Murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi
Balbir Singh Sodhi (1949 – September 15, 2001), a Sikh-American gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was murdered in a hate crime in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. This was the first of several cases across the United States that were reported to the police as supposed acts of retaliation for the attacks. Balbir Singh Sodhi, who wore a beard and a turban in accordance with his Sikh faith, was mistaken for an Arab Muslim and murdered by 42-year-old Frank Silva Roque, a Boeing aircraft mechanic at a local repair facility who held a criminal record for an attempted robbery in California. Roque had reportedly told friends that he was "going to go out and shoot some towel-heads" the day of the attacks. Roque was sentenced to death (commuted later to life imprisonment) for first degree murder.
Born in Punjab, India, Balbir Singh Sodhi was a member of the Sikh religion. He immigrated to the United States in 1989 and initially resided in Los Angeles, where he worked as a taxicab driver. He later relocated to San Francisco, where he continued to work in that capacity. He saved enough money to buy a gas station in Phoenix, Arizona and moved there.
On September 11, 2001, members of al-Qaeda, a militant Islamist group, hijacked four airplanes and perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, killing 2,977 victims. According to family members, Sodhi had become distraught by the attacks.
On September 15, 2001, Roque took his Chevrolet S-10 from the Wild Hare sports bar in Mesa, where he had reportedly been ranting about immigrants, and drove to the Chevron gas station owned by Sodhi. Roque shot Sodhi five times from his truck with a .380 handgun, killing him. At the time of the shooting, Sodhi was helping landscaper Luis Ledesma plant flowers around the edge of his gas station.
Roque, who apparently wanted revenge for the 9/11 attacks, mistook him for an Arab Muslim because of the clothes he wore, his turban, and his beard. Roque then drove to a Mobil gas station 10 miles away. Twenty minutes after the first shooting, he shot at a Lebanese-American clerk from his truck, but missed. Roque then drove to his former residence, which had been purchased by a local Afghan family, and fired multiple rounds at the outside of the house. After fleeing the scene of the final shooting, Roque was reported to have gone to a local bar and boasted, "They're investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street."
Within 25 minutes of Sodhi's death, the Phoenix police reported four further attacks on people who either were Middle Easterners or who dressed with clothes thought to be worn by Middle Easterners.
Arrest, trial, conviction
Police arrested Roque the next day, initially unaware of the later shooting incidents. He reportedly shouted slogans including "I am a patriot!" and "I stand for America all the way!" during his arrest. His bail was set at $1 million.
Roque's trial by jury began on August 18, 2003. Defense attorneys argued he was not guilty due to insanity, claiming that he had a diminished IQ and heard relentless voices telling him that Arabs were Satanic and must be killed. Two coworkers testified that Roque was "narrow-minded" and that he hated both immigrants and Arabs. Roque's defense attorney characterized him as mentally ill, and noted that his mother had twice been hospitalized for schizophrenia, a condition which has been shown to appear in those genetically predisposed to it.
On July 19, 2005, Roque was found guilty of an unspecified conspiracy charge while in prison, specified only as a violent crime. On February 27, 2006, he was found guilty of having manufactured a primitive weapon in prison three days earlier. In August 2006, the Arizona Supreme Court changed Roque's death sentence to a sentence of life in prison without parole, citing low IQ and mental illness as mitigating factors. The trial was aired by Court TV in a five-part series.
On August 4, 2002, less than a year after Sodhi's death, his younger brother Sukhpal was shot to death while driving his taxicab in San Francisco, apparently killed by a stray bullet from a nearby gang fight. In response to this second tragedy, Balbir's son Sukhwinder said, "What are you going to do with anger? We like peace and we are a peaceful people."
- Sikhism in the United States
- Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting
- Anti-Middle Eastern sentiment
- Anti-Indian sentiment
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- Balbir Sodhi memorial page on SikhNet
- East Valley Tribune, "Sikhs still living in shadow of Sept. 11", Sept. 16, 2005
- SikhNet, "Two Sodhi Brothers Shot in the backlash of 9/11; Death Penalty overturned"
- Divided We Fall, a film that features Balbir Sodhi's story