KANSAS CITY/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A white U.S. Navy veteran has been charged with killing an engineer from India and wounding two other men when he opened fire in a Kansas bar in what federal authorities were investigating on Friday as a possible hate crime that shocked the victim’s home country.
The shooting on Wednesday night led news bulletins in India and triggered outrage on social media, where people voiced concern that U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” position on immigration and jobs has fueled a climate of intolerance.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Friday that any loss of life was tragic, but it would be absurd to link the killing to Trump’s rhetoric.
Pratik Mathur, spokesman for the Indian embassy in Washington, said India had expressed “our deep concern over the incident” to the U.S. government and requested a “thorough and speedy investigation.”
Adam Purinton, 51, was charged on Thursday in Johnson County, Kansas, with one count of premeditated first-degree murder and two counts of attempted premeditated first-degree murder, District Attorney Stephen Howe told reporters.
He declined to elaborate on the details of the incident or the gunman’s motive. Local media reports said Purinton often complained about his ill health and was mourning the death of his father.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking at whether it was a hate crime, the official term for crimes motivated by bias or prejudice.
If convicted of the state murder charges, Purinton faces a life sentence without eligibility for parole for 50 years, Howe said.
Purinton is accused of killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and wounding Alok Madasani, also 32, in Austins Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas, on Wednesday evening, police said. At least one bystander told the Kansas City Star the gunman shouted “get out of my country” before shooting the Indian victims.
Purinton is also accused of wounding American Ian Grillot, 24, who was shot as he tried to intervene.
“People call me a hero,” Grillot said in a video released by the hospital where he was undergoing treatment for gunshot wounds to the hand and chest. “I was just doing what anyone should have done for any other human being.”
Kuchibhotla was married but had no children. His wife, identified by media as Sunayana Dumala, told reporters on Friday that the gunman “has taken a life, a very lovable soul, from everyone.”
Kuchibhotla received a master’s in electronics from the University of Texas in El Paso in 2007, according to LinkedIn. His Facebook page, where he called himself “Srinu,” said that in 2014 he joined the Kansas office of Switzerland-based navigation device maker Garmin Ltd from Rockwell Collins Inc.
Flags at Garmin’s offices flew at half-staff on Friday. The company said it was “devastated by the senseless tragedy.”
Dozens of people attended a candle-light vigil Friday evening at the First Baptist Church of Olathe, across the road from the bar. Hundreds of thousands of dollars has been raised through crowdfunding sites for the three victims.
The suspect fled on foot and was arrested five hours after the shooting at an Applebee’s restaurant in Clinton, Missouri. He reportedly told an employee there he needed a place to hide because he had killed two Middle Eastern men, the Star reported.
Purinton, a former Federal Aviation Administration employee, was transferred back to Kansas on Friday and was being held with bond set at $2 million, according to jail records.
He is scheduled to appear in court on Monday. It was not immediately known whether he had hired a lawyer.
“I don’t want people to think of him as a monster or racist man because that’s not who he is,” Adele Mathews, Purinton’s niece, said in a statement released to local media.
Police did not say whether Purinton has faced charges in the past. However, he was not generally known to police in Olathe, a city of 134,000 people about 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Kansas City, Sergeant Logan Bonney said Friday.
At Kuchibhotla’s family home near Hyderabad, relatives backed government calls to ensure the safety of Indians living in the United States.
“The government should voice out this strongly because our brothers, sisters and our relatives are there,” the victim’s brother, Venu Madhav, told Reuters Television.
Many Indians initially welcomed Trump’s election, seeing his calls to restrict Muslim immigration as support for their Hindu-majority country. India has been at odds for decades with Pakistan, its mainly Muslim neighbor.
But the Trump administration may also have skilled Indian workers like Kuchibhotla in mind as it considers curbing the H-1B visa program, worrying both India’s $150 billion IT services industry and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
“Don’t be shocked! Be angry!” Siddharth, a well-known South Indian actor who uses one name, tweeted to his 2.6 million followers in remarks echoed across social media. “Trump is spreading hate. This is a hate crime! RIP #SrinivasKuchibhotla.”
Reporting by Dave Kaup in Kansas City and Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Additional reporting by David Ingram in New York, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Ayesha Rascoe and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker