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AFTER THE ATTACK | THE PSYCHIC TOLL

Collateral Damage in War on Terrorism

A Sikh immigrant is killed at his gas station. Suspect shouted: 'I stand for America all the way!'

September 22, 2001|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MESA, Ariz. — Balbir Singh Sodhi was a businessman, not a terrorist. He was Indian, not Arab. He was a Sikh, not a Muslim. But his dark skin and the turban he wore to cover his flowing black hair made him uneasy in the days after the terrorist attacks.

He told customers at his Chevron gas station that he had gotten at least two threats. For days, he scoured stores, unsuccessfully trying to buy a U.S. flag that he could fly outside his business--a symbol to show his love for America.

Today, Sodhi will be cremated and his ashes will be flown back to his native India. The 49-year-old was killed outside his business last Saturday, the victim, police say, of an angry man who was becoming ever more enraged.

Sodhi was the first to die in a nationwide series of attacks against Arab-looking people since hijackers linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network slammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

To his family, Sodhi is as much a victim as those who died in the air crashes. He represents, in a sense, collateral damage in America's new war on terrorism.

"He was killed because of his turban," Sodhi's brother, Harjit, said. "It is what people see on TV. They are confused."

Sodhi was checking on the new landscaping in front his business when he was killed. Police said Frank Roque, a 42-year-old Mesa machinist, opened fire with a .38-caliber handgun as he drove past in his pickup truck.

Roque drove to a Mobil station a few miles away and allegedly fired at a Lebanese American clerk. He missed. Then it was on to a home Roque once owned, where he blazed away again, this time barely missing an Afghan man who was coming out the front door, according to authorities.

Two hours later, Roque was arrested at his home. As he was led away, he shouted: "I stand for America all the way!"

The killing of Sodhi--a gentle and generous man who lived for his faith, family and 12-hour workdays--has roiled the Sikh community.

Central Arizona is home to more than 2,000 devotees of the 500-year-old religion that espouses peace and tolerance. Some have been here for more than 30 years, finding in this largely white, conservative region a safe and prosperous life. Now, many have pulled their children out of school.

"We're supposed to be as strong as steel, as steady as stone. That's our motto," said Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa, a minister and president of Arizona's largest and oldest Sikh temple. "For all of us, this is a test of our courage."

The killing has also rocked the larger Mesa community. Here, on the leading edge of Phoenix's suburban sprawl, people are grappling with Sodhi's death with a mixture of sympathy, anger and shame.

"What this guy who fired the shots did makes me embarrassed and ashamed to be a white man," said Guy Crawford, a heavy-equipment operator. Sodhi "treated everyone so well, he greeted us all, he made us all feel good. . . . Then some white guy goes and shoots him just because of the color of his skin. Disgusting."

Family Migrated From India to Escape Violence

Sodhi's younger brother, Harjit, 40, was the first of four brothers to leave their family farm in the northern Punjab province of India to come to the United States. They sought to escape violence against Sikhs who were seeking an independent state.

"I wanted to save my children. I wanted to save my wife, save my family," Harjit Sodhi said. "I sat back, and thought: 'Where can I go? Where can I send my family?' The U.S., I thought, was the best, the most wonderful country. We will be safe there."

One by one, his brothers took the same path, settling first in Los Angeles, working at convenience stores, holding down two jobs at a time. One by one they learned English, saved their money and moved on to start businesses.

Balbir Sodhi, the eldest son, arrived in 1988 and became the family's patriarch in the United States, the man the other brothers consulted for advice.

Sodhi invested his savings in opening a tiny fabric store in downtown Los Angeles. Within months, it failed.

Sodhi's brothers had set down roots in the Phoenix area. Harjit had an Indian restaurant. Lakhwinder ran a gas station. Jaswinder opened an air-conditioning company, naming it American Air Standard.

"America is my country," Jaswinder said, explaining his choice.

The brothers pitched in, bought land and built a second gas station and convenience store in the desert, out where all the new homes were going up.

"You've never seen a gas station that beautiful," Harjit said proudly.

Balbir Sodhi moved into a house across the street, along with two fellow Indians hired to help him run the place.

Sodhi quickly became a beloved figure in the neighborhood of working-class whites. People flocked to the new establishment--partly because they enjoyed bantering with the easygoing Sodhi, but also because there are few convenience stores in the area of modest, low-slung homes.

When the local youngsters used the parking lot as a skateboard park, Sodhi didn't run them off. If anything, he encouraged them.

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