David Olinger

At first I didn’t realize why Lakhwant Singh was missing from the Two Angels liquor store.

Singh, a 61-year-old man with a turban, manned the front counter along with his wife, son and daughter for 15 hours every day, a quintessential long-hours family business.

It quickly became my neighborhood liquor store after I moved back to Colorado after a stint in Texas. For two years I chatted with the family about politics, their homeland, the Sikh culture, their son Onkar’s advanced studies. Then Singh disappeared.

Eventually his son told me why.

His dad was in the hospital, the victim of a vicious hate crime.

A man had barreled into the store late on April 29 in a rage, according to a police report.

He had just been freed on multiple felony charges. He wore an ankle bracelet. He was forbidden to drink, but he had been.

Singh’s wife thought he had shopped at Two Angels before. This time, however, he exploded upon seeing the Sikh owners, the police report states. Without warning he walked up to a counter displaying everything from various liquors to luxury pickles. He knocked them over, strewing glass across the floor and onto the COVID shield protecting the checkout area, according to Singh’s wife. Then he walked out.

Singh and his wife followed him out, carried a case of beer, determined to strike the assailant and get his license number and call police.

Instead, 36-year-old Eric Breemen erupted. “You people don’t belong here!” he yelled, telling them to go back home, according to court records.

Court records explain what happened next.

Breemen climbed into a black VW sedan, backed up — and accelerated toward Singh.

He smashed the case of beer as Singh tried to drop it and flee. Breemen’s sedan caught him, rolling over his body and dragging him. Singh lay in the parking lot with a crushed spine, internal bleeding and head injuries.

A young man came to Singh’s aid as he lay in the parking lot. He had seen the car assault and became a key witness to Lakewood’s hate crime.

Breemen’s crime spree that day didn’t begin or end at Two Angels. He allegedly committed two other crimes that night, one classified as a new menacing case.

He had been jailed previously on five other felony menacing convictions involving a group of young people at a convenience store.

COVID separated Singh from his family during a 65-day hospital stay. He lay alone while the Swedish Hospital staff labored to save his life during a pandemic.

A local Sikh community pressured Jeffco DA Peter Weir to add a hate crime to attempted murder and the other charges Breemen faced.

On July 20, nearly three months after Breemen ran over Singh, the DA finally did. He blamed COVID for the delay.

“We would have preferred to have an opportunity to speak with Mr. Singh personally closer to the time of his assault as we made decisions in this case. However, the severity of Mr. Singh’s injuries and health concerns related to the pandemic only recently permitted a thorough, in-person interview with Mr. Singh by law enforcement,” he said in a news release.

He added that he recognized the intense interest and “public outcry” from the Sikh community.

Singh issued his own statement through the Sikh community: “Colorado is my home and I urge the authorities in charge of my attacker’s case to demonstrate, through action, that crimes rooted in hate will not be tolerated.”

The Sikhs comprise the fifth largest religion in the world. They live primarily in the Punjab region of India, practicing peace and equality amidst global turmoil.

An international flurry of news followed the hate crime announcement, from the West Coast weekly India-west to television networks, the Associated Press and Colorado papers. Then, silence. The media had moved on.

Breemen was uninsured. The Singhs faced an unknown stack of bills despite their family health plan.

They grew discouraged and fearful. Singh’s wife, who I am not naming, suffers from post-traumatic stress as she serves customers today.

The Singhs arrived here 20 years ago and still speak Punjabi and English with ease, sometimes using both languages at once in the store.

Their son Onkar took a break from business master’s degree studies at the University of Oxford in England to help when his father was hospitalized. Their daughter helps run the store. From outside, the store looks much like any Colorado liquor store, illuminated by a flashing Open sign and ads for Coors, Budweiser and the Broncos.

I was oblivious to the reason for Singh’s absence until Onkar told me “some crazy man” came into Two Angels, tore apart the place and ran over his dad in the parking lot.

He did not mention what the crazy man said.

I’ve been getting acquainted with the Two Angels family for more than two years. I especially liked Singh’s wife, a gentle, dark-haired woman.

When I first visited, the store had shopping carts full of old bottles left by the previous owner and discounted for quick sales.

When those bottles were gone, Singh’s wife took care of me by finding other wines she could sell for the same prices. When I apologized for my frugality, she took my hands in hers and told me never to feel unwelcome.

She always called me sir despite my protestations of plebeian ancestry.

In August I finally saw Singh back from the hospital. He was wearing a checked shirt and his turban and directing some repairs outside the store.

He showed me the staple scars on his body. He operated the cash register with a plastic brace on one hand. He described Breemen’s acts in detail, including his other alleged criminal acts the same day. “That man is going to be in jail a long time,” he said.

At the police station, Breemen accused Singh of accosting him and getting in the way of his vehicle. He said the older man tried to throw a big rock at him. He called Singh an Arab, an error common among angry white men on the lookout for Mideast terrorists.

It happened in 2001, when the attacks on the World Trade center and the Pentagon prompted some idiot to paint the word “terrist” in red on a Sikh home in Douglas County.

Breemen, a small, thin man with a beard, told police some strange things. He said the owners were picking on him because they knew he watched “tranny porn” — sex films involving people of mixed gender. He admitted to running over Singh and driving off but claimed Singh had deliberately jumped in front of his car.

He admitted he had been drinking.

A Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy found him the next day in a Safeway parking lot where he had passed out.

Breemen was found competent to stand trial despite his delusional comments about the store owners. At a virtual court hearing he answered questions with a polite, “Yes your honor” and “no your honor” from jail.

He asked to appear in person for a preliminary hearing in November.

I keep wanting to reassure the Two Angels owners. They came here to live the American dream and an American took it away.

Hate crimes have spread across our country like a second virus. Is there no end in sight?

I inhabit a mostly white middle class neighborhood. Hate crimes happened in other states.

Now they have reached me, and I don’t to what to say to a family that never deserved this.

I’d like to say that we’re better than this, that we’re not defined by the behavior of one fellow citizen. I wish I could.

I noticed recently that Singh abandoned his turban in favor of a Yankees cap. One day a customer in front of me asked if he was a Yankees fan.

I said nothing. But I felt like crying.

David Olinger is an investigative reporter and freelance writer.

David Olinger is an investigative reporter and freelance writer.

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