ELKHART — Standing on the sidewalk and in the streets, neighbors huddled together as they watched police search for suspects linked to the shooting deaths of two men Thursday morning at a corner convenience store east of downtown Elkhart.
Two employees — Jagtar Bhatti, 55, and Pawan Singh, 20 — were shot and killed at Saleh’s Market, 401 Middlebury St., according to police. A report of a shooting came in to Elkhart city dispatchers at 9:33 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, from the store. Police are searching for two or more suspects.
“They’re like family,” said Bill Sinclair, a family friend who identified Bhatti as the business’s owner and Singh as a cashier. “If I needed anything, all I had to do was ask.”
Sinclair, a part-time worker at Saleh’s Market, said he was in the store’s kitchen when he heard a noise that sounded like the pop of a firecracker. When he went into the main area of the store, he said he did not see anyone. Two girls standing outside told him that two men in masks ran away from the store, Sinclair said. When he went back inside, he saw that Bhatti and Singh had been shot and called 911.
“It very easily could have been me,” Sinclair said, standing across the street from the store.
Sinclair said Saleh’s Market is “a part of the community.”
“This store is a fixture,” said Sinclair, who has been working at the store since 2003. “People, before they start their day, sometimes come to the store.”
Sinclair said the family that runs the business is generous and would help customers every once in a while if they could not afford to buy food. At the same time, he said the owners could not always help out, and customers would get angry. Sinclair said the store has been robbed at least two times. One time, he said, the owner was pistol whipped.
“He spent more money on doctor’s bills than what was taken from the store,” he recalled.
In response to the incident, authorities blocked off the 400 block of Middlebury Street until the early afternoon. Police were on the scene, inside and outside of Saleh’s, and local residents milled in the sidewalks watching the activity.
“I’ve never had any incidents inside the store,” said Michael Misener, who lives on Princeton Street about three blocks away from the scene. “As far as this area, it’s been getting progressively worse. You can tell. You can just sense it.”
“Whoever did this just messed up this neighborhood,” said Ellen Parks, a Middlebury Street resident. “I have lived here for eight months. How can people do this?”
Aric Weekly, who helps stock shelves and coolers at Saleh’s Market, walked to the corner of Middlebury and Madison streets after he saw a crowd of people standing around.
“This is real messed up that this tragedy happened the way it did,” Weekly said.
Nearby schools took precautions as the situation unfolded.
Elkhart Central High School, Mary Beck Elementary and the Tipton Street Center, an alternative education facility, were all placed on lockdowns soon after the report of the shooting, according to Shawn Hannon, senior director of communication and data for Elkhart Community Schools. The lockdowns were lifted around 11:15 a.m., per an advisory from Elkhart police that the facilities could operate normally.
The school at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church was put under lockdown for around an hour, according to a school representative. Shortly after 11 a.m., police told school officials the “area is considered safe,” the representative said, and the lockdown was lifted.