SELMA, Calif. (AP) — News of a murder-suicide that left four family members dead raced through a tight-knit Indian community in a small California agricultural town, as police tried to determine why a former Indian army officer opened fire on his family before killing himself.
Authorities said Avtar Singh — wanted for years for murder in his homeland — shot his wife and two children and gravely wounded a third child early Saturday before turning the gun on himself.
“Our community is completely shocked,” Rajbir Singh Pannu, president of the town’s Sikh temple, said Sunday. “It’s a really bad misfortune, especially for the children who died. Anybody who takes somebody’s life, in our religion that’s cowardice.”
The Indian community numbers about 15,500 in Fresno County. That includes 750 in Selma, 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.
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.
Associated Press writer Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.
More Related Stories
- Iran hackers aiming at U.S. energy firms
- Lawyers release data in attempt to discredit Trayvon Martin
- Anonymous rallies behind Kaitlyn Hunt
- Bridge collapse: Part of "aging infrastructure"
- Mistrial in penalty phase of Arias case
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Interstate 5 bridge collapses north of Seattle
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- UK Military: London attack victim was a "model soldier"
- Billionaire hedge funder: Babies, breast-feeding "kill" focus, keep women from succeeding
- "Bookless library" set to open in Texas
- 2 more arrested in London attacks
- Glenn Beck: CNN interview with atheist tornado survivor was a setup!
- Incoming BBC news director on journalism gender gap: "We can do better"
- Illegal construction, shoddy materials at fault in Bangladesh factory disaster
- Ahead of Obama's speech, U.S. acknowledges four American drone killings
- Must-see morning clip: Bill O'Reilly visits "The Daily Show"
- Lawsuit alleges anti-gay hiring practices at ExxonMobil
- Boy Scouts poised to vote, still greatly divided on gay youth
- House supporters of KXL received $56m from fossil fuel industry
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11