Police said Saturday that they don't know why someone gunned down two men frail from heart attacks and advancing years as they slowly ambled through a quiet Elk Grove neighborhood during their daily afternoon walk.
Surinder Singh, 67, died Friday afternoon on the sidewalk along East Stockton Boulevard near Geneva Pointe Drive. Gurmej Atwal, his 78-year-old friend, was shot twice in the chest. His family said he was in critical but stable condition.
In a statement released late Saturday, Elk Grove Police Chief Robert Lehner called on witnesses to come forward and said, "We have no evidence to indicate there was a hate or bias motivation for this crime; however, the obvious Sikh appearance of the men, including the traditional Dastar headwear and lack of any other apparent motive, increasingly raise that possibility."
Lehner also said he had "made preliminary notification" to the local FBI office.
Relatives and friends in the tightknit Sikh community to which the two men belong were not as hesitant to call the shooting a hate crime.
Singh and Atwal, like many Sikh men, had thick beards and wore turbans traditions that have made Sikhs the target of bigotry and violent attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The turban is a big problem for us," said Gurjatinder Singh Randhawa, chief editor of the Sikh newspaper Punjab Mail USA. "We look the same as Afghan Taliban but we are not Taliban."
Randhawa recalled the beating of a Sikh cab driver four months ago in West Sacramento.
The driver told authorities that two passengers had uttered anti-Islamic slurs as they attacked him and then beat a female passenger who tried to stop them. Police have since arrested two men on charges of felony assault with a deadly weapon and commission of a hate crime in connection with the attack.
"A lot of people don't understand where we're from. They think we're Muslim. We're not," said Ram Singh, one of dozens of mourners who gathered Saturday at Singh's home on McGray Way.
Surinder Singh was a truck driver who had worked in both India and Libya before moving to the United States about five years ago, son Harvinder Singh said.
He had recently survived his fourth heart attack.
The senior Atwal moved to the United States in 2001, and the family settled in Elk Grove in 2003.
Both victims lived quiet, suburban lives.
Gurmej Atwal's days consisted of eating breakfast, walking the neighborhood for an hour or so, eating lunch and then walking some more, son Kamaljit Atwal said.
"They didn't even talk to anybody," said Harvinder Singh.
Kamaljit Atwal said his father is a retired civil servant who spent his career in the revenue department of northwest India's Punjab state.
"He is quite a gentle man," the younger Atwal said.
Even neighbors who had never met the victims remembered seeing the bearded, turban-wearing men walking around.
The victims were on East Stockton Boulevard on Friday when they were shot, said police spokesman Christopher Trim. A driver heading north on the frontage road shortly before 4:30 p.m. saw the two men lying on the sidewalk. The driver stopped and called police.
Kamaljit Atwal said skid marks at the scene suggest his father and Singh were victims of a drive-by-shooting.
Police would not confirm that detail.
The shooting took place across the street from a Park-n-Ride lot, and police hope that someone perhaps getting off work and heading to their car might have seen something such as a car speeding away or someone running through the area, Trim said.
A chain-link fence with slats separates the frontage road from Highway 99. It's possible a driver in a large vehicle such as a truck might have been able to see something, Trim said.
Randhawa, the newspaper editor, said his own father, an 80-year-old Elk Grove resident, called to say he was scared.
"My dad used to go every day for a walk two to three hours," Randhawa said. "Now he's bound in his house.
"We have fear in the community."
Trim said police are working with the Sikh community "to try to ease their fears."
Anyone with information about the shooting is urged to call the Elk Grove Police Department Communication Center at (916) 714-5115 or Crime Alert at (916) 443-HELP (4357).