Shooting at No. Calif. Sikh temple kills 1  

Source: Contra Costa Times; Jan. 24, 2000

EL SOBRANTE -- A man apparently angered over being prohibited from speaking to the congregation opened fire during closing prayers at a Sikh temple Sunday, killing a temple official and wounding at least one other man.

Police identified the man as Joga Sandher, 30, of Hayward. Temple members subdued him after the shooting and held him for police.

The temple official was pronounced dead at the scene, said Contra Costa Sheriff's Sgt. Joseph Caruso.

Members of the congregation identified the dead man as Ajmer Singh Malhi, in his mid-40s, a mathematics teacher at an Oakland high school and one of the founders of Gurudwara Sahib, the Sikh Center of the San Francisco Bay Area on Hillcrest Road in El Sobrante. He was said to be a secretary of the temple.

The injured man, identified by family members as Gurmeera Singh, 39, was in fair condition at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek on Sunday night with a leg wound. A third victim was treated for an undisclosed condition at Doctors Medical Center San Pablo and was released Sunday evening.

"Many people will weep today," said Amarjit Hasethi, a member of the temple who had worshipped there early Sunday morning. "We lost our best man. Our very best man.

"This is shameless," Hasethi said. "The temple is a place for praying, not a place for shooting."

Scores of people wailed and threw themselves to the ground in grief as news of the attack spread. Many who arrived to worship at the temple found themselves confined to the bottom of the temple parking lot by a police barricade.

The shooting occurred around 1:45 p.m. in the main prayer hall, just before the end of the regular Sunday worship service, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

It occurred during the Hukamnama, a reading from the Guru Garanth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, which serves as both the opening and closing prayer of the worship service, said Bhupinder Singh of El Sobrante, a member of the temple.

"We were very close to being finished (with the prayer)" when the gunman walked in, said Pritpal Singh, brother-in-law of Gurmeera Singh. He was waiting with other family members at John Muir for word on his relative's condition.

"When the bullets finished, the people jumped on (the shooter) and started beating him," Pritpal said.

Pritpal said he feared the shooting would erode the congregation's sense of safety. Usually some 500 people attend the temple, he said. "Now I don't think that many people are going to be going," he said.About 300 people were in attendance at the temple when the shooting occurred. Police recovered an assault-type weapon believed to be the gun used to kill the secretary, Caruso said.

Congregation members said the suspect, Sandher, is a limousine driver in the Union City area.

Worshipers are invited to address the congregation during a brief segment of the worship service, said several congregation members. They said Sandher had been at the service a week earlier and proclaimed that he wanted to be a true Sikh once again and had resumed observing the tenets of Sikhism, one of which is that males refrain from cutting their hair and beards.

Several congregation members said Sandher had risen to speak after the public speaking segment of the service had passed and that Malhi, who was responsible for the smooth running of the service, had turned down the suspect.

"The guy was asking permission to speak," said Jagjit Sahota. "And (the secretary) said, 'We don't have time anymore.' "

Congregation members said Sandher left the temple and returned a short time later.

Caruso said Sandher entered the temple, fired one shot, then came at the secretary and shot him several times.

Joginder Mahal of El Sobrante was in Langar Hall, the dining room one floor below the main prayer hall, when the shooting began.

He said by the time he ran upstairs, several congregation members had tackled Sandher.

Caruso arrived shortly after 2 p.m. and found members of the congregation holding Sandher. He said he handcuffed Sandher and arrested him.

All Sandher said was, "Get me out of here," Caruso said.

Sandher was taken to Doctors Medical Center San Pablo for what appeared to be minor injuries incurred during the scuffle to subdue him, Caruso said. A nursing supervisor said Sandher had been treated there. Sandher was in the custody of authorities Sunday night.