What an Immigrant Murder in Kansas Says About America
Olathe, Kansas, became a global magnet for tech talent, thanks to plentiful jobs, cheap housing, and good schools. Then someone opened fire on a pair of Indian-born engineers.
Kiran Chelluri is an American success story. Originally from Hyderabad, India, he moved to the U.S. for graduate school 19 years ago. He got a job as a systems integrator at Sprint Corp. and settled in the area around Kansas City. In 2008, Chelluri and his wife, Saipranathi, moved 20 miles south to Olathe and started an IT consulting firm, Chelsoft Solutions Co., which expects to generate $7 million in revenue this year. They bought a Lexus and a house with a backyard that accommodates 60 guests, large enough for their son’s birthday parties. Chelluri is unabashedly proud of the life he’s built in Olathe. “We have very good schools, a low cost of living, and short commutes,” he says. “You can save a lot more money and grow your family here.”
As more and more Indian immigrants move to the area, it’s come to feel like home. “We have cricket leagues,” Chelluri says. “The Hindu temple is extremely active. We celebrate every festival. When my family and friends from the East and West Coast visit, they say, ‘This is Kansas?’ ”
The Chelluris run their business out of a carpeted three-room office tucked behind a low-slung apartment complex, five minutes from a local establishment called Austins Bar & Grill. On the evening of Feb. 22, two Indian men having drinks at Austins were confronted by Adam Purinton, a 51-year-old white Olathe resident and Navy veteran. After asking the men if they were in the country legally, Purinton left the bar and returned with a gun, his face covered in a white scarf. According to prosecutors, he yelled, “Get out of my country!” before opening fire, killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounding Alok Madasani—both engineers at Garmin Ltd., the manufacturer of GPS devices and Olathe’s biggest private-sector employer.
The shooting shocked Olathe’s population of 130,000. The city’s crime rate is the fourth-lowest in the nation for cities with populations of 100,000 or more. Its median household income is $77,335, more than $20,000 higher than the Kansas state average. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is at a 10-year low of 4.4 percent; in Olathe, it’s 3.2 percent. In the first nine months of 2016, Johnson County, which includes Olathe, accounted for 84 percent of all new jobs created in the state, says Josh Powers, business liaison in the County Manager’s Office. And despite its growing diversity—the share of nonwhites has doubled since 2000, to more than 23 percent—Olathe has witnessed little racially motivated violence. “I can count on one hand the number of times in my career that we’ve investigated a hate crime,” says Police Chief Steven Menke, a 29-year veteran of the department. “That’s not Olathe.”
In the weeks after the Kansas shooting, an Indian-born U.S. citizen in Lancaster, S.C., was shot dead outside his home; a Sikh resident of Kent, Wash., was shot in the arm by a gunman who told him, “Go back to your own country”; a man in Port St. Lucie, Fla., set fire to a convenience store owned by Indian-Americans, telling authorities that he wanted to “run the Arabs out of the country.” The attacks, and President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, have caused many Indians—the most affluent and best-educated immigrant group in the U.S.—to question their prospects in a time of escalating nativism. The father of Madasani, Kuchibhotla’s Garmin colleague, appealed “to all the parents in India not to send their children to the U.S. in the present circumstances.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer has dismissed as “absurd” the idea that Purinton, the Olathe gunman, was motivated by the president. What has many Indian-Americans concerned isn’t just Trump’s words, though. The administration has taken aim at the H-1B visa program, which brings 85,000 technical workers to the U.S. every year, almost three-quarters of them from India. Last month, the Department of Justice issued a statement vowing to investigate and prosecute companies that use “the H-1B visa process to discriminate against U.S. workers.” A “Hire American” executive order signed by Trump instructs federal agencies to ensure the visas are awarded to “the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries,” which could potentially reduce the number of visas granted to Indian outsourcing companies, such as Infosys Ltd. and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., that typically pay their employees lower salaries than do their U.S.-based counterparts.
Because of a glut of green-card applications, Indian workers in the U.S. wait, on average, more than 10 years to gain permanent-resident status. That’s already prompting engineers, scientists, and students in India to seek other destinations or simply stay at home—a trend that may accelerate if Trump pursues tougher immigration laws.
“Will there be a drop in the number of Indians coming to the U.S.? Unequivocally the answer is yes,” says Devesh Kapur, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The Other One Percent: Indians in America. “Whether it’s a 5 or 10 percent decrease or something much larger depends on what happens with this administration.” While Trump hasn’t endorsed steps directly restricting immigration from India, “he hasn’t gone out of his way to calm nerves, either. And at some point, the uncertainty itself becomes a factor.”
The fortunes of communities like Olathe may hang in the balance. Since 2000, the population of Olathe (pronounced oh-LAY-tha) has grown by 41 percent, thanks to a blossoming tech scene led by Garmin, which established its headquarters there in 1995. The expansion of Garmin and other technology, health, and service-based companies in the Kansas City metro area—including Sprint, Cerner, a medical-data company, and Black & Veatch, an infrastructure engineering firm—has turned suburban Johnson County into “an economic powerhouse and job generator that’s basically subsidizing the rest of Kansas,” according to Chad Shearer, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution. Business leaders have few illusions about the challenges of attracting skilled immigrants to rural, landlocked states; reductions in the available supply of skilled workers coming to the U.S. would potentially harm companies in the heartland even more than those on the coasts. If immigration from India drops appreciably, thriving, tech-friendly cities like Olathe are the ones that stand to lose the most.
Among citizens of all races in Olathe, the incident at Austins has generated an outpouring of emotion and solidarity with the victims. “It’s brought this community even closer together,” says Menke. “When one of us is hurt, all of us are hurt.” But the attack has also left an indelible impression on Indians and other immigrants, a nagging reminder of their vulnerability in a harsher, more polarized America. “I want to believe this was an isolated incident,” says Vasan Srinivasan, the Indian-born president of Terracon Consultants Inc., a 4,000-person engineering company headquartered in Olathe. “What worries me is, all you need to create a big fire is a single spark. Is this that spark?”
Olathe has played host to outsiders since its founding in 1861. Stagecoaches going west from cities in Missouri would spend their first night in Olathe before heading out onto the Santa Fe Trail. The construction of the intercontinental railroad brought in workers from Ireland and Mexico. In 1875 a local shoemaker named Charles Hyer designed the first boots custom-made for riding horses, eventually becoming the country’s largest manufacturer of handmade cowboy boots. According to Bob Courtney, president of the Olathe Historical Society and a former public school teacher, Hyer recruited craftsmen from Belgium to train locals in the art of bootmaking—Olathe’s original high-skilled immigrant workforce.
The city’s reputation as a Midwestern hub for engineering and high-end manufacturing dates to 1960, when King Radio, a 60-person company specializing in radios for small airplanes, moved its plant to Olathe. The company was later acquired by AlliedSignal Corp. and eventually merged with another avionics manufacturer, Bendix Corp., in 1985. By that time, the city’s population was close to 40,000, but much of the land remained undeveloped. Courtney recalls working at a newly opened junior high school on the edge of Olathe in the mid-’80s. “I would look across the street, and there were cows grazing in the pasture,” he says.
The farms that once dominated Olathe’s rolling topography have been replaced by residential subdivisions, sprawling retail developments, and wide highways. In 2006, Bass Pro Shops built a 135,000-square-foot outlet in the northwest part of the city; Olathe got its first Whole Foods in 2015. Despite the changes to the landscape, locals insist it’s retained the same faith-based, first-name-only culture. “It doesn’t feel any different to me than it did 20 years ago,” says Marge Vogt, a seven-term city councilwoman. “We’ve been growing rapidly, but we’ve kept that small-town community feel.”
The city’s destiny turned in 1995, when Garmin, a young company based in neighboring Lenexa, moved its headquarters to a new $8 million facility in Olathe. Garmin’s founders, Gary Burrell and Min Kao, a native of Taiwan, had worked as engineers at King Radio. Over dinner at a Red Lobster in Olathe, they hatched the idea for a company aimed at finding wider uses for global positioning system technology—GPS. (“Garmin” is a combination of their first names.) Initially focused on making navigation devices for cars, Garmin went public in 2000. In 2007 its annual revenue topped $3 billion, and the stock hit $120 a share. After Google Maps and the iPhone crushed Garmin’s dashboard-device business, the company found a new niche: high-end, GPS-enabled smartwatches and activity trackers for fitness buffs. Garmin predicts revenue of $3 billion in 2017. Its share price is up more than 30 percent over the past year, though it’s still less than half its 2007 peak. “We consider ourselves competitive with Apple and Samsung” in wearables, says Ted Gartner, head of corporate communications. “Automotive is still an important part of our business, but that’s not where the growth is.”
Garmin has spent more than $100 million expanding its campus in Olathe, adding 1 million sq. ft. of manufacturing, warehouse, and office space, spread across 87 acres. The company’s eight-story office tower looms over the surrounding area, a mix of office buildings and middle-class homes. There’s a full-size soccer field and sand volleyball courts, and construction is under way on an additional 720,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing and distribution center, which will allow the company to double its headcount of 3,200 in Olathe. (Garmin employs 11,600 worldwide.) “To some degree, Olathe’s grown up with Garmin,” says Gartner. More than half of those employed at the Olathe headquarters are engineers, including about 100 who are on H-1B visas. Gartner says, “It’s not always easy to attract great engineering talent from the coasts. We can’t compete with mountains or beaches. But we have a great quality of life that’s very affordable and which doesn’t have a lot of the pressures you find in Silicon Valley. There’s a lot we can offer, but it takes a particular kind of person who’s looking for it.”
Aamer Almujahed, 30, joined Garmin as a software engineer in 2009. “I didn’t see myself staying for very long,” he says, sipping water at a Starbucks on a balmy spring afternoon. “And here I am, eight years later.” He was born and raised in Sana’a, Yemen, and came to the U.S. on a student visa, earning a degree in electrical engineering at George Mason University. He later received a green card through his aunt, a U.S. citizen. At Garmin, Almujahed works on embedded systems programming, the internal software that powers the company’s devices. His team includes engineers from Russia, India, the Middle East, and Canada. Since moving to Kansas, he’s obtained a private pilot’s license, joined a company soccer team, and entered a master’s program in astronautical engineering. He became a citizen on July 4, 2012, and last year bought his first house, a few miles from the Garmin campus. “People are a lot friendlier than on the East Coast,” he says. “I feel like I belong here. I don’t feel out of place.” In Olathe, his olive complexion is so unremarkable that most of his friends “don’t even know where I’m from and have no reason to ask.”
On the evening of Feb. 22, Almujahed was at home working on an assignment on orbital mechanics, part of his studies for his master’s degree. His phone was on silent; when he checked it, he saw a stream of messages from friends and family members, asking about reports of a shooting in Olathe. “They wanted to check on my safety. They heard the victims were international.” Almujahed lives a few blocks from Austins. He started hearing helicopters and police sirens. He turned on the news to learn that the killer had escaped and police were looking for him in the neighborhood. Purinton, the alleged gunman, had fled on foot, then drove to Clinton, Mo., 80 miles south of Olathe. He was arrested after reportedly telling a bartender at an Applebee’s in Clinton that he had killed two men he thought were Iranian. “My mom was pretty worried,” Almujahed says. “She said, ‘I don’t want you to go to places like that’—you know how moms are. But I definitely thought about it, too. It could have been me.”
The next morning, Almujahed opened an email from Garmin’s vice president for human resources, Laurie Minard, informing employees that two colleagues had been shot at Austins and that one had died. A third victim, 24-year-old Ian Grillot, a native Kansan and ex-Marine, was shot in the chest after confronting the shooter and trying to subdue him. He survived.
Kuchibhotla and Madasani, who was shot in the leg, had both lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and worked for Garmin’s aviation systems engineering unit. “Garmin’s a really tight community,” says Almujahed. “A few people were angry. But most were in shock.” On Feb. 24, Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, spoke to 200 employees gathered in an auditorium in the Garmin tower. Madasani walked in on crutches. Dumala talked about her life in Kansas with Kuchibhotla, his favorite eggplant dish, and their plans to have children. She was always more worried about safety than her husband, but even after his death she intended to stay in America. She issued a challenge to the Trump administration. “I need an answer from the government,” she said. “What are they going to do to stop this hate crime?”
Three days after the shooting, Almujahed went to Austins with a Garmin colleague. A clutch of local television crews were there to cover the bar’s reopening. Spotting Almujahed, a reporter from the local Fox affiliate asked him if he felt safe. Almujahed responded, “I know that what happened on Wednesday is not normal. It’s out of the ordinary. I still love and appreciate this country very much.”
Austins is located in the corner of a strip mall parking lot, distinguished by a large green and red sign above its outdoor patio. Inside, nearly every inch of wall is covered with televisions showing sports, regardless of the time of day. At a little past 5 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the bar is already doing a brisk happy-hour business, with seats filled by an assortment of white-collar managers, construction workers, and Garmin employees. Over a beer at a high-top table near the entrance, Manoj George, an entrepreneur from Kottayam, India, who’s lived in Olathe since 2003, marvels at the local reaction to the killing of Kuchibhotla. Thousands of city residents turned out for candlelight vigils and interfaith gatherings organized by community groups, churches, and schools. An event held by the India Association of Kansas City at the Ball Conference Center in Olathe drew so many people the organizers had to set up loudspeakers in the parking lot. George, whose wife is a fifth-generation Olathan, says that at a vigil held at a Catholic church across the street from Austins, he saw friends who didn’t know the victims or any other Indians but came to commiserate with George and express their revulsion at the crime.
And yet George admits he’s had moments of doubt. For a few weeks, “I was a little scared. You only have one life to live.” He resisted going back to Austins, which he’d frequented in the past, until his business partner, Susie Mackey, finally dragged him there for lunch. George and Mackey have a startup that employs artificial intelligence to monitor the health of cattle in feedlots. “That’s what it took—someone in the community had to say, ‘You’ve gotta go back. Don’t be afraid,’ ” George says. Other Indians in Olathe’s business community express similar feelings of unease. One business owner, who’s lived in Olathe for nearly a decade but asked not to be identified out of concern for his family’s safety, says, “Now we’re more careful. We watch our surroundings.” In the office, he positions his desk to make sure he can see who’s coming in through the front door. He told his wife not to wear “Indian garb” or stay out late shopping; they’ve stopped speaking their native Telugu in public. “Should we advertise who we are? You’re thinking about one guy who’s wired the wrong way.” For the first time, he started activating his home alarm system, but worries that’s insufficient. “Honestly, I’ve never considered keeping a gun in the home—but now I’m thinking about it,” he says. “After this, maybe self-protection is the right way.”
Srinivasan, the head of Terracon, describes a strange encounter not long after Kuchibhotla’s murder. He’d picked up his son from a Kumon after-school learning center and was pulling out of a parking lot when he noticed a man walking toward him and taking pictures of his license plate. When Srinivasan rolled down his window, the man claimed he’d watched another Kumon student trying to break into cars and had called the police. The man had initially wondered if that kid was Srinivasan’s son before acknowledging that he was mistaken. Srinivasan drove off. “For a while, things were a little tense. It felt weird in the immediate aftermath, but since then I really haven’t given it a second thought.” Since the shooting at Austins, he tells his kids “not to get into any unnecessary conflicts. Just walk away.”
According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Kapur, Indian immigrants are less likely to be the intended targets of hate crimes than to be mistaken for people from the Middle East—as appeared to be the case in Kuchibhotla’s murder. “The animus isn’t per se focused on Indians—they’re collateral damage in a broader surge in hostility toward other groups,” he says. But many are aware that their relative levels of affluence may invite resentments, driven as much by class as by race. “I don’t think [Purinton] is the only guy around here who might feel angry,” says George. “I’m sure there are others who aren’t comfortable with change, who see new people coming in and doing well, and their lives aren’t necessarily getting better. Instead of looking in the mirror, it’s easier to blame someone else.”
Since the start of his presidential campaign, Trump has played to the anxieties of white working-class Americans, insisting they’re “losing” their country to an influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, who are taking away their jobs, and refugees from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, who are making the country susceptible to terrorism. His views on the rise of Asian-American immigrants, including Indians, are less clear. In November 2015, in a radio interview with Steve Bannon, then the editor of Breitbart News, Trump expressed concern about foreign students at Ivy League schools returning to their home nations after graduation. “We have to keep talented people in this country,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?”
Bannon responded, “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think … a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” The administration’s calls for a reexamination of the technology industry’s use of H-1B visas suggest that Bannon and other hard-right advisers remain committed to curtailing the country’s intake of technical foreign workers. On the other hand, the growing clout of more moderate, pro-business voices, such as Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn, may be enough to persuade Trump to back away from any sweeping changes to the H-1B program.
How that plays out in places such as Johnson County may reveal a lot about America’s economic trajectory in the age of Trump. The county, which voted narrowly for him, has many good things going for it: Along with low crime and unemployment rates, it boasts high-quality public schools and affordable, abundant housing. The region’s openness to talent from all over the world has catalyzed its evolution into a knowledge-based, high-growth economic hub. There are now 84 languages spoken by students enrolled in Olathe’s schools. India is the second-largest source of immigrants, after Mexico; Indians make up 7.8 percent of Olathe’s foreign-born population, compared with 4.65 percent nationwide. “Attracting an international workforce is very, very important for us,” says Tim McKee, chief executive officer of Olathe’s Chamber of Commerce.
Any backlash against immigrants, government and business leaders say, will have a corrosive effect on the appeal of Middle America to companies that depend on foreign talent. In the past 10 years, Johnson County has accounted for half of Kansas’s population growth and 65 percent of its new jobs, according to Doug Davidson, president of the County Economic Research Institute Inc. In Olathe, 8.58 percent of all jobs are in science, technology, and engineering, compared with 5.34 percent in the rest of the country; in neighboring Overland Park, that number is 10.48 percent. A decline in well-paid, skilled workers—and the tax revenue they generate—wouldn’t just erode the growth prospects for Olathe and its neighboring cities, it would also have a devastating impact on the entire state, which faces a $500 million budget deficit next year.
“We don’t have enough people to sustain growth in this state,” says Neeli Bendapudi, the provost of the University of Kansas and former dean of its business school. Bendapudi grew up in Andhra Pradesh, India; when she was 5, her father left India to pursue a doctorate at the University of Kansas. In the 1980s, Bendapudi moved to the U.S. for a Ph.D. of her own, also at Kansas, and later joined the faculty there. Since 2012 the state of Kansas has invested $100 million to expand engineering programs at its flagship universities, which has helped lure more foreign talent. International students make up 4 percent of the overall population at the University of Kansas but 16 percent of graduate students in engineering. According to Bendapudi, international students who earn degrees in Kansas are far more likely than those from outside the state to settle in the area after they graduate—which is critical if Kansas hopes to persuade employers to continue investing there. “Garmin and companies like it that have a global presence are creating a lot of jobs, but we’re not producing enough workers with the necessary skills to fill them. We need new folks to come and keep our economy vibrant.” Negative perceptions, however, are taking a toll: Applications to the University of Kansas from foreign students are down 20 percent from last year. “If people don’t feel welcome here,” says Bendapudi, “we’re in trouble.”
To a person, the residents of Olathe I spoke to say they’re determined to prevent that from happening. Local authorities have charged Purinton with first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder; he hasn’t yet entered a plea. The FBI’s investigation will determine whether Purinton is also charged with a federal hate crime. The shooting at Austins “doesn’t indicate anything about this community,” says the city’s five-term mayor, Michael Copeland. “It indicates something about one person.”
Yet despite the city’s resolve, there’s also an awareness of how Olathe’s future is being shaped by political, economic, and global forces it can’t always control. “There is hate,” says Menke, the police chief, “and our job is to reassure our community that it won’t change the way we live.” As he speaks, he glances at a television mounted on the wall of his office, tuned to cable-news coverage of a terrorist attack in London. “I wish we didn’t have so much conflict around the world. I wish we didn’t have such polarization in our country. But we do.” He pauses. “Would I have expected anything like this to happen in Olathe? No, I never would have. But we live in a fallen world, you know? Ultimately things like this happen, and this one landed here.”