Killer’s last decade

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Serial killer, Major Avtar Singh could have neither fled India without government help nor lived in the US without the local sleuths looking the other way. Kashmir Life brings you details of the disgraced soldier’s life on the run.

(Here in this villa lived Avtar Singh where he finally killed his family before committing suicide)

Californian agriculture town Selma was shocked last fortnight when a transport company’s Indian owner Avtar Singh shot dead his three sons, his wife and finally himself, after breaking the news to police. As panicked cops rushed to the spot, they required an elaborate preparation for going into the house because they knew Singh was a soldier and kept weapons.

Finally the Fresno County sheriff’s SWAT team sent in a robot that found Singh’s body and those of his wife Hervinder Kour and two of their sons – Jay Singh (3), and Kanwarpal Singh (17), as their third son, Kanwaljit “Aryan” Singh (15) was lying critically wounded in another room. Aryan underwent a head surgery but died a few days later. Singh had pumped a bullet each into their heads.

The man behind the massacre was Indian army’s Major Avtar Singh, a fugitive from the law for his direct involvement in the 1995 kidnapping and murder of human rights lawyer Jaleel Andrabi. He resorted to a series of murders as a Coy  Commander of 35-Rashtriya Rifle D-Coy that was posted at Rawalpora till he was transferred out of Kashmir. Originally, according to the army, Major Avtar belonged to Ludhiana based 103-unit of Territorial Army.

A lot has been written in the international media about the 47-year-old Major, bringing enough of detail to Kashmir for a complete picture of the man who killed with impunity and rarely returned the corpses. The “bravery” had already fetched him four presidential medals for his anti-militancy operations in Assam and in Kashmir before he became a fugitive.

Jaleel Andrabi.

Married to Harvinder Kaur, daughter of an SRTC driver, from Baramulla, Singh fled almost immediately to Punjab after the investigations in the Andrabi case started. But the family fled India in 2003. They flew to Canada where they put up for two years with their relatives. Human rights activists, who came to know of his presence in Canada put a bit of pressure on their government, eventually leading to his denial of asylum. The family finally crossed into the US state of California, illegally. They appeared in Fresno County (of which Selma is a town) in 2005. They moved to Le Mars, Iowa, in 2006 for nearly a year before returning to Fresno in 2007. The family settled in Selma in May 2008. Mrs Singh was a beautician.

After reaching California, Singh had tried many options to sustain his family. He worked at a truck wash and later at a sandwich shop before starting his own trucking business which he named Jay Truck Lines, after his third son, a US citizen. The company owned five tractors and trailers. Major Singh would himself drive a truck. A number of reports emanating from the people who were close to him and his family suggest the truck company was not doing very well and the former army officer had accumulated debt.

Either in December 2011 or in January 2012, Major Singh had formally moved an application for asylum in the US. Charles Stephens who was Singh’s immigration consultant has revealed that Mr and Mrs Singh claimed they were tortured by Indian (read Kashmir) police on Andrabi’s death. He had told his consultant that he was mandated to kill terrorists and “he was good at it, leaving no bodies or evidence.” His consultant was quoted by a Fresno newspaper quoting Major Singh saying: “I didn’t do this (Andrabi’s killing) because they found a body. They wouldn’t have, had I done it.”

Stephens told reporters that Indian officials did not want Major Singh back “because they didn’t want him to talk.” Even in his application, he had mentioned that government officials wanted to protect the ‘murderer’. “So far, the police and government have eliminated almost every witness of this crime,” Major Singh wrote in the asylum application. “At the moment, I am the only living person who can disclose the identity of these people.”

(Avtar Singh, the first TV grab showing him without a beard)

The application was on hold as US officials were gathering more information about Major Singh’s role in Andrabi’s assassination. Unsure that it will be accepted, his wife Harvinder was preparing her own application. In it, Kaur would detail that Kashmiri police arrested her in 1997, and also took her then-3-year-old son, Kanwarpal, into custody. She would detail how the police beat and tortured her in an attempt to get a “false statement against my husband in connection” with Andrabi’s killing. In the application, she had written that “since the identity of [Andrabi’s] killer is … known to us, we will be killed without a trace much before our voices are heard.”

To support her daughter’s claim, her mother Satwant Kaur Wazir had also included her affidavit detailing how she was summoned to the Rajbagh police station in June 1997, before her daughter’s arrest. Police pressured Wazir and another daughter, Gursharan, “a journalist” to give incriminating statements against her son-in-law, she had written in the affidavit in support of Harvinder’s asylum request.

Three months later, she had mentioned, about 40 armed cops raiding their rented home in Jawahar Nagar and arrested Harvinder Kaur, who was held for two days during which “she was tied down on a wooden plank, the soles of her feet beaten with wooden sticks.” She had also accused the “the policemen stood on her chest, repeatedly crushing her, kicking [her]in the stomach” during the “illegal detention”. The consultant, who has revealed all this, was supposed to meet Kaur before she was murdered.

Avtar Singh asliBut Major Singh had running issues with the US Home Land Security. In 2007 when he was a truck driver, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Iowa detained him. They had anonymously been informed that Major Singh may have committed fraud to obtain legal status in the US, according to ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. Then, ICE was unaware of murder charges against Major Singh in Kashmir. While he was placed in removal proceedings, Major Singh was released on a $ 4000 bond.

Next time, he landed in the police custody was in February 2011, after his wife accused him of trying to choke her. Once in Fresno jail, his status of being a fugitive in Kashmir was exposed to his hosts in the US and the government was accordingly informed. It was this event that helped the world see his face for the first time when Corin Hoggard, a Fresno journalist working for ABC, a California based news channel, filmed Major Singh for the first time.

“Are you the same Avtar Singh who is wanted in Kashmir for the murder of Jalil Andrabi?” Hoggard asked. Singh responded: “It’s alleged.” He claimed he was being made a scapegoat.

After his presence became public, the Interpol Washington passed the message about Major Singh’s presence in Selma to the National Central Bureau of Interpol in India but New Delhi ‘disinterest’ ensured Major Singh was freed. Also, the US does not consider only an Interpol notice as sufficient basis for arrest and detention of a person, because it does not meet the requirements for arrest under the 4th Amendment to its Constitution. It needed the entire details of the case and the conviction order as well.

But New Delhi chose against seeking Major Singh’s extradition to India. The US police could not detain him any longer in the domestic violence case. Early this month, Major Singh pleaded no contest to false imprisonment with violence in the choking incident involving his wife. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 52 weeks of batterer’s treatment program.

However, the US government’s handling of the illegal immigration case is interesting. Laura Lichter, the president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, has stated that someone with a complex immigration case would wait five years to go before an immigration judge. “It was rare that (Major) Singh was not detained by immigration authorities after his domestic violence arrest,” Laura was quoted saying. “When someone is arrested on charges related to violent crimes such as domestic violence and they’re already in removal proceedings, nine times out of 10 that person ends up in immigration custody.” India did not request Interpol to issue a so-called “red notice” on Major Singh until 2009.

Law enforcement agencies came into contact with Major Singh again this spring. On April 12, he was charged with misdemeanour and hit-and-run with property damage and Major Singh pleaded not guilty on June 7, in the Kingsburg court. His next court appearance was scheduled for July 15.

Major Singh’s neighbours and classmates of his sons arranged a huge candlelight vigil in memory of his victims within the family after Selma came out of the shock. Far away from Kashmir where charges of massacres by Major Singh abound, Selma residents were emotional over the last massacre the former soldier resorted to. They talked about Major Singh’s desperation over the fate of his kids and family if the long arms of the law caught him. He was feeling a bit of heat.

His last bout of frustration was when a Kashmiri reporter Zahid Rafiq rang him up and sought time for an interview. He refused him an audience, threatened to kill him instead and sought police help in restraining the reporter from visiting him!

Some of the neighbours were driven by their own impressions of the family. Barbara Childers, for instance, the family’s next-door neighbour was impressed that while Major Singh fertilized her lawn on his own and his son mowed it, the family did not take any money. Karri Latimer-Smith was impressed by Mrs Singh keeping “an immaculate house” and living for “the kids and her family.” Some of them left flowers with posters and hand-written notes remembering the boys and the lady.

Back home in his native Yamuna Nagar village in Haryana, Major Avtar Singh’s aged, bedridden parents are desperate to see the mortal remains of their son and of his family. They had approached local US authority for help in getting the bodies flown from the US to India but did not succeed.

Major Avatar Singh’s father Amar Singh, 90 and his mother Harbans Kaur, 85, had disowned their son after this involvement in Jalil Andrabi case was established. The last time sleuths visited their home they had clearly stated that they had disowned their son.

Major Singh had snapped contact with his family, friends and relatives but a few years back after he settled in the US, he resumed communication with his sister Inderjit Kaur who lives in Mahmoodpur village of Haryana. Before murdering his family and committing suicide, Singh had called up his family in Haryana asking about their welfare.

Residents said Major Singh initially studied at St Thomas School at Jagadhari and was later sent to King George Royal Indian Military School in Dholpur. Before joining the Army in 1988, he was associated with the IAF for two years. He has been part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as well.

Major Avtar Singh was not hiding at all. He was known to be living in the US. He had his public profile on Facebook, where he listed his occupation as self-employed (since 2006) and gave details of his residence in Fresno. The fugitive had 53 Facebook friends since he created his profile on May 25, 2009, on the social networking site. He would introduce himself as Indian army’s “highly decorated” officer who served it for 16 years.

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