By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 14, 2002
MESQUITE, Tex. -- Behind the counter of the Shell station here, Alka Patel is at work, selling gas and cigarettes and chewing gum and lottery tickets. At her feet, crammed into the tiny space, her teenaged son toils at his homework.
It was at this exact spot last Oct. 4 that her husband, Vasudev Patel, was shot dead. His killer, Mark Anthony Stroman, left the money behind.
His motive for the crime -- less than a month after the terrorist attacks -- wasn't robbery, but retribution. Stroman said he wanted "to retaliate on local Arab Americans, or whatever you want to call them."
Patel, 49, was an immigrant from India. His murder was one of more than 80 hate crimes -- against Arabs, Muslims and others whose appearance made them targets after the terrorist attacks -- that authorities have prosecuted in the past year.
At least a dozen murders are being investigated as hate crimes by authorities. Families of those victims say they share the grief of the families of those who perished at the World Trade Center and Pentagon and who were aboard the jetliners that crashed that day. But amid the commemorations and observances of the first anniversary of Sept. 11, they feel forgotten.
Many of them will gather today for a ceremony in Mesa, Ariz., where another Indian immigrant, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot to death last Sept. 15 as he planted flowers outside his Chevron station. His alleged killer -- Frank Rogue -- had raged at a bar of wanting to kill "ragheads" responsible for the terrorist attacks, police said.
"If it wasn't for September 11, my husband would still be here," Alka Patel said from behind her counter. "Why shouldn't our families be treated the same? I feel like we all have the same story."
The Patels' story here began when they moved to the Dallas area from India, he in 1982 and she in 1987, when they were married. As with generations of immigrants before them, the United States offered the opportunity for a better life. They opened the Shell station in the middle-income suburb of Mesquite, working behind the counter together.
Most mornings, Vasudev Patel would arrive early to open the station and then call his wife at 6:30 to wake her up so she could get their son and daughter off to school before joining him.
That schedule meant Alka Patel wasn't with her husband last Oct. 4, when Stroman came to the station about 7 a.m. Already in the days immediately after Sept. 11, Stroman had killed a store clerk from Pakistan and blinded a clerk from Bangladesh in separate shootings. Stroman said, "God bless America," fired a .44-cal. bullet into Vasudev Patel's chest and left.
"I did what every American wanted to do but didn't," Stroman, a 33-year-old white supremacist, later said in a television interview. "They didn't have the nerve."
Convicted of Patel's murder, he now sits on Texas's death row. On the day police arrested him, he had planned to go to a Dallas mosque, he told a reporter this summer: "I was going to go in shooting Arabs."
Seeking attention and money for families of backlash murder victims, she has written letters, sent e-mails and spent hours on the phone to national and local charities, only to be turned away and told to seek help somewhere else.
There has been plenty of talk, Cordell said, about America's renewed sense of patriotism and the overwhelming spirit of compassion and sharing that sprang from the attacks. But when asked to share with the hate crime victims' families the millions of dollars collected over the past year, the charities have all balked, Cordell said.
She is attending today's ceremony in Arizona, one of 800 people expected for an interfaith memorial service in Red Mountain Park that will include speeches from religious and government leaders and a candlelight dinner.
"It's absurd for everyone to give lip service and not do anything," said Cordell. "These are people who were just going about their daily lives. But the charities have given every explanation of why their deaths don't count as direct victims of September 11."
Representatives of the national charities say the issue is not so simple. The September 11th Fund, as of mid-August, had collected $506 million and distributed about $336 million, the majority through cash payments to families of victims and people who lost their jobs or businesses. The group said that its intent has always been to do something for families of hate crime victims, but that proving direct links to the attacks has been difficult. Also, they said, the issue was clouded because families such as the Patels received temporary assistance from a state fund to assist crime victims.
"We were the only group to say that we wanted to help these people," said Jeanine Moss, a spokeswoman for the fund. "What our board didn't say is how we're going to do it."
The Red Cross said that the murders -- though abhorrent -- did not match its intent for collecting the money.
"The Red Cross and the Liberty Fund are there to help people who were directly affected," said Sharena Summerall, a Red Cross spokeswoman. "It's a bit of a stretch to say that [the murders] wouldn't have happened without September 11."
But Amardeep Singh, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York, said there is no stretch in noting the significant increase in the number of hate crimes -- including beatings and vandalism -- reported after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Although there are no firm nationwide statistics, Human Rights Watch has reported increases in many areas. In Chicago, for example, four hate crimes were reported against Arabs and Muslims in 2000, compared with 51 in just the three months following last September's attacks.
"We're seeing the repeat of a continuing trend," said Singh, who has been studying the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. "It happened after the Persian Gulf crisis, the Oklahoma City bombing and after the downing of [TWA] Flight 800 in 1996. . . . Initially, the government made a tremendous effort to publicly condemn hate crimes and keep them from occurring. But the issue has sort of gone under the radar since then."
"My daughter always complains, 'Mommy, you're not spending time with us, taking us anywhere. All you do is work,' " she said. "But I am the only one in the family to work, buy groceries, go to the bank. . . . I'm the one."
There have been no offers of free counseling, no college scholarships for the children. She now worries -- alone -- about how she will afford college tuition.
It is an odd situation for the wife of a man once known for his generosity in the neighborhood.
"I've come in here penniless and he would give me a full tank of gas until Friday," said Martin Andrews, who came to the station for years.
It was the same for Warren Acrey. "That man," Acrey said, his voice cracking, "would give you the shirt off his back." He still comes to the station and offers to help when he can.
Lilli Story has been Alka Patel's closest friend throughout the ordeal, sitting beside her at the trial and occasionally assisting with her parents and children.
"I've been disappointed and heartbroken that she's gotten no help from anybody," said Story. "She really has no one else to rely on."
So, every day, Patel is behind the counter, her son and his algebra and English books at her feet.
"Sometimes I wish there was a reset button in life," the boy said, "to fix the problems in life. I could tell people not to go to the towers. And my father would be here."