ELKHART — Outside, a red neon sign glows in the late morning sun: “Open.”
Messages scrawled on the exterior of Saleh’s Market document the grief felt by those who shopped at the store and knew the clerk there, Pawan Singh. “Singh: A life taken so young for no reason!! You always had a smile no one will forget,” reads one.
Inside, behind the front counter, David Almanaseer, speaking Monday, Sept. 9, says life goes on. “You got the whole neighborhood to feed. It’s not about one individual,” he says. “You got to keep milk in the fridge. You got to keep eggs in the fridge.”
Questions persist and sadness lingers four days after the double shooting and killing at Saleh’s of Singh, 20, and Jagtar Bhatti, 55, owner of the small shop. But the store, at the southeast corner of Middlebury and Madison streets east of downtown Elkhart, is open and those left behind manage as they can.
“I was hurt, extremely hurt,” says Bill Sinclair, who lives above Saleh’s and helps out at the store. He was in a back room frying food at the time and, on hearing loud bangs — shots fired — rushed to the front of the store, ultimately discovering the bodies of Bhatti and Singh.
After the hurt, Sinclair’s emotions turned to anger. Now the main sentiment is sympathy for the survivors of the two slain men who, Sinclair says, have roots in the Indian state of Punjab.
One man has been arrested on a preliminary charge of murder, Kevin Moore, 28, of Elkhart. Beyond that, authorities aren’t saying much. “At this point any further comment on this incident would harm the investigation,” Elkhart police Lt. Michael Sigsbee said in an email Monday.
Status of second suspect unknown
That’s not to say others aren’t talking and speculating.
Authorities originally said after the incident last Thursday that they were searching for two or more suspects, and Sinclair said two people were seen fleeing from Saleh’s immediately after the killings. On hearing shots, he exited the store and came across two girls headed to school. They told him they saw two masked suspects fleeing, one on foot, one on bike.
Inside Saleh’s, Almanaseer, behind the counter, and three patrons, young women eating chips, are discussing the case, wondering what may have motivated the violence. A plastic container for donations for Singh’s survivors sits on the counter, “Donations for Singh family” written in black marker across one side.
The killings occurred in an apparent robbery attempt, Almanaseer says, but he wonders why someone would have robbed a store early in the morning, when only a few sales would have been rung up. The call for the shootings came in at 9:33 a.m. last Thursday.
“What’s he going to rob at 9 a.m.?” says Almanaseer, who now runs an Elkhart bar and eatery. “Too many questions.”
Either way, he says you can’t let such tragedies spook you too much. His uncle owns the building housing Saleh’s, and Almanaseer, who operated the market before Bhatti took over, stepped in for Bhatti’s survivors to temporarily help run the place.
“The only fear is up there,” says Almanaseer, pointing up. “That’s the only guy I fear.”
Plus, there’s a need for a store like Saleh’s, and the overwhelming majority in the older, working-class neighborhood are decent people. “There’s a lot of good people here. Just a few ignorants in town,” says Almanaseer, now standing in front of Saleh’s.
As if to demonstrate that, a woman stops to compliment Almanaseer on his young daughter, standing beside the man. “You know you’re a princess?” the woman tells the girl.
The many messages written on the exterior of Saleh’s in the wake of the killings and the offerings on the sidewalk in front of the store — balloons, teddy bears, flowers, even a vodka bottle — also testify to the neighborhood sentiment. “RIP. We will miss you guys so much. You were loved,” says one.
‘A ticking time bomb’
Moore was a common face inside Saleh’s, apparently. “He’d be in and out that door like it was home,” says Sinclair.
As he describes it, Moore could be erratic — threatening one day, apologetic over his behavior the next. He wonders if the suspect harbored some sort of animosity toward the operators of Saleh’s.
“Let’s put it this way, he was like a ticking time bomb,” Sinclair says.
Accordingly, he counsels a measure of caution. Even before, Sinclair says he had suggested installing a bullet-proof window to shield the cashier at Saleh’s from customers. He still thinks that’s a good idea.
Still, like Almanaseer, he’s not suggesting shuttering the operation. The family of Bhatti and Singh, for one thing, still need a livelihood.
“They got bills to pay,” he says. “Life goes on for the living.”