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A Hate Crime Not Treated as One
By CHRISTINA JEWETT
Christina Jewett can be reached at 916.321.1201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sacramento Bee, May 12, 2003
"The sun was shining and Dalvir Sangha had almost finished delivering mail along his Orangevale route Jul. 19, 2002. It was Friday, and he had just called his wife, also a letter carrier, to let her know that he'd be home a bit early. Sometimes he felt nervous delivering mail across the street from a house where he said he heard, very clearly, three months earlier, 'I'll shoot you.' But it didn't cross his mind Jul. 19. As he cut across a driveway near the intersection of Beech Avenue and Fortuna Way, he felt an impact and then a searing pain. He grasped his neck. He looked at his hand: covered with blood. He peered all around. The street was still."
"Now, a slender scar traces a line below Sangha's right ear, where a surgeon removed a pellet four days after the shooting. It's the only outward sign of an incident that overturned his life and sent fear through the Sikh community. Sangha said he's never met Matthew John Burdick, 32, the man who's in jail on charges related to the incident. U.S. attorneys are prosecuting the case as a crime against a federal employee. Although it may never be clear whether the shooting was motivated by race or religion, Sangha believes it was."
" 'We are Sikh people. We are good,' he said. 'I was hurt by a case of mistaken identity.' Since the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, the Sikh people have been pushed into the spotlight. With fund-raisers, parades and festivals, they have come out to counter the perception by some that the turban and long beard that Sikh men wear tie them to Osama bin Laden. Sikh people are from northern India. Their religion is distinct from Muslim beliefs, and like most Muslims, they embrace peace. As they've been forced out of their insular communities - about 10,000 Sikhs live in the Sacramento area - they've also been united by fear. Five days after Sep. 11, a Sikh man was shot and killed at a Phoenix gas station. That same week, a West Sacramento man barricaded the entry to a Sikh temple and defiled a sacred pool of water."
"Ten months later, Sangha's shooting barely reverberated beyond Sikh temples and the Orangevale street where it occurred. Sangha said U.S. attorneys deterred him from talking to the media, saying a copycat shooter could emerge. Sangha now talks openly about the incident. He still wakes up at night with nightmares and pain. His wife says he's more withdrawn. 'He's quieter now,' Rani Sangha said in the living room of their Gold River home, which had been adorned with an American flag even before the Sep. 11 attacks. When Sangha first came to the United States in 1983 from the Punjab region of India, he cut his hair and shaved his beard. He wanted to fit in as a Chicago resident and cab driver. The decision was drastic for him; many Sikh men never cut their hair, believing that God loves people just as he created them."
"But that didn't matter. 'People still looked at me askance,' Sangha said, and called him Gandhi or Hindu - whatever might get a rise out of him. He brushed off the teasing and grew his hair and beard again in 1991 when he moved to the Sacramento area. His hair has been long and wrapped in a turban ever since. His appearance didn't seem to matter after Sep. 11, he said, when many of his postal customers expressed support. 'I had so many good people, I couldn't imagine this would happen,' Sangha said. After the shooting, his customers were among the few people to learn about the incident from postal officials. Even some neighbors didn't know what unfolded 11 days after the shooting, when sheriff's detectives, probation officials and a postal inspector worked together to arrest Burdick."
"This is what federal court records reveal about the Jul. 30 arrest at the Beech Avenue house, where Burdick cared for his grandmother: Sheriff's detectives found marijuana, methamphetamine and a safe. They found a Remington 12-gauge shotgun hidden between a mattress and box spring. A 5 mm 'Blue Streak' pellet rifle was in the pantry, and .44-caliber bullets were in the garage. Detectives arrested Burdick. On the way to the police station, he told them, unprompted: 'I use the pellet gun to shoot a Confederate flag in the garage. It's for target practice. I may have accidentally shot out the window while practicing - a shot may have ricocheted out of the garage.' 'The drugs are mine, but I don't sell them. I give them to friends for companionship. Don't you want to talk to me?' he said."
"Detectives reminded him of his rights. He was jailed until his family posted $30,000 bond Aug. 14. On Oct. 30, he was charged by federal officials with assault with a dangerous weapon, and with drug and gun violations. He has been in jail since. Vicki Cody, Burdick's attorney, declined to comment about the case. In a Dec. letter to a judge, Burdick's mother described him as 'quiet and giving and loving' and dedicated to his grandmother. Sangha said he and his family worried intensely during the 10 days before the arrest, wondering what was taking so long for the Sheriff's Department to act. 'When (Sikh people) heard about it, it sent shivers up our spine,' said Gurpreet Singh, who attends the same temple as Sangha."
"Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Lou Fatur said the arrest was swift and professional. 'Our department did an outstanding job in tracking this down,' Fatur said. 'They even went out there and tracked down the (pellet's) trajectory.' Sangha's wife and their 12-year-old son, Irwin, drove past Burdick's house weeks after the shooting. Rani Sangha said she was curious; Irwin said he was scared. After the shooting, Sangha said he stayed at home for more than a month. He said the pain was intense, and he was afraid to go outdoors."
"Now he's working at the Royal Oaks post office, processing mail in front of a computer. He said his doctor advised him not to lift more than five pounds. He's gained 25 pounds and misses playing with his two sons. 'I'm still suffering, I can't do anything around the house,' he said. Even if he was physically fit to deliver mail, Sangha said he wouldn't. 'My family is scared for me,' he said. He says he has no interest in watching the trial and harbors no anger toward Burdick, though he thinks his accused assailant should serve more jail time."