MILWAUKEE, WI, USA—In the hours after a madman shot up a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb, his face was suddenly splashed all over the news as a “person of interest.”
Police at the scene of the Aug. 5 shooting in Oak Creek, Wis., killed gunman Wade Michael Page, but someone had noticed a stranger at the scene. The tall, muscular man, with a tattoo on his biceps and wearing a pair of dark shades seemed out of place — even suspicious — to some, as he briefly watched and even videotaped the aftermath of the shooting, which left six dead. At a press conference the next morning, police distributed a photo another bystander took of the mystery man. They described him as a person of interest they were trying to locate and interview.
But the man, who recently spoke exclusively to FoxNews.com, had done nothing wrong. His 15 minutes of infamy was a byproduct of the fear coursing through the community after the horrific massacre — and he continues to pay a price.
“I’ve been called a white supremacist, a domestic terrorist — I want people to know I’m just a regular bystander and I was there and I just got singled out because I have 9/11 tattoo on my arm and I looked like the shooter in that I’m a tall white guy,” the man, a former New York City firefighter named Eric, told FoxNews.com.
Although authorities quickly located Eric and determined he had nothing to do with the crime — and advised the media of this — he’s been forced to hide out in fear for his life ever since. Eric told FoxNews.com he still worries people think he was involved in the shooting or was somehow allied with Page.
“I never heard of him or seen him before,” he said of the shooting suspect.
Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards told FoxNews.com moments after the press conference that a bystander had taken a photo of the “person of interest” at the scene of the crime and found him suspicious because he left the scene without speaking to law enforcement.
Eric and law enforcement sources who verified his account say that he was among throngs of media and other bystanders who arrived at the temple hours after the shooting and who took video footage or photographs.
“I was in the staging area where the media crew was located 11:45, or 12-ish at the time, I was just there out of curiosity and I took some video, I was only there for an hour and some people thought I looked suspicious” he told FoxNews.com.
In the frenzied hours after the attack, there were reports that there may have been more than one shooter. Further compounding the matter, witnesses said they thought the suspect had a 9/11 tattoo. Page did not — but Eric does.
“I have a 9/11 tattoo because I’m originally from New York City and I was a volunteer firefighter — my family still lives in New York,” Eric said. “Sometime on Sunday night [the day of the shooting] reports came out saying the shooter had a 9/11 tattoo; I guess they were talking about me. The FBI told me the shooter doesn’t have a 9/11 tattoo.”
Eric, who has lived in Oak Creek for four years and works in warehouse logistics, was at work without his phone and didn’t realize his photo had been released to the world as a person of interest until he talked to his girlfriend later in the day.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” he recalled. “I was shocked. I called [the FBI] up right away and said it’s me, I’m the guy you’re looking for.
“My face was all over the media,” he added. “It was like they thought I was the other shooter.”
Eric says they immediately sent agents to his office to interview him, then later that afternoon announced that he’d been cleared of any involvement. But he spent the next two weeks hiding at home and not leaving until dark out of concern that people would recognize his face and think he was involved in the shooting.
He said he’s been in touch with an FBI agent who is also a member of the Sikh temple.
“I just wanted to clear the air, let them know my side, let them know that I have no hard feelings against members of the Sikh community, that I’m sorry for what happened at the temple and let them know my heart and prayers go out to them.”
Eric says he doesn’t understand why the FBI went through such extremes to locate him, saying that in the town of Oak Creek, “I’m pretty easy to find.”
Nearly three weeks after the shooting, Eric still wonders what strangers are thinking when their gazes linger a moment too long. But he hopes with time, the notoriety he never asked for will die down.
“I’m sure it’ll die down eventually — I hope,” he said.