By COLLEEN SLEVIN
A man accused of running over the Sikh owner of a suburban Denver liquor store after reportedly telling him and his wife to “go back to your country’’ is now facing a hate crime charge in addition to 16 other charges, including attempted murder.
Prosecutors said the hate crime charge was filed against Eric Breemen on July 21 nearly three months after the alleged assault in the parking lot of the Lakewood store Lakhwant Singh owns with his wife, The charges came after an investigation prosecutors say was delayed by the severity of Singh’s injuries, his 65-day stay in the hospital and coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
The announcement from the office of First Judicial District Attorney Peter Weir said investigators recently conducted their first in-person interview with Singh with help from the FBI after Singh’s release from the hospital.
“This is a very serious case and another example of the challenges we face in the criminal justice system during this public health emergency,’’ Weir said.
Public defender Alex Taufer, who has represented Breemen in court, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
The information gathered by prosecutors that led them to pursue the hate crime charge has not been introduced into the court record at this point in the proceedings and cannot be released yet, said district attorney spokesperson Pam Russell.
A police document laying out the reasons for Breemen’s arrest soon after the April 29 incident said that Breemen thought Singh, who wears a turban and uncut beard in adherence with his Sikh faith, was an “older Arab.’’
According to the document, Breemen denied threatening Singh and said Singh had jumped in front of his car as he was driving away from the store.
However, a regular customer who was in the parking lot told police a man Singh had been arguing with got in his car and accelerated toward Singh, who tried but was not able to get out of his way, the document said.
According to the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization that fights discrimination against Sikhs and represents Singh, Breemen began picking up items in an agitated manner after entering Two Angels Liquors before harassing Singh and his wife, telling them to “go back to your country,“ and damaging numerous items in the store.
The couple were protected by a plexiglass window on the counter that they had installed because of the pandemic, and they repeatedly asked Breemen to leave before he finally did so, legal director Amrith Kaur Aakre said in a June 1 letter to police and prosecutors urging authorities to pursue a hate crime charge.
Singh followed him outside to take a photo of Breemen’s license plate, which the coalition said enraged Breemen and caused him to use his vehicle to hit him, Aakre said.
In a statement released by the coalition, Singh said he appreciated authorities hearing his story and recognizing the role that hate played in his alleged assault.
“I am so very grateful to everyone —Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike, from Lakewood, elsewhere in Colorado, across the country, and beyond—who have stood with me and my family in this incredibly difficult time,’’ he said.
The Sikh Coalition was formed following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when Sikhs were targeted because some people mistakenly believed they were Muslim.
Sikhism, a monotheistic faith, was founded more than 500 years ago in the Indian region of Punjab and has roughly 27 million followers worldwide, most of them in India.