| A picture of Balbir Singh Sodhi being shown at his memorial service in Phoenix. (AP/PTI)
Phoenix (Arizona), Sept. 9: In a world where memories often outlast shrines, the pain of losing a patriarch hasn’t really left the Sodhi family.
It’s been a year since Sukhwinder Singh Sodhi’s father, Balbir, was shot to death while planting flowers outside the family’s convenience store near 80th Street and University Drive in Mesa.
Authorities said it was part of a post-September 11 hate crime shooting rampage that targeted Balbir, 49, a follower of the Sikh faith, because he wore a turban and a long beard.
Sukhwinder, 29, wears a Diamondbacks baseball cap now instead of a turban. His dark beard is close-cropped.
He says family life was starting to get better until Balbir’s brother, a San Francisco cab driver, was shot and killed there on August 4. “It’s really hard,” Sukhwinder said. “Somebody killed him, and they don’t know why.”
Investigators have said in both cases that the Sodhi brothers were in the wrong places at the wrong times.
Their family is left with the pieces of what was shaping up to be an American dream.
The land of opportunity has been one of hardships for the family, which began moving to America from India around 1984. Sukhwinder’s grandparents still live in India. Balbir was one of eight sons.
His murder grabbed worldwide news coverage.
After coverage of the slaying subsided, Sukhwinder faced a life-altering decision: Keep his Bay area cabbie job or move to Arizona to run his father’s business and support the family.
He settled in Gilbert, joining 45 family members in Arizona. “It made me more responsible,” he said. “Dad always took care of the family.” He paused, then let out a deep breath. “It’s been a tough year for my family.”
Neighbours built shrines for Balbir in front of the gas station where a few sympathy signs made by local high school students still hang on the windows. Letters poured in from around the world, including condolences from UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and President George W. Bush.
In December, the Mesa United Way presented Sukhwinder with a cheque for $48,200 from funds raised for victims of the World Trade Center attacks.
About $40,000 was used to pay for his father’s memorial service, Sukhwinder said. The rest will be rolled into the cost of a public vigil for Balbir and other September 11 victims at Red Mountain Park, 7745 E. Brown Road, at 7 p.m. next Sunday.
Frank Silva Roque faces one charge of first-degree murder in Balbir’s death. He has also been charged with drive-by shooting, endangerment and attempted murder in less serious shootings that same day.
Roque, 43, a Mesa machinist, declined interviews through his lawyer, Dan Patterson. His family also declined comment.
He is being treated for schizophrenia as a Madison Street Jail inmate. If he is convicted, the affliction could preclude a death sentence.
“It was not a hate crime,” Patterson said. “It was precipitated by mental illness.”
Roque is scheduled to be in court on October 25. The trial is set for November 12.
Still, the Sodhi family has found some sense of closure after the tragedies.
Sukhwinder, still trying to embrace Americana, has D-Backs fever. He’s fascinated by a game not entirely unlike cricket in his native country.
He has never been to a game, but he’s full of baseball questions about what constitutes an error and how to keep score.
Support for the family in the quiet, north Mesa neighbourhood where Balbir lived remains strong. “If anything, I think the neighbours are more behind them than before,” said Tom Casella, 38.
“It’s sad, but the guy’s out there taking care of business,” he added. “He’s definitely stepped up to the plate.”