New Elk Grove park to be built in honor of slain Sikh grandpas

Sitak Singh Nijjar, a friend of slain Sikh grandfather Gurmej Singh Atwal, and Atwal's son Kamaljit Singh Atwal, at site where Elk Grove will be built to honor Sikh Americans.
Sitak Singh Nijjar, a friend of slain Sikh grandfather Gurmej Singh Atwal, and Atwal's son Kamaljit Singh Atwal, at site where Elk Grove will be built to honor Sikh Americans. Stephen Magagnini

A little more than five years after two Sikh grandfathers were gunned down on their afternoon stroll through Elk Grove, their diverse city will honor them by building a new park in their memory.

The 5-acre Singh and Kaur Park is believed to be among the first in the nation honoring sacrifices by the Sikh community since Sikhs first came to California in the late 19th century, said Steve Macias of the American Sikh Public Affairs Association. Singh, meaning lion, is part of every Sikh male’s name while Kaur, or lioness, forms part of every Sikh female’s name.

The park will not only showcase Elk Grove’s broad diversity but will contain a section dedicated to Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Singh Atwal, 78. On March 4, 2011, the turban-wearing immigrants were on their Friday afternoon walk on East Stockton Boulevard when they were shot to death in “what is definitely a hate crime,” said Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis.

According to witness accounts, a full-sized gold or tan raised pickup truck drove along the two men around 4:30 p.m. and fired multiple shots from a semiautomatic handgun, said Elk Grove police Detective Kevin Papineau.

Davis and Papineau said the park – which will be built smack in the middle of the city – may produce a much-needed break in the unsolved case.

“I’m still convinced there are people out there who know things that we haven’t got a hold of yet,” Papineau said. Since the City Council approved the park on Wednesday, he said he’s received some tips about the case, although none has proven significant.

“It obviously brought it back to people’s minds,” Papineau said. The reward for information leading to a conviction is now $58,000.

Surinder Singh, a farmer from Punjab, India, was shot and died at the scene, police say. Gurmej Singh Atwal, 78, a retired civil servant from Pharala in Punjab, was shot and died six weeks later. Police said a badly injured Atwal could only answer yes or no to law enforcement questions.

Today, the park site on Ponta Delgada Drive is a blackened patch of land dotted with spiky weeds in the new Madeira East subdivision. When it’s finished and opened by the end of 2017, it will serve as both a memorial to the slain grandfathers as well as to Elk Grove’s rich diversity, Davis said.

Based on census data, the city of 167,000 people in south Sacramento County is now considered the seventh most diverse big city in the nation, Davis said. “We not only have diversity, we have integrated diversity – every park, playground, school and street have diverse people,” Davis said.

Sikh activist Amar Shergill led the community effort to build the park and was able to pack the council chamber when the vote was taken. Shergill said the newly formed American Sikh Public Affairs Association backed the effort, which reflects “the way the Elk Grove community has embraced the Sikhs and their families since the crime.”

The slaying of the Sikhs struck fear into the community, which includes several thousand Sikh Americans.

“My wife and other ladies used to walk every day and after that they stopped and I keep an eye on the road when I go out,” said Sital Singh Nijjar, a friend of Atwal and his family.

Atwals’ son, Kamaljit Singh Atwal, said his family remains in mourning. Every year on March 4 and April 15, the day his father died, Atwal visits the scene of the crime – a concrete wall marked with two white crosses – and lights two candles.

“He raised us, he took care of his grandkids, he walked 6 or 7 miles each day with paper in his pocket to take down notes and ideas,” Atwal said. “His favorite thing was Punjabi newspapers, and he loved to explain what he read to his pals.”

Atwal said his father might have tried to walk to the park, located about four miles south of his home. The Sikh community will surely use it for festivals and special occasions ranging from birthdays to anniversaries and bridal showers, he said.

“I believe this will bring more attention to the case and honor their memories,” Atwal said.

Davis said the killings have ended up bringing about more understanding in the community.

The crime “could have divided our community, but instead it united us,” Davis said. “After the murders, our rallying cry was, ‘Stand together to support your community.’ I can’t think of a better way to plant the flag and say Elk Grove really supports and values our diversity.”

Anyone with information about this case can call Elk Grove police at 916-714-5115 or Crime Alert at 916-443-HELP. Callers can remain anonymous.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini