MILWAUKEE (REUTERS) - A 51-year-old Kansas man has been charged with killing an Indian engineer and wounding two other men when he opened fire in a bar in what federal authorities probed on Friday (Feb 24) 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 US President Donald Trump's "America First" position on immigration and jobs has fuelled a climate of intolerance.
A White House spokesman later said that while any loss of life was tragic, it was absurd to link the action to President Donald Trump's rhetoric. Spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters it was too early to guess at the motive for the incident.
Navy veteran Adam Purinton 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 motive for the shooting.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking at whether it was a hate crime. A spokeswoman for the agency said FBI agents and police canvassed the area on Thursday and were continuing their investigation on Friday.
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, the city's police department said.
At least one bystander told the Kansas City Star the gunman shouted "get out of my country" before shooting the Indian victims. He 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."
The suspect fled on foot and was arrested without incident five hours later at an Applebee's restaurant in Clinton, Missouri. He reportedly told an employee there that 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 being transferred on Friday to the custody of Kansas authorities, said Sam Boyd, administrator of the jail in Henry County, Missouri.
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 40km south-east of Kansas City, Sergeant Logan Bonney said by phone on Friday. "We're looking at all aspects of this case and interviewing dozens and dozens of people," Bonney said.
At Kuchibhotla's family home near the Indian tech hub of 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 outside their home.
Through a window, relatives could be seen sitting quietly, one woman wiping away tears.
Many Indians initially welcomed Trump's election, seeing his calls to restrict Muslim immigration as support for their Hindu-majority country. The nation has been at odds for decades with Pakistan, its mainly Muslim neighbour.
But the Trump administration may also have skilled Indian workers like Kuchibhotla in mind as it considers curbing the H-1B visa programme, worrying both India's US$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."
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to an e-mail requesting comment.
The US embassy in New Delhi condemned the shooting, saying in a statement that the United States welcomes people from across the world to visit, work, study and live.
Kavipriya Muthuramalingam, a former colleague of the victim, said his friend was one of the nicest, most gentle people one could meet. "He was non-confrontational, non-controversial, easy-going, always smiling," Muthuramalingam said.
A candlelight vigil was planned for Friday evening at the First Baptist Church of Olathe, across the road from the bar.
Kuchibhotla received a master's in electronics from the University of Texas in El Paso in 2007, according to LinkedIn. He was married but had no children.
His Facebook page, where he called himself "Srinu," said that in 2014 he joined the Kansas office of Switzerland-based navigation device maker Garmin from Rockwell Collins.
Flags at Garmin's offices flew at half-staff on Friday. The company said it was "devastated by the senseless tragedy."
"Srinivas was a valued member of our engineering team and will be greatly missed," Garmin said on Facebook.