By Gosia Wozniacka
SELMA, Calif. — Neighbors of an Indian family killed in a murder-suicide grappled with allegations Sunday that the man accused in the shooting in a small California agricultural town was a former Indian army officer wanted for years for murder in his homeland.
News of Saturday’s shooting boomeranged through the area’s close-knit Indian community, which numbers 15,500 in Fresno County, including about 750 in Selma, a small town surrounded by vineyards and peach orchards and known as the “Raisin Capital of the World.” The majority of Indians in the area are Punjabi Sikhs, like the family.
Authorities have said the former officer, Avtar Singh, shot his wife and two children and gravely wounded a third child early Saturday before turning the gun on himself. Investigators were still trying to determine a motive.
“Our community is completely shocked,” said Rajbir Singh Pannu, president of the town’s Sikh temple. “It’s a really bad misfortune, especially for the children who died. Anybody who takes somebody’s life, in our religion that’s cowardice.”
It was just more than a year ago that Singh was arrested after his wife said he had choked her.
That set off a process that prompted the Indian government to seek his extradition days later in the 1996 death of a prominent lawyer and human rights activist in Kashmir, a disputed region in the Himalayas.
Singh, who in recent years operated a small trucking business in Selma, was released on bail after last year’s arrest. It remained unclear Sunday why he was never extradited.
In India, the lawyer and brother of Jalil Andrabi — the murdered human rights activist — blamed the Indian government, saying Singh’s family would still be alive if officials had tried harder to bring him to justice.
“These lives could have been saved if a trial of Maj. Avtar Singh was conducted on time,” said Andrabi’s brother, Arshad. “We have lost that chance now. He was a known murderer and we are appalled that he was even shielded in the United States. It’s a failure of justice at all levels.”
In Selma, community members were also disappointed that police did not send Singh back to India when his warrant came to light, Pannu said.
“They should have taken him then and there, if they had evidence, and not let him kill more people,” he said.
Neighbors and Indian community members said they knew little about the husband’s military past.
“Not many people knew him. He didn’t tell anybody who he is or where he came from,” said Harry Gill, president of Punjabi Sahit, a Punjabi organization in the Central Valley. “The family didn’t attend any functions. They lived a very low profile life.”
News of the murder-suicide reached Gill on Saturday at an Indian wedding attended by about 1,000 people. When Gill asked others about the family, no one knew much about them.
Next door neighbor, Barbara Childers, said the family’s three-year-old often rode his bike outside and the wife cooked with her window open. Singh fertilized Childers’ lawn a few days ago.
“They were the most wonderful family,” she said. “They were helpful neighbors, the sweetest people you have ever met.”
On Saturday, Childers said she heard 11 shots. Soon afterward, the neighborhood was evacuated by police.
Singh called police around 6:15 a.m. and told them that he had just killed four people, Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Curtice said. A sheriff’s SWAT team was called in to assist because of Singh’s military background and the Indian charges against him, Curtice said.
The SWAT team found the bodies of Singh, a woman believed to be his wife and two children, ages 3 and 15 in the home. All appeared to have died from gunshot wounds, Curtice said.
The 17-year-old suffered severe head trauma. He remained in critical condition on at a Fresno medical center.
On Sunday morning, two dozen classmates of the two older boys — the 15-year-old was known as Aryan and the 17-year-old was known as Chris — ran 5 miles from Selma High School to the family’s house to remember the boys. They said the two were well-liked and members of the school’s ROTC.
“Chris was smart, funny and very motivated. He was very easy to get along with,” said 15-year-old Alexis Galindo, his classmate and neighbor.
The boys told her that their father kept several weapons in the house, but they never mentioned any problems at home, she said.
Christopher Cano, another classmate, said he last talked to Chris Friday night at the movie theater.
“He was with his mom and brothers. They looked so happy,” he said.
Cano said he texted Chris when he heard about the incident. “I’m still hoping he’ll text me back,” he said.
The only other Indian family that lives on the same street said they also knew little of the Singhs. Abeda Desai said the family had no relatives in California, but the wife’s siblings lived in Canada, while the husband’s relatives were still in India.
Selma police last had contact with Singh about two months ago when he called to complain that an Indian reporter who was in the area wouldn’t leave him alone because of the murder warrant.
The Indian reporter, freelancer Zahid Rafiq, told The Associated Press that Singh also called him and threatened to kill him if he approached Singh for an interview.
The human rights lawyer killed in 1996 disappeared at the height of protests in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where nearly a dozen rebel groups have fought security forces for independence or merger with Pakistan since 1989. More than 68,000 people, mostly civilian, have been killed in the uprising and subsequent Indian crackdown.
A police investigation said Andrabi had been picked up from his Srinagar home by Indian troops and killed in their custody. The probe blamed Singh and his soldiers for that killing and also accused Singh of involvement in the killings of six other Kashmiri men.
Singh had been charged in Kashmir only with Andrabi’s killing. But Kashmir police had also sought permission from the government of India for Singh’s prosecution in the six other killings.
Under India’s armed forces special powers act, federal permission has to be obtained before police can prosecute any army or paramilitary soldier posted in Kashmir.
At the temple in Selma on Sunday, women in flowing tunics and pants, colorful shawls draped over their heads, kneeled on the right of the hall and men in turbans and scarves on the left while community leaders read prayers for the family during the Sunday service.
Temple leaders said the community would collect money so that those killed could be cremated, — the usual method for disposal of remains in Sikhism.
Neighbors and classmates also planned to hold a vigil for the family Sunday evening.