Authorities in Kansas filed first-degree murder charges against a man accused of opening fire in a bar there, killing one Indian man, injuring two other people and causing fears about bigotry to reverberate across the globe.
Multiple law enforcement agents launched an investigation into the deadly shooting inside Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe, a city about 20 miles southwest of Kansas City. Even as authorities said they had not yet identified a motive for the attack, relatives of the Indian men said they feared the shooting was connected to a climate of fear and xenophobia in America.
The father of one of the people injured pointed to the election of President Trump, who has routinely described a threat posed to Americans from people outside the country’s borders, and pleaded with parents in India “not to send their children to the United States.”
The White House responded by calling the link to Trump’s rhetoric absurd, according to Reuters.
JUST IN: White House, speaking about Kansas shooting, says any loss of life is tragic but absurd to link to president's rhetoric— Reuters U.S. News (@ReutersUS) February 24, 2017
Police identified the suspected attacker in Olathe as Adam W. Purinton, 51, and said he was taken into custody in Missouri a little more than a day after the shooting.
One of the Indian men shot during the attack — Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32 — died in the hospital later from his wounds, the Olathe police said. The other — Alok Madasani, 32, of Overland Park, Kan. — was released from the hospital Thursday.
The shooting also injured 24-year-old Ian Grillot, another patron at Austin’s, who apparently tried to intervene.
Witnesses told the Kansas City Star and The Washington Post that Purinton was thought to have been kicked out of the bar Wednesday night before the shooting took place.
“He seemed kind of distraught,” Garret Bohnen, a regular at Austin’s who was there that night, told The Post in an interview. “He started drinking pretty fast.”
He reportedly came back into the bar and hurled racial slurs at the two Indian men, including comments that suggested he thought they were of Middle Eastern descent. When he started firing shots, Grillot, a regular at the bar whom Bohnen called “everyone’s friend,” moved to get involved.
Authorities have not released many details about the attack. They have not said the shooting was a hate crime, instead saying they are investigating to see if it was spurred by bias. During a briefing Thursday, officials cautioned that it was still early in the investigation and declined to offer a motive for the shooting.
“As far as the motivation in this case and the facts surrounding it … what we want to do is we want to be able to be sure of our facts versus speculation,” Johnson County District Attorney Stephen M. Howe said at the briefing.
On Friday afternoon, Howe noted that Kansas has no hate crime statute, saying that such charges would have to be federal:
KS does not have hate crime statute-those charges have to be in fed court. If convicted in District Court as charged, Purinton faces Hard 50— Johnson County KS DA (@JohnsonCoDA) February 24, 2017
Kuchibhotla and Madasani are both Indian nationals, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in tweets that she had contacted Kuchibhotla’s family, in the southern city of Hyderabad, and was making arrangements to have his remains sent there.
“I have spoken to the father and Mr. K. K. Shastri brother of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Hyderabad and conveyed my condolences to the family,” she tweeted. Two diplomats from the Indian Consulate in Houston were “rushing” to Kansas to assist, Swaraj said.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi also released a statement condemning the shooting. Chargé d’Affaires MaryKay Carlson called it “a tragic and senseless act,” adding that the United States is a “nation of immigrants and welcomes people from across the world to visit, work, study, and live.”
Family members of the two men said in interviews that they feared the current atmosphere in the United States.
“There is a kind of hysteria spreading that is not good because so many of our beloved children live there,” said Venu Madhav, a relative of Kuchibhotla. “Such hatred is not good for people.”
Madhav said that “something has changed in the United States.”
Relatives of the two Indian men shot Wednesday told the Hindustan Times that they were friends who had not antagonized Purinton, and that Purinton had instead “picked an argument” with them and suggested they were illegally in the country.
“They tried to tell him that they had done their [master’s degrees] in Kansas in 2006 and had been staying there with valid work permits,” a relative said.
Madasani’s father, Jaganmohan Reddy, told the Times he has recently begun to ask his son to return home, fearing that he might not be safe in the country’s racially charged atmosphere, with ugly incidents and hate groups on the rise.
“The situation seems to be pretty bad after Trump took over as the U.S. president. I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the United States in the present circumstances,” Reddy said.
Eric K. Jackson, the FBI special agent in charge in Kansas City, said that authorities will work to determine if the attack was “bias motivated,” but said they “need to have time to thoroughly go through the investigation.”
Purinton was taken into custody late Thursday in Clinton, Mo., about 80 miles away, and by Friday afternoon he had been returned to Johnson County, where he was being held in a detention center four miles from Austin’s.
Howe said Thursday that Purinton was charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder. Purinton’s bond was set at $2 million, according to court documents.
It was not immediately clear if Purinton had an attorney. He is scheduled to appear in court for his arraignment on Monday afternoon.
Court records show that Purinton had faced criminal charges in the past for vehicular episodes, one in 2008 for speeding and another pair of counts in 1999 alleging that he was driving under the influence and made an unsafe turn. The Kansas City Star described Purinton as a Navy veteran, former pilot and air traffic controller who lives in “a comfortable suburban home.”
Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Kansas, said Friday that the bureau was continuing to work with local police to investigate and “determine if there were any civil rights violations.”
In a statement Friday, Garmin said the company, which has an office in Olathe, was grieving over the incident and working to support the families of its employees.
“We’re devastated by the senseless tragedy that took the life of one of our associates and friends, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and injured another, Alok Madasani,” the statement said.
The company also sent their thoughts to Grillot, “deemed the ‘Good Samaritan’ for his heroic efforts that fatal evening.”
In a public video released by the University of Kansas Health System, Grillot spoke from his hospital bed about what unfolded. When he heard shots being fired, he crouched under a table. Hearing nine shots, Grillot expected the man’s magazine to be empty, but soon realized he must have miscounted.
“I got behind him, and he turned around and fired at me,” Grillot said. The bullets went through his right hand and chest, fracturing a vertebrae and his neck, and barely missing his carotid artery.
“I’m grateful to be alive,” he said. “Another half inch and I could be dead or never walk again.”
He spent the night in the hospital praying that the two other men had survived the shooting, he said. When he saw Madasani enter his hospital room Thursday morning, “it put the biggest smile on my face,” Grillot said. He soon found out that Madasani’s wife is five months pregnant.
“I was just doing what anyone should’ve done for another human being,” Grillot said, his eyes filling with tears. “It’s not about where he’s from or his ethnicity. We’re all humans. I just felt like I did what was naturally right to do.”
The Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called Thursday for state and federal hate crime charges to be brought against Purinton “in order to send a strong message that violence targeting religious or ethnic minorities will not be tolerated,” CAIR-Kansas Board Chair Moussa Elbayoumy said in a statement.
Elbayoumy also noted that the same day as the shooting, two Kansas men were sentenced for their roles in an assault on a black Somali man in Dodge City, Kan.
According to the Justice Department, Armando Sotelo, 24, was sentenced to two years of supervised release in that case, while Omar Cantero Martinez, 32, was sentenced to 26 months in prison and two years of supervised release for committing perjury during the hate-crimes prosecution into that assault.
In the fall, federal prosecutors charged three Kansas men with plotting to attack an apartment complex, mosque and many Muslim immigrants from Somalia.
A picture has begun to emerge of the men who were shot on Wednesday. According to Kuchibhotla’s LinkedIn account, he held a master’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso and earned his bachelor’s degree at the Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in India. Madasani’s LinkedIn profile said he studied at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and at Vasavi College of Engineering in India.
Kavipriya Muthuramalingam, a good friend of Kuchibhotla’s, said in an interview with The Post that the two were part of a tightknit group of friends who all used to work at the aerospace company Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She said Kuchibhotla was a kind, levelheaded and technically skilled friend who was always smiling. She called him “one of the best people you’ve ever met in your life” and “the perfect example of a decent gentleman.”
Muthuramalingam, who now lives in Irvine, Calif., said she and her fellow Indian friends had not yet begun to discuss any potentially racially biased motives of the shooting. She said “it affects us all on different levels,” but for now, they were all “just focusing on the fact that such a good person was lost.”
She started a GoFundMe account to help relieve medical and funeral expenses for Kuchibhotla’s wife, Sunayana, and their family. By Friday afternoon, the page had raised over $385,000.
Bohnen, the regular at Austin’s who was there that night and who has worked there in the past, said Kuchibhotla and Madasani would come in all the time. Though they kept to themselves, they were always friendly and willing to share a cigarette or take shots of gin with Bohnen.
Austin’s staff gathered at an employee’s house Wednesday night to help each other grapple with the night’s events, and on Thursday, employees went into the bar to help clean up. Owner Brandon Blum wrote on the bar’s Web page that he hoped to reopen Austin’s by Saturday. Outside the bar, flowers were left at a makeshift memorial, the Kansas City Star reported.
“We are so sorry that this happened on our premises,” Blum wrote. “We have never experienced any sort of tragedy like this in our 30 years.”
From his hospital bed, Grillot said he had been planning on going fishing this weekend before the shooting occurred. So after recovering, that was the first thing he looked forward to doing. He also said he hoped to get together with Madasani, “the gentleman I’ve now become best friends with,” and meet his son once he is born.
“After last night, we’re definitely going to be spending a little bit of time together,” he said. “Don’t think it’s going to be at the bar, though. Maybe some grilling in the backyard with a beer or two.”
Annie Gowen and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report, which has been updated since it was first published.