At first, the masked man with the long gun appeared to be carrying out a terrifying, but standard, convenience store hold-up.
“He said, ‘Keep your hands up,” the manager of Bottlenecks Food and Drink Shop in Grand Rapids, Mich., who asked not be identified, told WOOD-TV. “Don’t look at me.”
What happened next turned an already traumatic encounter just before midnight on Saturday night into a possible hate crime.
After being handed a bag of money, the gunman took a second employee — a 34-year-old Indian American man who goes by the name “Tony” — into a backroom. Once inside, the suspect ordered the clerk to his knees and stuck his gun inside his mouth, the manager told WOOD-TV.
At that point, the manager recalled, the robber said something along the lines of “I shot people like you overseas in the Middle East.”
The assailant also called the clerk a “terrorist” and suggested he was a member of the Islamic State, according to the Grand Rapids Press.
Tony, as it turns out, is a Sikh from India, the Sikh Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, later confirmed.
“Tony thought, ‘OK, I’m going to die; might as well die fighting,’” the manager told WOOD-TV.
The clerk grabbed the rifle, a struggle followed and — with the barrel of the gun still inside Tony’s mouth — the weapon was discharged.
Instead of killing the clerk instantly, the bullet traveled through his cheek, according to WOOD-TV. The manager told the station that the man fired his gun two more times before fleeing.
The news media reported that the shooting occurred in a storage room that lacks cameras.
“He’s very lucky because it could have been a lot worse, but thank God he’s okay,” the manager said, referring to Tony, who is now recovering at home after being released from the hospital on Sunday.
Grand Rapids Police Sgt. Terry Dixon praised Tony for responding courageously to a dire situation.
“We’re very proud of how he responded in light of this incident,” he told the Press. “This could’ve been much, much worse given the apparent intent of the suspect. If the victim had not fought off the suspect, then this could’ve been a much more serious incident.”
Dixon told WOOD-TV that investigators are approaching the case like an armed robbery and will need more information to determine whether it constitutes a hate crime.
Gurleen Kaur, 23, whose father owns Bottlenecks Food and Drink Shop, told the paper she can’t be sure of what motivated the gunman, but his actions have left residents — particularly those with Indian heritage — on edge.
“It could’ve happened to anyone that looks like us,” she said.
“We’re Americans,” she said.”We’re trying to live normal lives, be Americans.”
Discussing what it’s like to be labeled a Muslim extremist because of his ethnicity, the store manager expressed frustration.
“We shouldn’t be targeted for it because we have nothing to do with it,” he told WOOD-TV. “We are just trying to live our normal lives. Like I grew up here and a lot of my Punjabi friends did. Whether we’re Indian or whether we’re [not], it doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t specifically be going for one race. … We’re not involved in any of it and so it’s just really sad that people are thinking like that.”