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updated: 9/7/2012 11:12 AM

Not easy to divide Sikh temple-shooting donations

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  • Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations poured in from around the world and temple officials are treading carefully as they figure out how to distribute the money. Aware of arguments that flared among victims' families after previous mass shootings in the U.S., Sikh leaders are relying on an outside expert to figure out the fairest way to share the funds.

      Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations poured in from around the world and temple officials are treading carefully as they figure out how to distribute the money. Aware of arguments that flared among victims' families after previous mass shootings in the U.S., Sikh leaders are relying on an outside expert to figure out the fairest way to share the funds.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

OAK CREEK, Wis. -- Officials at the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee are treading carefully as they figure out how to distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations that have poured in from around the world after a deadly shooting rampage last month.

The Sikh community in suburban Milwaukee has always been close-knit, and the members drew even closer after the shooting. But temple leaders know even the closest of bonds can unravel when money gets involved.

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Aware of arguments that flared among victims' families after shootings in Colorado and at Virginia Tech, Sikh leaders are relying on an outside expert to figure out the fairest way to share the funds.

"You never really know what will happen when there's money involved, but we're doing our best to safeguard against any problems," said Amardeep Kaleka, whose father was among the Sikhs killed. "The community has already suffered. If there's any infighting there will only be more suffering."

The collections are expected to total between $500,000 and $600,000. The outpouring followed a rampage in which a man with ties to white supremacy groups killed six worshippers and wounded two others before killing himself. His motive may never be known.

While the Sikh community appreciates the donations, figuring out how to distribute them could be difficult.

Those killed ranged in age from a 41-year-old mother of two who was her family's primary breadwinner to an 84-year-old man who retired long ago. One of the people who was wounded didn't have health insurance and was hospitalized in critical condition for a month. He was upgraded to serious condition Wednesday.

Do all families get equal amounts? Or does an arbitrator impose value judgments, deciding whose life or earning potential was worth more than another's? Does the money go just to the families of those injured or killed? Or does it also go to those who were in the temple at the time of the shooting and were emotionally traumatized?

"No one wants to be callous, but there are finite resources," said Kaleka. "Some hard decisions will have to be made."

In other shooting rampages, victims' family members haven't always been happy with those decisions. Last week, relatives of some of the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting victims lashed out because fundraisers who collected more than $5 million had so far given no more than $5,000 to each family. After the Virginia Tech shooting, two family members who lost loved ones sued over how the money was distributed.

One big difference between those shootings and the one in Wisconsin: In Colorado and Virginia, the victims were strangers who happened to be in the same area together; at the Oak Creek temple, the worshippers know each other. It's not yet clear whether that will avert disagreements over the funds.

To help them navigate any thorny issues, temple officials turned to lawyer Ken Feinberg, a victims' attorneys and claims expert who directed victims' payments after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010 and the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

Feinberg told The Associated Press he recommends the temple act swiftly, saying the families need money now and won't benefit from a long delay. He also recommended giving the families of the dead equal amounts, even if one victim was 84 and another was 41.

"You would treat everyone exactly the same. All lives would be equal," Feinberg said. "That's the only way to avoid the fairness argument. If anyone's unhappy there's an outlet for anyone who wants to litigate."

Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, acknowledged Feinberg's advice might not sit well with some people, but said the alternative -- trying to determine how much more one life is worth than another -- is also difficult.

"You're in a tough spot either which way. It's very murky territory," he said.

Despite Feinberg's suggestion that the donations be distributed quickly, temple leader Kulwant Singh Dhaliwal said the board of trustees plans to proceed deliberately. He said he expects the process to take weeks if not months.

Some victims' expenses could also be covered by federal funds, administered through the state Crime Victim Compensation Program. Those who are wounded or suffer emotional harm in a crime can receive up to $40,000.

That could include the 16 people who hid in a pantry for two hours when the gunfire began.

At least one of those victims plans not to seek any compensation, either from the state or from the donations.

Belhair Dulai said his wife was injured when a bullet caused a piece of granite countertop to ricochet and lodge in her foot. Despite her pain, he said, she felt the same as other community members felt: The money should be reserved for those families who suffered real loss.

"She doesn't care about the money. There are a lot more important things than that," he said. "What they decide, it doesn't matter. There are other people in the community that need more attention."

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