Olathe shooting at Austins: From tragedy to words of hope
At 32, Srinivas Kuchibhotla had the American dream in his grasp: great job, happy marriage, new house and plans for children.
Adam W. Purinton, 51, had long since seen his career as an air traffic controller come to an end, gaining a reputation as an unhappy drinker as he drifted from one low-level job to another.
Their lives, tracking distinctly different trajectories, intersected Feb. 22 in a burst of gunfire at Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe.
When the shooting ended, Kuchibhotla lay dying near his friend Alok Madasani, a colleague and fellow Indian immigrant who had been shot in the leg.
Purinton, who had reportedly yelled “Get out of my country” at the two men, was soon arrested and charged with murder in what federal authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
In the wake of the shooting, which also left a third man wounded and still is making international headlines, those who know the accused and the victims are left puzzling over a reason. Some point to a political climate that stigmatizes immigrants, though such attacks have long been an ugly part of American life.
The stories of the two men, traced from their beginnings, yield few clues to suggest that one should be at huge risk or the other potentially dangerous. But as they made their way in the world, both were subject to societal changes and happenstance.
Purinton was the second child of an upwardly mobile couple who married in Kansas City, Kan. He experienced suburbia as many kids of his era, moving through a variety of Johnson County homes being built left and right in the 1960s and ’70s. Like his mother, he attended Shawnee Mission North High School.
Kuchibhotla was born a year after Purinton graduated in 1983, to a family eking out an existence half a world away.
That their paths would ever cross would have seemed almost unfathomable.
From Hyderabad to America
Srinivas Kuchibhotla grew up in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, among the largest cities in that country. He was the second child of three Kuchibhotla boys.
“His father had a very low-income job,” wrote his widow, Sunayana Dumala, in a first try at a Facebook blog after her husband’s funeral in India.
News reports say his father is a retiree of Hyderabad’s pharmaceutical trade, a longtime anchor of the local economy.
Around 1997, when Kuchibhotla became a teenager, Hyderabad’s leaders took steps to elevate the city from what Time magazine called “an impoverished, rural backwater place into India’s new information-technology hub.”
Regional authorities retrofitted Hyderabad into a kind of Hindu Silicon Valley they marketed as “Cyberabad.” Before long, the American consulate there was issuing more student visas than all but a few U.S. missions around the world, State Department tracking data show.
Through all the changes, Kuchibhotla’s father made sure to keep his rambunctious sons focused on education, widow Dumala wrote on Facebook: “Many a time he would have to run after them to make them sit for their studies.”
When his younger and older brothers bolted out of earshot, Kuchibhotla often stayed put to hear his parents’ scoldings, Dumala said.
His cousin Vaishnavi Kota recalled how Kuchibhotla, 11 years her elder, took time to carry her up flights of stairs when she was tired or just wanted the attention. “He was like a big brother to me,” she told The Star.
He obtained his undergraduate degree in 2005 from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in Hyderabad. A classmate there, Venu Sama, encouraged him to attend a U.S. college, as many of Sama’s cousins had done.
But Kuchibhotla hesitated. “He wondered if his family could support him financially,” Sama recalled.
It turned out that Kuchibhotla’s undergraduate scores proved so stellar, a number of U.S. schools dangled free-ride scholarships. He chose the University of Texas-El Paso, which also offered him a paid teacher’s assistant position.
His friend Sama, who stayed back in India for a time, followed him to El Paso because Kuchibhotla so praised the place.
“I was the one saying, ‘Let’s go to the U.S.,’ ” said Sama, now living in New Jersey. “And Srinu wound up pulling me in.”
Purinton’s parents attended Johnson County Community College, and his father went on to work for decades as an IT professional.
As the family prospered, the driveway at their Merriam home filled with vehicles — cars, a pickup, a motorboat.
But the family saw turbulent times, as well: Purinton’s father filed for divorce in 1981 but then stopped the proceedings.
Several years after high school, Purinton joined the Navy. During his 2 1/2 -year stint, he plied the Pacific Ocean on a nuclear-powered warship. He was a specialist in radar, navigation and communications — duties that would serve his career when he returned to Kansas.
The 1990s found him in the control tower at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, now called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport.
It was a boom time for the airport, and by all accounts, for Purinton as well.
Air traffic controllers like Purinton, then in his 30s, saw their pay go up as the airport’s traffic and status grew. Purinton had a private pilot certificate in those days.
Later, he moved back to Johnson County, this time to Olathe where he listed his employment as the federal government on Rogers Road, the site of the Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center. It’s one of 20 control centers across the country for the Federal Aviation Administration.
He left the FAA in 2000. The agency, citing policy, declined to talk about the circumstances of his departure.
During this period of his life, there is little to suggest Purinton would ever be implicated in any kind of serious crime. His only contact with the Wichita police was a 1994 DUI arrest. The arrest report lists Purinton’s mother, Marsha Purinton, as the only passenger.
Later, after Adam Purinton was charged with murder, his mother would tell The New York Times: “He snapped, and this is not his typical self.”
Epitome of optimism
Just months after Srinivas Kuchibhotla arrived as an engineering student at UTEP, college roommate Suman Sirimula could see that “he understood what America is ... and knew how to succeed.”
Besides being quick to obtain a driver’s license, a step seldom considered by Indian youth, “he was quieter and more studious than most,” Sirimula recalled. “He never complained about anyone. And nobody complained about him.”
Roughly 200 UTEP students from India formed bonds to help one another prepare for tests, share meals and find affordable lodging. They carpooled — often with Kuchibhotla behind the wheel — to party spots and vacation destinations around El Paso.
“It was a good city for immigrants,” said Sirimula. El Paso boasted a vast Latino-American population with its own communities celebrating diverse cultures and languages.
Back home in Hyderabad, Kuchibhotla’s future wife, who did not know him at the time, asked her school counselors for a list of Indian student contacts at UTEP — one of the U.S. colleges she was thinking of attending. Kuchibhotla’s name topped the list.
From their initial contact online, a friendship formed.
“Srinu was the epitome of optimism,” Dumala wrote. “I remember asking him why he’d chosen to pursue digital signal processing and electrical engineering for his master’s degree. He said, ‘I scored less in that subject in Bachelors of Technology (in Hyderabad) and wanted to explore why I received a lower score.’ That was his optimism.”
Before Kuchibhotla graduated in 2007, the military and aviation technology conglomerate Rockwell Collins snatched up the electrical engineering major after one interview on the UTEP campus.
Rockwell Collins, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, maintained offices in Hyderabad, thus allowing work on design plans around the clock. Yet Kuchibhotla moved to Cedar Rapids, population 130,000, and told friends how much he enjoyed the small-town vibe.
‘One day, he was gone’
After leaving the FAA, Purinton worked for much of the 2000s as an IT technician at Time Warner Cable in Kansas City.
Gary Glauberman, who was director of sales, remembers Purinton as a normal co-worker. He didn’t talk about race, politics or guns.
The two men had one common interest: smoking meat. One day, Glauberman bought a large New Braunfels smoker from Purinton, who helped haul it to Glauberman’s home.
Thinking back on it now, Glauberman says, he has known two men who were accused of murder. The other was 50 years earlier on the Lower East Side of New York.
“In both cases, you never would have thought they were capable of it, except if they were on drugs or they were drinking,” Glauberman said.
Purinton worked at Time Warner for about five years, Glauberman said. It was a job where people usually stayed for a long time, he said, with “great benefits” and a company pension.
“And then one day, he was gone,” Glauberman said. “Anytime that happens, you want to find out why.”
Glauberman never was told directly what happened, but he said co-workers implied that Purinton had lost his job because of drinking.
Years later, Purinton’s drinking would be brought up repeatedly by neighbors describing him to reporters.
A love marriage
Kuchibhotla and Dumala turned their friendship into an American courtship, mostly online, after she left Hyderabad in 2007 to enroll at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.
He was 6-foot-2. She, 5 feet even. Their time together was limited, given the 330 miles between St. Cloud State and Cedar Rapids.
They dated for six years nonetheless.
During most of his time in Iowa, Kuchibhotla kept in near-constant touch with his UTEP buddies from India. Several, including his Hyderabad soul mate Sama, traveled from their new homes all over America to pal around in Chicago, where one in the group lived.
Sama said the guys-weekends-out started to dissolve as each man married. For some, a bachelor party marked the last hurrah.
Kuchibhotla’s time came in 2012, when he resolved to convince his family and Dumala’s that he would make a good husband for her. Theirs would be what Indians call a “love marriage,” not one arranged by parents.
“It was not an easy process,” Dumala recalled. “He met my family multiple times. ...
“He answered all their questions with a smile on his face. His charm was such that he instantly became one of the favorite members of my family ... favorite son-in-law, brother-in-law and uncle.”
The newlyweds — she called him Srinu, he called her Nani — were happy in Cedar Rapids. But Kuchibhotla wanted to move to a bigger city so that Dumala would have better opportunities to pursue her own career. To do that, he would give his all establishing his talents at Rockwell Collins, where his task was to perfect cockpit computers regulating on-flight control.
Many days, he came home just for a dinner prepared by Dumala, then headed back to work until 2 or 3 a.m.
In 2014, Olathe-based Garmin, a pioneer in global positioning systems, came calling.
Trouble late in life
Five years before the couple moved to Johnson County, someone called authorities saying that Purinton was growing marijuana inside his house, according to police reports.
He had been living for a decade in a $240,000 split-level on a 155th Terrace cul-de-sac in Olathe when, one summer morning, police came with a search warrant. Officers broke down his door and spoke with a roommate. Purinton, then 44, was not home.
In the home’s basement, the police wrote in their report, they found marijuana plants growing in buckets under large lights, surrounded by hydroponics equipment. Officers seized bongs, pipes, bags of pot and cash.
Prosecutors declined to file charges.
In 2013, police returned to the home for the same complaint of a suspected marijuana-growing operation. But when officers arrived and Purinton let them in, they found only a small amount of personal marijuana and wrote him a citation.
Until the Austins shooting, these were the only times Purinton was in trouble with the law in Olathe, except in 2010. That’s when he was cited for hitting a car in a grocery store parking lot and leaving the scene.
On the cul-de-sac, neighbors found Purinton to be generally agreeable but frequently drunk. Beer in hand, he grew emotional when he talked of his health problems and the death of his father, Gerald Purinton, in 2015.
Adam Purinton told people he was very close with his father.
The elder Purinton in retirement rode a trajectory all his own, one more inspiring than his son’s. He spent 14 years traveling the world, posting photos on Facebook of fishing trips all over — Brazil, New Zealand, Slovenia and New Mexico.
“I am retired and Livin’ the Dream, traveling and Trout fishing,” Gerald Purinton wrote on a LinkedIn page that charted his career starting with the early development of computers. “I did what I had to, so I can now do what I want to.”
Meanwhile, the younger Purinton held jobs for short periods of time — at an IT firm, a hardware store and a liquor store. Employees at those businesses declined to talk about Purinton.
Kuchibhotla and Damala, having arrived in Olathe, loved the mock-ups for what she called “our dream home.”
As fate would have it, this dream home arose less than 2 miles south of the Purinton home.
On the edge of a playground at a new school, their two-story, four-bedroom spread — costing about $300,000 — would one day shelter a growing family. Or so they discussed.
Kuchibhotla painted the entire interior and took particular pride in installing the garage door opener.
He joined a metro cricket league, with 350 mostly foreign-born players on about 20 teams, and he became the best friend of teammate and Garmin co-worker Madasani.
In November, Kuchibhotla invited Madasani, cricket teammate Somil Chandwani and a dozen couples to the home for a celebration of the Hindu festival Diwali. Srinu and Nani decorated their place with colorful lights. Guests wore native garb, brought native foods and sang karaoke, Chandwani said: “Srinivas felt the responsibility to host it” to make good use of the new house.
Garmin held Kuchibhotla in the highest esteem.
“Genuinely, he was ... one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” said his boss and company vice president Didier Papadopoulos at a February news conference.
And Kuchibhotla had bigger plans.
Paying close attention to political news out of the U.S. and India, he worried a bit about the years that had passed since he applied for permanent resident status, with no green card yet approved.
And yet as immigration tensions mounted with Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and election, Kuchibhotla’s outlook emerged sunnier than wife Dumala’s, who thought of leaving America.
“Good things always happen to good people,” so let’s stay, he’d tell her.
Both expected better things coming soon. Planning a family, they met this year with a doctor who said in vitro fertilization might be necessary. “Nani,” Kuchibhotla said to his wife, “we need to save money if we have to end up going for in vitro to conceive.”
A few weeks later, he died.
A court hearing, a birthday
At Austins, employees knew both Purinton and Kuchibhotla as regulars, though it doesn’t appear they knew each other.
On the night of the shooting, Kuchibhotla and Madasani sat together on the bar’s patio when Purinton, wearing a white T-shirt with military-style medals and a white scarf around his head, started bothering them, asking if their “status was legal,” according to court documents.
Bar patron Ian Grillot, 24, and another person asked Purinton to leave, and employees escorted him out. Prosecutors say Purinton came back with a gun and started shooting, killing Kuchibhotla, hitting Madasani in the leg and firing one shot through Grillot’s hand and into his chest.
Purinton, charged with murder and two counts of attempted murder, is being held in the Johnson County jail on $2 million bond. His relatives in Kansas City, Kan., Overland Park and Mission have declined to speak with The Star.
During a brief court hearing Thursday, Purinton appeared gaunt and unshaven, represented by a public defender who asked the judge for more time to prepare a defense. Prosecutors say Purinton faces a “hard 50” sentence — life without the possibility of parole for at least 50 years.
The FBI is investigating the shooting as a hate crime.
As for Kuchibhotla, candlelight vigils continue around the world.
A Thursday observance honored him in Hyderabad. Family and friends there knew: Thursday would have been Kuchibhotla’s 33rd birthday.
The Star’s Judy Thomas contributed to this report.