A Colorado man was charged with a hate crime on Tuesday for allegedly telling a Sikh store owner to “go back to your country” before running him over with a car.
In addition to the felony hate crime charge, the 36-year-old suspect, Eric Breemen, faces 16 other charges, including attempted murder, for the late April incident, The Associated Press reports.
The Lakewood store owner, Lakhwant Singh, said he’s glad Jefferson County authorities are “recognizing the role that hate played in my horrible attack.”
“I am so very grateful to everyone ― Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike, from Lakewood, elsewhere in Colorado, across the country, and beyond ― who have stood with me and my family in this incredibly difficult time,” Singh said in a statement released by the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group that is representing the store owner.
According to the Sikh Coalition, Breemen entered Singh’s Two Angels Liquors store on April 29, damaging numerous items, shouting profanities at Singh and his wife, and repeatedly telling the couple to “go back to your country.” After Breemen left the store, Singh went to the store’s parking lot to photograph Breemen’s license plate in order to report the incident, the Sikh Coalition stated. Breemen then ran over Singh with his car, the coalition alleged.
Breemen later told police that he believed Singh was an “Arab,” according to the Sikh Coalition. The store owner wears a turban and beard as part of his faith.
Singh suffered a broken pelvis and injuries to his arms, legs, head and across his body, the group said. The store owner spent a month in the hospital and another month in a rehabilitation facility, according to the coalition.
Breemen denied threatening Singh and told police that the store owner had jumped in front of his car, according to a police report obtained by AP. A witness refuted Breeman’s claim, according to the police report.
Breemen is being held on a $50,000 bond at the Jefferson County jail, ABC affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver reported.
Prosecutors told AP that their investigation was delayed by the severity of Singh’s injuries, his long stay at the hospital and the coronavirus restrictions. Investigators recently conducted their first in-person interview with Singh after the store owner’s release from the hospital, First Judicial District Attorney Peter Weir said.
“This is a very serious case and another example of the challenges we face in the criminal justice system during this public health emergency,” Weir said.
The long wait for a hate crime charge caused a great deal of uncertainty for both Singh and for Colorado’s Sikh community, the Sikh Coalition’s legal director, Amrith Kaur, told HuffPost. Kaur said she understood that police and prosecutors weren’t able to conduct face-to-face interviews because of the pandemic. Still, she said, officials weren’t diligent about following up with Singh or his wife to set up a conversation via video or phone call.
“Once local community members reached out to us to connect us with Mr. Singh and Mr. Singh brought the Sikh Coalition on to advocate on his behalf, we sent a letter laying out all of the facts and asking that the D.A.’s office interview Mr. Singh and his wife,” Kaur said. “In my experience as a former criminal prosecutor, this is highly unusual and not the way typical investigations are conducted. That seems problematic to me.”
After the coalition got involved, Kaur said they realized that the way Colorado’s hate crime law was being interpreted by local officials seemed to be at odds with how similar statutes are interpreted elsewhere. In Singh’s case, the law was being interpreted as requiring bias to be the entire reason the defendant caused bodily injury to their victim, Kaur said. But in other localities, hate crime charges can be filed when bias is part of a mix of potential motives, including mental health issues, she said.
“I believe this misinterpretation played a role causing resistance to the inclusion of these charges, as it sets the bar as nearly impossibly high to bring hate crime charges in certain cases — especially those that include violence which could be induced as a result of multiple factors,” Kaur said.
In late June, over two dozen organizations signed a letter asking for hate crime charges to be filed in Breemen’s case in solidarity with the Sikh Coalition ― including local gurdwaras, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Anti-Defamation League’s local chapter and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“Hate crimes don’t just affect the victim — they impact everyone in the community,” Kaur told HuffPost.
The Sikh community, whose faith originated in the Punjab region of South Asia over 500 years ago, has had a presence in America for over 100 years. Sikhs immigrated to the West Coast in the late 1800s to work on farms or for railroad and lumber companies.
Despite this long history in the U.S., Sikh Americans continue to experience discrimination. They are the third-most-targeted religious group in the country, according to the latest FBI Hate Crime Statistics Report, behind Jews and Muslims.
Kaur called prosecutors’ decision to charge Breeman with a hate crime a “resounding victory” for Singh and for other minorities who are threatened by bias and bigotry.
“Adding these charges sends a clear message: Hatred is not welcome in Jefferson County, and those who are targeted for being different know that this community will acknowledge it and stand with them in solidarity,” she said in a statement.