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Gurmej Atwal, Sikh Man, Dies After Possible Hate Crime Attack

Surinder Singh And Gurmej Atwal

LIEN HOANG   04/15/11 09:21 PM ET   AP

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The death of an elderly Sikh man on Friday has turned the work of police into a double homicide investigation as they try to determine whether a shooting in a Northern California suburb last month was a hate crime.

Gurmej Atwal, who was 78, had lost the use of most of his organs after being gunned down in near Sacramento on March 4, his son, Kamaljit Atwal, told The Associated Press. His father had been on a ventilator and unable to talk for most of the time he had been in the hospital.

"We are in a great grief," Kamaljit Atwal said.

But his father did speak briefly with Elk Grove police, who said he and his friend, Surinder Singh, might have been targeted because they wore turbans, which often are confused with the head coverings of Muslims.

Singh, who was 65, died the day of the shooting.

Police said Atwal gave a description of a suspect, which they would not release. Sgt. James Fuller said his department is working overtime on current leads, but the description has been among the most useful. He called Atwal's death "tragic."

"It just adds to the senselessness of the whole investigation," Fuller said.

Atwal and Singh were shot during one of their regular afternoon strolls together in the suburb just south of the state capital.

The violence provoked repeated calls for tolerance from the community, which has collected $52,000 in reward money to go to anyone who provides information that would lead to an arrest.

The shooting also was denounced on the floor of the state Legislature this week. Lawmakers, some wearing turbans as a sign of solidarity, attended American Sikh Day on Wednesday outside the Capitol.

Atwal is survived by 10 grandchildren, four children and his wife, Balbir Kaur. He was born and raised in Punjab, India, before retiring and moving to the U.S. to live with his son.

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Filed by Anna Almendrala  |