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Killer of Sikh after 9-11 called ill

The Arizona Republic


The Arizona Republic

Under an international spotlight, a prosecutor argued in opening statements yesterday that rage and hatred motivated the slaying of a Sikh gasoline station owner five days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But a defense attorney told jurors that admitted gunman Frank Roque is a mentally ill man who heard relentless voices telling him to “kill the devil” before he shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodhi.

Whether Roque, 44, is convicted and executed after the six-week trial depends largely on whether jurors believe he was insane when he pulled the trigger of a .380 semiautomatic handgun with deadly accuracy, hitting the Indian immigrant with all five shots.

After the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in retaliation for 3,000 deaths at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a western Pennsylvania field, “the whole world is watching to see, what kind of punishment will they do to their own terrorist?” said Harjit Singh Sodhi, one of the victim’s brothers.

Defense attorney Dan Patterson does not consider Roque a terrorist, but he said the “patriotic fervor” that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, coupled with Roque’s undiagnosed mental illness, was a catalyst for the murder.

In a packed courtroom and with Court TV filming the trial for a planned five-episode report, Patterson said Roque was profoundly affected by the terrorist attacks and started hearing voices.

“Frank Roque is mentally ill. He no longer hears the voices he heard on Sept. 11, 2001,” Patterson said. “They’ve been stilled because he is on medication.

“The voices said kill the devil,” Patterson said, “not kill the Arabs, not kill the Sikhs. Kill the devil.”

Deputy County Attorney Vince Imbordino said Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, became the unfortunate target of Roque’s rage because he wore a turban as an expression of his Sikh religion.

“It’s a clash of different cultures that came to a deadly end,” Imbordino said. “To some extent, this case is about Sept. 11, but I think the evidence will prove it was a flash point. It goes much deeper.”

In a series of racist statements that began when the World Trade Center collapsed, Roque announced his murderous plans and told a co-worker that he had been treated rudely at a gasoline station on University Drive by “a towel head or a rag head,” Imbordino said.

He told an Applebee’s Restaurant employee on Sept. 11, “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel heads,” the prosecutor said.

Roque told the co-worker, “We should round them all up and kill them. We should kill their children, too, because they’ll grow up to be like their parents,” Imbordino said.

But Patterson said Roque is not a racist and never made racist statements before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“There was a patriotic fervor that developed,” Patterson said. “There was a great deal of anger in our community about the terrorists.”

Patterson said Roque was never diagnosed as mentally ill before the slaying of Singh Sodhi during a 15-minute shooting spree through east Mesa in which drive-by shootings also were committed at a Lebanese-owned gas station and an Afghan immigrant’s home.

But Roque’s mother was twice hospitalized for schizophrenia, and there is a genetic predisposition to the disease, Patterson said. Roque has a history of odd behavior that makes sense only after three of four doctors who examined him found he suffers from a serious mental illness.

Roque ignored pleas from family members to seek mental health treatment after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.

Singh Sodhi emigrated from the Punjab region of India in 1989 and worked as a cab driver in the Bay area until he opened his Chevron station at 80th Street and University Drive in early 2001.

Imbordino said he was shot by Roque as he spoke with a landscaper who was showing him a leaking hose.

Landscaper Luis Ledemsa testified that he was crouching when he heard a truck’s skidding tires. Singh Sodhi’s last words were “don’t kill me” before shots rang out and he collapsed to the ground, he said.

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