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A child of violence: Talovic survived genocide

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Deseret Morning News graphic Bosnia and Herzegovina

As a little boy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sulejman Talovic hid in fear from the Serb military forces who were slaughtering Muslim men and boys as war and genocide ravaged his country.

Years later, the 18-year-old slaughtered five people in Salt Lake City's Trolley Square mall before dying in a shootout with police officers.

A world away, those who knew him say he was an "ordinary kid" with dreams of America, and they are unable to comprehend that he could have committed such a crime.

"I know all Talovic family," said Omer Johic, who was a neighbor of the Talovic family in the Bosnian village of Cerska, near Srebrenica. "Everybody are nice, quiet and fine people, and I just cannot believe that Sulejman has been able to kill those people."

But neighbors also acknowledged that the war in Bosnia likely left its mark on the boy. During the war, the family lived for five years as refugees in Bosnia and spent almost a year in the mountains hiding from the Serb military forces, neighbors said.

Up to 200,000 people were killed and 1.8 million others lost their homes in Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

"I don't know what happened in USA," Johic said. "Maybe he started to use the drugs."

Outside Talovic's home in the working-class Fairpark neighborhood of Salt Lake City, his family struggled to provide answers.

"What happened to Sulejman, we have no idea," said his aunt, Ajka Omerovic. "He was nice boy."

Speaking to reporters in broken English, Omerovic offered condolences to the families of the people who Talovic killed.

"The reason why I am talking to you is to let know, all the other families, to let know we are so sorry and our hearts is with them," she said Wednesday. "I hope they can understand that we are sorry, too. We wish that something like that never, ever happen."

'We are good people'

Armed with a shotgun, a .38-caliber handgun with a backpack full of ammunition and a bandolier of shotgun shells around his waist, police said Talovic began shooting as soon as he got out of his car at Trolley Square. By the time the gunfire stopped, six people were dead, including Talovic, who died in a shootout with police. Four people were wounded.

"There is still no known motive," Salt Lake City police detective Robin Snyder said Wednesday.

Addressing concerns from some that Talovic's Muslim beliefs may have played a role, Snyder said there was no evidence that was the case. The FBI said Wednesday that it had determined terrorism did not play a role in the shooting rampage.

Omerovic said Talovic was not a terrorist.

"I want to make sure that people don't think about us that we are terrorists or something like that," she said. "We are good people, just like everybody, and we want to be nice to everybody."

Detectives were allowed by Talovic's mother to search their home without a warrant early Tuesday, Snyder said. Salt Lake City police would not say what — if anything — was seized from the house.

Investigators had also not found any type of suicide note as of Wednesday, Snyder said.

The case is technically considered "closed" from a police investigation standpoint, because the gunman is dead. However, Snyder said, homicide detectives will continue looking for a motive.

Talovic's family wants to know where he got the guns, suggesting he did not have them at home.

"We want to know who signed for the guns and all the things that he had with him," Omerovic said. "We don't have any ideas how he get all that. We want to find who did that."

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating where Talovic got a .38-caliber pistol, which is illegal for an 18-year-old to possess.

A child of war

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina forced the Talovic family to live as refugees. From 1993 until they emigrated to the United States in 1998, they were on the run, moving from village to village.

They lived near Srebrenica, where more than 8,300 Muslim boys and men were killed in 1995 by Serb forces loyal to ex-Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Sulejman Talovic was 7 years old then.

The atrocities of war and "ethnic cleansing," and the pressures of daily life in a new country after he immigrated to the United States, could have created immense pressure on Talovic, according to Greg Jurkovic, a psychology professor at Georgia State University who has studied Bosnian teenagers in both Atlanta and Sarajevo.

"What we're finding is that so many of these kids are suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)," he said. "What seems to be most important is what they were exposed to, their war exposure."

Jurkovic said it is not being a victim of violence that automatically causes some people to perpetrate it. Instead, he said it is the constant "everyday stressors" — including poverty and the effects of losing ties to family back home in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"It's not just that you have war trauma, and then you go blow people's brains out," said University of Illinois at Chicago psychiatry professor Sevan Weine, who also has studied Bosnian teenagers. "I think it's tempting to make the statement that they've been traumatized and now they're violent. But I would resist that kind over oversimplification."

Weine said there is a range of Bosnian teens, with some who are bright and well-adjusted and others who are at the bottom.

"There aren't many in the middle," he said.

Hopes for a better life

About 93 miles from Sarajevo, in the village of Bare, the Talovic family moved in 1994 for awhile to a small house with a dirt floor, no water, no electricity and a piece of nylon for a window. The house had belonged to a Serb family who had abandoned it when the war started.

The Talovic family often went hungry during the war, said neighbor Zijad Cerkic. Sulejman's father, Suljo Talovic, worked for a dollar or two for local farmers, and his wife, Sabira, would work with him and take the children with her, because there were no babysitters.

"They always dreamed about America," Cerkic said. "Sabira and kids moved in 1998 because she had a brother and relatives in the USA. After one year, Suljo moved, too. The only hope was a better life. They could not live normally here. They even did not had enough clothes."

But life here in Utah has been a struggle for the family.

"We came here to America to survive from war and to be good with every people," Omerovic said.

Relatives said that Suljo works constantly. Sulejman was pulled out of school in November 2004 by his mother, when he was barely 16 years old.

"The only reason she put on there was, 'to work,"' Salt Lake School District spokesman Jason Olsen said Wednesday.

The Talovic family would send money to people still living in Bare.

"They were sending money and papers needed to enter the States," said Safet Bajric. "I don't know what would happen with them now."

In Cerska, the neighbors fear that the U.S. government will kick the Talovic family out of the United States for their son's crimes.

'He stuck to himself'

The day he went on the shooting rampage, Sulejman Talovic worked his regular shift at Aramark Uniform Services, an industrial laundry facility in South Salt Lake.

"From eight to five, he worked a normal shift," said general manager Trent Thorn.

In an interview Wednesday with the Deseret Morning News, Thorn said Talevic began working at Aramark in December. The young man worked as a production-line employee, rolling up recently cleaned floor mats. floor-mats. He hadn't been there long enough for his bosses to really get to know him.

"He stuck to himself pretty much here," Thorn said.

After Talovic finished work on Monday, his family said he came home.

"He was working all day, he came home, took a shower and disappeared," Omerovic said.

On Tuesday, police detectives were at Aramark questioning employees. Thorn said he could not comment on the police investigation, but offered his sympathies to the families of the victims.

"I feel deeply saddened, and obviously my heart goes out to all of those," he said.

The four people wounded in the shooting rampage remain hospitalized. Shawn Munns, 34, remained in serious but stable condition. Carolyn Tuft, 44, was listed in critical condition at LDS Hospital.

At University Hospital, 16-year-old AJ Walker was reported to be in serious condition. Stacy Hanson, 53, was listed in critical condition.

Funeral services are already being planned for many of the victims in the shooting. On Wednesday, Rich Quinn was allowed to go and claim his wife Vanessa's body.

A memorial service will be held 3 p.m. Friday at the Larkin Mortuary in Sandy for Vanessa Quinn.

Services for Jeffery Walker are set for Friday and Saturday. A viewing is set for 5-8 p.m. Friday at the McDougal Funeral Home, 4330 S. Redwood Road, in Taylorsville.

A second viewing is set for 10:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Country Park Stake Center, 11400 S. 2447 West, in South Jordan. Funeral services will follow at noon in the stake center.

Meanwhile, a candlelight ceremony to remember the victims and express gratitude to police officers is planned for 6:30 p.m. today, at Salt Lake City's Library Square. Churches in the Salt Lake Valley have been asked to ring their bells prior to the ceremony. Police and fire officials, as well as Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon are expected to attend.

Bosnia-Herzegovina Ambassador Bisera Turkovic will travel to Utah for the ceremony, along with Marinko Avramovic, an official with the Bosnian Consulate of Chicago.

Contributing: Pat Reavy, Elaine Jarvik, KSL-TV

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com