Reporter Sonia Chopra wrote this article following numerous interviews with both the Kaur and Singh families, including Gurpreet himself. She was also in the courtroom during his trial last year, which ended in a hung jury. He is due in court for a second trial that begins Feb. 10.
Every night, Karam Singh and Daljeet Kaur sit in the courtyard of their home in Manupur, Punjab, India, silently.
The Sikh parents pray for their only son, Gurpreet Singh, who sits in the Butler County jail in West Chester, Ohio, approximately 10,000 miles away.
He is charged with the murders of his wife, Shalinderjit Kaur, 39; his father-in-law, Haikikat Singh Panang, 59; his mother-in-law, Parmjit Kaur, 62; and his aunt-in-law, Amarjit Kaur, 58; at a West Chester Twp. apartment on April 28, 2019.
Gurpreet’s recent trial ended with a hung jury and his retrial begins Feb. 10. He has maintained his innocence and his family stands with him.
“Waheguru, Waheguru, if it is your wish, save our son,” the parents chanted. (“Waheguru” means O Wondrous Lord in Punjabi, the language of the Sikhs.)
The immigrants — Gurpreet and the four victims — are from Punjab, a state in northern India where Sikhism was founded 500 years ago. It is the fifth-largest religion in the world and is a monotheistic faith that believes in equality and service to humanity.
In long distance calls in Punjabi, Gurpreet’s parents express their horror, shock, grief and bewilderment at the trajectory of their son’s life. A dutiful son, a good husband, and a loving father is now an accused murderer? Facing the death penalty?
The murders, the subsequent arrest and trial of Gurpreet, and the specter of another trial hanging over the heads of family members in India, Canada, Australia and the United States have shattered the lives of both families.
‘The verdict was a shock’
In Toronto, Jasdeep Hans, son of Amarjit Kaur, looks at his mother’s photo every morning and promises her that justice will be done. The state will execute her killer.
“My mother was angelic, saintly. She spent all her time praying for everyone. She smiled all the time, she was always positive,” he said. “I can’t go back and change the past, but I can make sure her soul will rest in peace.”
Gurinder Hans, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, said his heart broke the day his mother died, and it will stay broken.
“She was a loving mother, just like all mothers. She was soft-spoken and gentle and everyone loved her,” he said. “I still can’t believe she is gone. I still can’t believe I will never see her again.”
“Sometimes when my phone rings, I still think she is calling me.”
The sons remember how excited Amarjit was to come to the United States. She bought bright clothing and silver bangles for the women.
Nirbhai Singh, who lives in San Jose, Calif., is the younger brother of the two women — Amarjit and Parmjit — who were killed. He is haunted by the graphic photos of their bodies lying in pools of blood shown at the trial.
He believes that closure will come when Gurpreet is found guilty. Still, he has found some peace as he and his wife Harpreet have adopted Gurpreet and Shalidnerjit’s children. They are 15, 12 and 7 years old now. Harpreet quit her job to take care of the kids and she spends a sizable amount of time doing pick-ups and drop-offs for the six kids. The couple also has three kids of their own.
“The verdict was a shock. We were stunned,” Nirbhai said. “We were strong enough to live through all of it, sit through the trial and now we have to be strong until justice is done.”
Ajaib Singh, the other brother in Maryland, believes he will rest easy when Gurpreet goes to his death.
“We will not be defeated. It’s a temporary setback,” he said of the mistrial.
The relationship between the brothers and the sons of the victims and Gurpreet’s family is fractured beyond repair.
An ordinary life to international headlines
Gurpreet’s parents are alienated and shunned. They have not spoken to their grandchildren in three years.
“We want to hug them. We want to see our son,” said Karam, his voice cracking. Daljeet could be heard sobbing in the background. “We want to go to America. We are the most cursed family. We would not wish this life on anyone. We lost our angelic daughter-in-law tragically and all the family relationships are lost to us.”
Their request for visas was rejected by the American embassy because their son is charged with murder. They have now retained the services of an immigration attorney and they have been granted an interview to explain why they want to go to America.
Nothing in their ordinary lives spent in a rural village had prepared them for a life of notoriety and international headlines.
Gurpreet was raised in a land-owning, extended family with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunties and cousins. Like the rest of the Sikh families, they worked in the fields. Agriculture is a way of life in Punjab, and the region are the largest suppliers of rice, wheat, sugarcane, oilseeds and cotton for the rest of India and exporters for the world.
But even with land ownership, Sikh men were finding it harder to make ends meet. In a nearby village of Fatehgarh Sahib, Gurpreet’s future father-in-law, Haikikat Singh Panang, dreamed of making his fortune on foreign shores. He left his wife Parmjit Kaur and their then-baby daughter Shalinderjit and traveled to Canada and entered the United States illegally.
Parmjit Kaur had five other siblings — sisters Jarnail Kaur, now 65, and Amarjit, as well as brothers Ajaib, Nirbhai and Talwinder Singh.
Ajaib and Nirbhai were already living in Maryland and San Jose at that time. Haikikat dreamed of owning several gas stations but lacked legal status. He met and married an American woman, Nancy Wolfe, in Pennsylvania. He sent divorce papers for Parmjit and Wolfe agreed to adopt Shalinderjit.
Shalinderjit stayed with her uncle Nirbhai and aunt Harpreet for four years in the United States. Meanwhile, Haikikat remarried Parmjit and they were living in New Jersey.
On one of their frequent family trips to India, Shalinderjit married Gurpreet in an arranged marriage, just like her parents and grandparents had done before her.
She was 23 and he was 20 years old.
‘They were happy’
When Gurpreet joined Shalinderjit in America, they lived in Bradford, Conn., with Gurpreet’s paternal uncle and cousins for three years.
“They were happy all the time. They never fought and we have never seen any sign of discord,” said Gurpreet’s cousin, J. Singh, who asked for anonymity because of employment and housing issues.
Singh shared many photos which show Gurpreet and Shalinderjit happy and partying at weddings and other family events.
An opportunity to buy a gas station in Kentucky came up and the couple moved there, where they lived with Gurpreet’s uncle and cousins. They continued to live there even after the Kentucky gas station didn’t work out.
Haikikat and Parmjit were in New Jersey and weren’t doing well. Through the Sikh community, they heard of a gas station for sale in Celina, Ohio. They moved in with Gurpreet and Shalinderjit, but they soon realized the gas station didn’t have work for two men.
Following the lead of his cousins and family friends, Gurpreet started his own trucking company, Rolling Hills Ohio, and he spent 70 to 80 hours weekly transporting materials and goods to distribution centers.
The family decided to relocate to Cincinnati where there was a large community of Sikhs and the most prominent gurudwara in the Tri-State area called the Guru Nanak Society of Greater Cincinnati.
The two couples moved to a three-bedroom apartment that was close to the gurudwara. In India, being in a joint family with three generations under one roof breaking bread together is natural, and the same orthodox traditions carry over to foreign lands.
Gurpreet and Shalinderjit had two daughters and one son. Now they felt like they were finally living their American dream.
Gurpreet was the main breadwinner and Haikikat and Parmjit worked part-time jobs. Haikikat worked in a warehouse and she folded towels at a laundromat.
They wanted the children to grow up with Punjabi culture and tradition. Parmjit would narrate Punjabi stories of mythology and history and enroll them in the weekend Punjabi classes at the gurdwara.
As a family, they followed Sikh traditions. Parmjit and Shalinderjt wore Indian salwars and kameez (loose pants and long loose tops) and dupattas (scarves) and they had not cut their hair from birth.
Gurpreet and Haikikat, like many Sikh men, had cut off their hair so they could blend in as Indians and not be discriminated against.
Except for Haikikat, they all ate vegetarian food. Punjabi men in India favor chicken tikka masala, and goat kebabs with a few glasses of Johnny Walker, Black Label and other hard liquor. Haikikat overindulged and developed an alcohol addiction.
He had issues with drunk driving and alcohol poisoning. He grew loud and argumentative during those bouts of drinking, and it took all of Parmjit’s strength to quiet him down when he became rowdy and loud. She used to ask Gurpreet to help her with him.
Ultimately, the drinking got so bad that Haikikat lived in another apartment away from everyone.
By early 2019, they had lived in Cincinnati for 11 years. Gurpreet had put down a sizable deposit for a home in Indiana with five bedrooms. He initiated the process of sponsoring his parents to emigrate to America. Haikikat and Parmjit would move in with them.
Gurpreet chose Indiana because it was at the crossroads of truck stops where loads are dropped off or reloaded. It also had a large Sikh population.
The land, and the other woman
In March 2019, Shalinderjit opened a bank statement and found a $20,000 check made out to Navkiran Kaur.
She knew who Navkiran was. A woman in Indiana who had been a battered wife and had an ugly divorce. Her husband had sold their house to a cousin for a dollar and she needed money to repurchase it.
But why was Gurpreet paying her? She confronted him and he didn’t deny it, but he also didn’t tell her that Navkiran was his girlfriend, or the word everyone else used to describe her — “mistress.” She felt worse when she realized that Navkiran lived in the same subdivision where they were building their house.
Shalinderjit seemed sad and defeated and would not listen to any talk of divorce, her gurudwara friends say, on condition of anonymity. She told them they had been happily married for 17 years.
The picture the community had of Gurpreet and his family as the perfect happy family began to fray at the edges.
There had already been much talk about Haikikat and Parmjit’s land in India. It was worth a million dollars and they wanted the money. They had entered into a land deal with Gurpreet’s relative, Kuldeep Singh Sekhon.
Meanwhile, Parmjit sponsored her younger sister Amarjit, who arrived in April to live with the family. Amarjit had been widowed more than a decade ago and had raised her sons by herself. She had hoped to live out her life staying with her sister in Cincinnati and visiting her sons every six months.
But the events of April 28, 2019, changed everything.
‘Whoever did this is getting away!”
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday. Gurpreet woke up at 9 a.m., much later than usual, because he had pulled a muscle in his back, maybe playing volleyball. He stayed home all day. He watched Parmjit and Amarjit leave for the laundromat, as Amarjit had also been hired in the same place.
Gurpreet lay on the carpet on the living room floor as Haikikat watched the news about Indian politics on an Indian channel they subscribed to. They talked a bit about the corrupt politicians and then Haikikat left for the temple.
Gurpreet cooked lunch with his kids in the kitchen. Then Shalinderjit drove the three kids in her minivan to Punjabi dance practice from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. The children were rehearsing for a dance recital.
Parmjit had booked a flight to India for April 30, hoping that some money might have come in from any potential buyers of the land. So, she was out shopping for gifts for relatives and toiletries for herself. Amarjit wanted to send her son Jasdeep gummy bears, which he enjoyed snacking on.
Gurpreet left late afternoon to work on his semi-truck, which was parked on Muhlauser Road. He was fixing a broken taillight and checking oil levels. Then he stopped by a UDF to get gas and then he went home.
Gurpreet’s children were with his cousins.
In conversation, Gurpreet said that when he came home — he couldn’t recall the exact time — he found the front door of the house open. All the victims were shot in the head and 16 bullets were in the bodies.
The women were lying mere feet from each other in pools of blood. Shalinderjit Kaur was shot three times in the hand and she lay with her arm over her head in the kitchen. Parmjit had four wounds to the head, one wound on her finger and her right forearm. Amarjit was shot twice in the head. Haikikat had the most wounds. He was shot eight times in the head and his eyes were blown out of their sockets.
Haikikat was lying in the bedroom with his arms tucked around him. The bed was drenched in blood. On the stove, a pan of tea had burned and the smoke detector was going off.
He said he became aware they were all “bleeding from the head.” He called 911 at 9:40 p.m. and told the dispatcher to send someone because nobody was responding. He went around the apartment complex and knocked on doors screaming for help.
Later, police would find the gun used in the murders was thrown in the lake directly behind the apartment with the serial number pried off.
Gurpreet said he was in shock as he called 911, knocked on doors and when police put him in a cruiser and took him to the station.
When police arrived, Gurpreet had blood all over his hands, arms and body. His socks were saturated with blood. At the police station, he was questioned in a “soft interview” room.
The videos of the interview were played in court. Gurpreet sat in a yellow chair, breathing heavily, drinking water from a Styrofoam cup. He stammered out answers about his name, age, profession and information about the victims.
Gurpreet asked to speak to his children 36 times. But he wasn’t allowed to. He said he was willing to talk to the police but at one point, they started to treat him like a criminal and then he stopped talking to them.
He tried to storm out of the room during the police interview after investigators asked to test his hands for gunshot residue.
He told them: “I want to go home. My family is shot. I want to go to my kids.”
And then he demanded a lawyer and stopped speaking to them. Detective Randy Farris told him again they had to test his hands for gunshot residue.
They had to get a search warrant for gunpowder residue, blood from his clothes, photos of his body and swabs under his fingernails.
Gurpreet appeared to be outraged.
“I see where this is going. Where is my right? Whoever did this is getting away from you guys.”
He strips naked and he was dropped home in scrubs. He had been at the police station from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next morning.
After that interaction with the police, Gurpreet retained the law firm of Rittgers and Rittgers.
The test for gunpowder residue came back positive. But experts hired by Gurpreet’s attorneys said that gunshot residue was bound to be on his hands — he had touched the victims; he had held his dead wife.
Gurpreet’s attorneys made a motion to suppress the statements he made to the police, saying his constitutional rights were violated. Judge Greg Howard denied the motion and all the statements he made were admissible.
Part of the issue, his attorneys said, was that English is Gurpreet’s second language and legal terminology is a challenge for him. For every hearing for three years, there have been interpreters. At trial, there were four translating English to Punjabi for Gurpreet.
On July 2, 2019, Gurpreet was arrested at a Walmart in Bradford, Conn., where he had gone for a family wedding. He spent a month in the New Haven jail and was extradited to Ohio and he is still being held at the Butler County jail.
He told his family that he didn’t do anything and that he has no clue why he was arrested. They believed him.
The other side of the family said they knew from minute one that he was the murderer. They say the dual motives were his desire to marry Navkiran and to inherit Haikikat and Parmjit’s land.
“Gurpreet married Shalinerjit because he would get a green card and she would inherit the land from her father and then he must have realized that Haikikat was not dying any time soon so he killed them,” Ajaib said.
“He’s a mass murderer. We demand a minimum of four death penalties for murder; life isn’t acceptable.”
At the funeral service and the cremation later, the two sides of the family sat on opposite sides and there was no conversation between them. The victims were unrecognizable. They looked like waxy caricatures of their former selves.
Gurinder Hans said that Gurpreet was “a good actor, a liar, a con man, a bloody dog, a bloody murderer. Gurpreet just lies and lies.”
Gurpreet’s family disagreed. At that point, all they knew of Navkiran and Gurpreet was that the latter was sympathetic and supportive of her marital and financial struggles.
They said Gurpreet had nothing to do with the land. They said a decade ago, Haikikat had amassed an enormous amount of debt and he agreed to a land deal with Gurpreet’s relative and his business partner while he was living in India. Haikikat moved back to America and worked out an installment plan with them. They owed him $1.55 million.
Gurpreet’s family pointed out that he would inherit acres of land from his parents, and he had a trucking business worth $250,000 with a truck and trailers. He had a house in Indiana worth $300,000 and money in the bank. He also paid all the bills for the entire family.
But after two years in jail, he sold all his assets to pay $300,000 in lawyers’ fees. The house in Indiana was sold at a loss and he had to pay off other debts. He was declared indigent and has court-appointed lawyers for the next trial.
Family, friends want answers, but will they come?
Gurudwara members were traumatized by the murders.
“They were beloved, good, decent, hard-working people,” said Jasminder Singh, who was friends with Haikikat and used to have tea with him every Sunday.
Satinder Kaur said that “there is sadness and shock but we want answers as to why these unnatural deaths happened. And why?”
Shalinderjit’s friends at the gurudwara cried when they heard of her being carried out in a body bag, hours after she last saw them.
Sweet. Angelic. Shy. Not a bad word to say about anyone. Devoted to her family, were some of the things they said about her.
Balwinder Kaur knew Shalinderjit for 20 years. She had met her when she was living with Nirbhai and Harpreet in San Jose. They once went on a girls’ trip to Reno, Nevada.
“She was really nice, really kind. She couldn’t even kill an ant. She was very attached to her children, especially her son. He was the apple of her eye,” Kaur said.
During the trial, Sikh community members followed the events diligently. The defense said Gurpreet is innocent and the killings were part of a professional hit due to Haikikat’s financial problems and a dubious land deal in India with the “land mafia.”
In the state’s opening statement, Assistant Prosecutor Jon Marshall said Gurpreet had a strained relationship with both Shalinderjit and Haikikat.
“They were alive until he got home,” Marshall said, pointing to Gurpreet. He went on to describe the graphic nature of the murders and said that based on cell phone data and location data from the GPS in his car, Gurpreet arrived at the apartment at 9:11 p.m. and waited 30 minutes before he called 911.
Defense attorney Charlie M. Rittgers agreed with Marshall that Gurpreet had an affair with Navkiran and he gave her a car and $20,000 for a down payment for her house. But he discussed alternative suspects and said that the members of the “land mafia” in India are wanted by the FBI and Interpol.
Rittgers also said three masked men broke into the apartment with baseball bats and Gurpreet ran out of the apartment. When he came back, everyone was dead. Because there were four adults killed in separate rooms with two exits, the murders were probably committed by more than one person, Rittgers said.
Eleven jurors agreed with the state, with one juror — an African American, the only person of color on the jury — dissenting. It was a mistrial.
Meanwhile, Gurpreet’s parents say they feel hopeless and helpless. They rely on God to “clean the black spot on their name.”
“We were once a big loving family,” they said. “We pray for Haikikat, Parmjit, Amarjit and our Shalinerjit’s souls. God has given us a very heavy burden to bear. It is still a big shock.”