tended to a wounded victim and was in critical condition, along with two other victims Sunday night, authorities said.
"We never thought this could happen to our community," said 48-year-old Devendar Nagra of Mount Pleasant, whose sister escaped injury by hiding in the temple's kitchen. Other women and children barricaded themselves in closets. "We never did anything wrong to anyone."
Chief Edwards said the FBI will lead the investigation because the shootings are being treated as domestic terrorism, or an attack that originated inside the U.S. He said authorities would not release any more about their investigation until Monday morning, including the names of those killed.
“While the FBI is investigating whether this matter might be an act of domestic terrorism, no motive has been determined at this time,” Teresa Carlson, special agent in charge with the agency’s Milwaukee division, said in a Sunday night statement.
It appeared the investigation had moved beyond the temple, as police and federal agents swarmed a neighborhood in nearby Cudahy, evacuating several homes and roping off four blocks around a house where their attention seemed to be focused.
Milwaukee County sheriff’s spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin said the department’s bomb squad was on the scene, though she had no details about why the unit had been called.
Jatinder Mangat, 38, of Racine, said his uncle Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s president, was one of those shot, but he didn’t know the extent of his uncle’s injuries. When he later learned of the deaths, Mr. Mangat said, "This shouldn't happen anywhere."
Chief Edwards said the gunman "ambushed" one of the first officers to arrive at the temple as the officer, a 20-year veteran with tactical experience, tended to a victim outside, and shot the officer multiple times.
A second officer then exchanged gunfire with the suspect and fatally shot him.
Tactical units went through the building and found four people dead inside the temple and two outside, in addition to the shooter. Two others were wounded along with the police officer, Chief Edwards said.
Many Sikhs in the U.S. worship on Sundays at a temple, or gurdwara, and a typical service consists of meditation and singing in a prayer room where worshippers remove their shoes and sit on the floor.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded more than 500 years ago in South Asia. It has roughly 27 million followers worldwide, mostly in India, with about 500,000 in the U.S. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair, and men often cover their heads with turbans — which are considered sacred.
Sikh groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which they blame on anti-Muslim sentiment. Sikhs don't practice Islam, but their being mostly Indian, plus their long beards and turbans often cause them to be mistaken for Muslims.