After coming to California in 1996 from India’s Punjab state, the Athwal’s, like countless other immigrants, seemed to work almost without ceasing.
The family first went to Fremont, near Oakland, where Baljit worked in a factory making auto parts.
Tasminder, their father, found work as a machine operator. Daljit, the older brother, also worked to build the family’s nest egg.
With dedication and thrift, the Athwals climbed the ladder to comfort and respectability, if not wealth.
By 1999, a measure of success enabled Taswinder to purchase a liquor store in Turlock, in the dust choked Central Valley before he decided to return to India. Early last year, Baljit, the younger brother, leased another liquor store there which faces California State University, Stanislaus and is minutes from their East Avenue location.
But two years ago, on July 15, 2012, more than 20 police officers swooped down on Pop N Cork, the store they own–and Daljit’s home. The officers were allegedly searching for clues in the disappearance of Korey Kauffman, 26, known for salvaging scrap metal and a string of odd jobs.
One officer handcuffed Daljit, while others pointed guns at his head and that of their cousin, Raman, their sales clerk.
“We know you know where Kauffman’s body is,” one officer claimed, according to Daljit Athwal. “No, we don’t’ know him,” Daljit replied. “Yes, you do, he came here everyday,” the other officer insisted.
“No, he did not. We would know him if he did, but we do not,” Daljit said he told the officer. After more discussion, according to Daljit, several officers said, “we’re sorry we had to do this; you guys are good people and didn’t deserve this.”
With that, the officers left, taking still unreturned cell phones and documents.
The Athwals, Baljit said, later decided that the officers had made a “legitimate mistake regarding Kauffman’s murder and that we should just forget about it” Daljit, though, stung by the abuse he suffered that day, filed a lawsuit–still unresolved–against Officer Frank Navarro and the City of Turlock. Daljit reported that Navarro said, “Who would take care of your family if you were to die right now?” Navarro held a gun to his head as he asked the question according to Daljit.
That “mistake” was only the beginning of a long, harrowing ordeal, which continues to hound the Athwals, their employees and many friends.
Two years later, on March 3, in the chilly minutes just after dawn, 200 snarling police officers flipped the script on the Athwals.
Shouting ugly epithets, they came with tactics reserved for hardened, career criminals and replaced the scripted American Dream with the one familiar to communities of color. Their angry, hostile threats to “shut this store down” frightened dazed, long-time customers.
The officers, attached to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, Stanislaus Sheriff’s and Turlock Police Departments, aimed shot guns at the cashier’s head and shouted, “show your hands, show your hands!” before handcuffing him.
Instead of collecting evidence, the officers, saying they brought search warrants, in a four-hour rampage smashed hundreds of bottles of liquor, wine and beer.
One of them, aimed his shotgun at Dominick Saldana’s head before he could leave the bathroom. “Put your hands up, put your hands up,”The officer shouted at Saldana, whom the Athwals often hired to clean the store and stock their shelves. “What’s going on? Saldana said he asked. “Just shut up and walk,” The officer told him, Saldana said.
Onvestigator Kirk Bunch and a detective named Evers promised they would “be my friend if I told the truth,” Saldana said. The officers, Saldana reported, prodded him to “just tell the truth, that the Athwals paid you to beat up people.”
Suddenly, Saldana said, Investigator Bunch and Evers began to give him words for the confession they demanded from him: “say you’ve taken Robert’s place, that’s why you know everything.”
Saldana, who said he feared for his life, told Bunch: “You guys are almost making me say I did it” (beat up people), for the Athwals. Investigator Bunch and Evers, said Saldana, “offered to buy a house for me if I would testify” against the Athwals. The officers, Saldana said “told me I ‘owe them one’ because they caught my brothers’ murderer,” some years ago.
The Athwals earned his loyalty, Saldana said, “because, for six months, both held me down every day, while I was perspiring and shaking, so I could kick the meth habit.” Saldana said he is grateful to them. “They saved my life,” he said.
While an officer aimed his shotgun at Saldana’s head, other officers, said Baljit Athwal, “ripped out the wires connected to the outside electric box, so the circuit camera couldn’t capture their violence.”
Next, he said “they cut the chains on the door outside the storage box and broke into the cooler were beer and cold beverages are.” As regular customers came throughout the morning, many for their daily cups of coffee and cigarettes, the lead investigator, Kirk Bunch reportedly told them, “you don’t want to come to this place again. Its going to hell and will be put up for sale, it’ll never open for business again.”
The rampage, said Baljit Athwal, cost the brothers an estimated $30,000 in merchandise.
Less than a mile away, at Baljit’s home, an officer aimed a shotgun at the head of his terrified, eight-year-old son, Karan. Crying and shaking, an officer pulled him, by a finger. Baljit, clad only in boxer shorts, was forced into a squad car.
Baljit’s wife, Navneet, 38, holding their infant baby in her arms, tried to re-assure their shell shocked son that he wasn’t going to be killed. Sitting on the edge of a sofa, she asked police why they broke into their home. Officer Steven Jacobson responded, “we have information that your husband is cheating on you and pays prostitutes.”
Unconvinced, she replied, “I don’t believe you, but if you have proof, show it to me and I will divorce him.”
Jacobson, expressing sudden concern for her welfare, said he “would hate to make that call.” Mrs. Athwal said she encouraged him to “go ahead and make it, if you have proof.”
For good measure, Jacobson confiscated Karen Athwal’s cell phone, IPad and computer. Inexplicably, he also seized the record of the infant’s blood screening and the computer used by the Athwal’s mentally challenged daughter, who is six.
For 22 consecutive days, other officers, in unmarked cars, appeared at both stores. Each day, with a stream of taunts and threats, they harassed and intimidated the Athwals, their employees and patrons.
Lead investigator Kirk Bunch and officer Jon Evers, on learning that the Athwal’s had appealed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for protection, confronted the brothers at their East Avenue store. “Why do you want the FBI?” Bunch demanded. “We are the FBI,” he reportedly glared and said.
On March 14, detectives in a squad car across from the Crowell Road store asked customers, “why do you want to shop here, they are murderers?”
In addition to asking the FBI for relief, the Athwals requested help from President Barack Obama, Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Governor Jerry Brown. The family had earlier reported the officer’s alleged misconduct to the Sheriff’s Internal Affairs Division.
Only after the raid did the Athwal’s learn that Birgit Fladager, the Stanislaus County District Attorney, alleges that they, along with Frank Carson, a prominent Central Valley lawyer, are “co-conspirators B, C and D” who supposedly played roles in Kauffman’s murder. In charging documents, Fladager claims “Kauffman’s murder was covered up.”
Carson, esteemed throughout the region as a brilliant litigator, is challenging Fladager’s bid for re-election. He has successfully represented the Athwal brothers in several minor civil matters.
The court documents allegedly containing Fladager’s claims have been sealed at her request. Specific roles Fladager claims that any, or all three, men played in Kauffman’s murder are thus not only unknown, but cannot be identified or verfied by independent observers.
Percy Martinez,a Modesto attorney representing Carson, told Policeabuse.com, ” we don’t know how it came to pass that Robert Lee Woody killed Kauffman. The District Attorney says he ‘lay in wait.’ I don’t know whether Woody knew Kauffman or didn’t know him,” Fladager alleges that “co-conspirators B, C and D tried to obstruct justice by intimidating a witness, Michael Cooley.” He is a self-admitted thief.
“Even off the record,” said a source, “assistant district attorneys and police officials will only say that ‘all the evidence leads to the suspects.'” None of them, said the source, “have ever been willing to identify or describe the evidence or where, when and how it was obtained.”
A well known Los Angeles attorney commented, but off the record. “If the Athwals were guilty, they wouldn’t wait and hang around in Turlock to see what will happen to them. With their resources, if they knew the police and District Attorney have sufficient evidence for convictions carrying 25 years to life in prison, they would have left the country.”
Diop Kamau, founder/director of Policeabuse.com, enlisted by the Athwals for an investigation, advocacy and support, described the raids “as a police attack, a ghetto search of the kind frequently staged in low-income and minority neighborhoods.” Kamau said, “they are designed to exact penalties without ever having to make arrests, so criminals or suspects can be punished without consequences for investigating officers.”
Further Kamau said, “they allow rogue officers to punish criminal suspects by inflicting deliberate property damage. Police officers, he said, “can justify the damage as part of a legitimate search warrant, without ever telling a judge that the items they broke or destroyed were part of the search.”
Such wiggle room, he said, “gives police the security and protection of a legitimate court order and allows them to diverge into illegitimate abuses of police power thinly veiled under a court sanctioned search. Proving police did deliberate damage is difficult and often victims never recover damages, Kamau said.
Kamau’s credentials as a nationally respected authority in policing were first established when he earned a position on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office’s Red Team, an elite undercover detective arm that targeted career felons. Kamau was cited for his extraordinary service, in which he had a direct hand in the arrest and conviction of nearly 300 suspects and recovered more than $500,000 in stolen property as part of the multi-jurisdictional unit.
As such, his opinions about the treatment of the Athwal brothers runs contrary to what he learned while serving as a highly decorated member of one of the nation’s most prestigious undercover units.
Before that chilly March morning, two years had passed since Kauffman disappeared in 2012.
According to statements police issued to news media, a hunter discovered Kauffman’s body last October, in nearby Stanislaus National Forest.
Soon afterward, Woody, 38, was charged with Kauffman’s murder. In his April 10, Pre-Trial Hearing, in Stanislaus County Superior Court, prosecutors received a continuance until later this month. No date was set for the next Hearing.
Woody’s attorney is Modesto-based Bruce R. Perry. Before the April 10 Hearing, Perry, through his secretary, declined to speak with a Policeabuse.com writer until learning, “whether (he) will be able to keep the (Woody’s) case.”
Policeabuse.com has placed repeated calls for comment to Fladager, Carol Shipley, the Assistant District Attorney for Media Relations and Teresa Clayton, her aide. None of them have responded. Policeabuse.com attempted to schedule in-person interviews in Modesto with all of them, but without success.
Less than two weeks after the March, 2014, raids, an assistant to the Turlock Police Chief, Robert Jackson, said, “this is an open case, so the chief will have to pass this on (the request for an interview), to the District Attorney’s office.”
Several days later, Chief Jackson responded to Policeabuse.com’s second interview request. “I don’t want to be misleading, I just want to get you (as a journalist), to the right people,” he said.
The chief went on: “This is kind of tricky, its a unique case; it really isn’t our case to investigate. We had only two officers who helped with the investigation and were engaged in it, but this is the case of the Stanislaus County Sheriffs Department.” With emphasis, he said, “we’re not the ones who served the warrants.”
Attempting to explain his officers’ involvement, he said, “I can understand the Athwal’s feelings.” Then he asked, “did they call you (Policeabuse.com) on this?”
Receiving an affirmative response, he said, “I don’t know the details (of the (‘investigation’); the District Attorney and the Sheriff’s Department are the primary investigative agencies.”
Seeming to distance himself from the controversy roiled up by the rampage, wanton destruction of merchandise and valuable items taken by officers, he said, “I hope the Athwals get some clarity. We’re the good guys here. If our men did anything wrong, I’ll be happy to investigate (them).”
Yet officers under his command rebuffed the family’s repeated efforts to file charges alleging his officers misconduct, the Athwal’s said. On March 7, according to the Athwals, one officer told them to file charges at the department’s headquarters. But afterward, in a telephone message, a sergeant claimed he “cannot write a report,” the Athwals said.
Three days later, on March 10, Lieutenant Miguel Pacheco told the Athwals he couldn’t file a report, which was also the claim received by the family that day from an officer at the Sheriffs headquarters.
Undaunted, the Athwals contacted the District Attorney’s office. “The District Attorney’s office does not take reports,” the Athwals were told.
The Athwals again attempted to file a report with the Turlock Police Department–on March 11, 13 and 14–but to no avail. One officer, who identified himself only as Joseph, said, “Turlock police had nothing to do with this.” He then referred them to Fladager’s Chief Investigator, Daniel Inderbitzen and Adam Christenson.
Kamau, commenting on the “police attack,” said, “irrespective of the motives of District Attorney’s, whether political or linked to unknown reasons, these tactics run counter to the standards and guidelines for suspect interviews and investigative purposes as defined by the International Association of Police Chiefs and other oversight bodies.”
Continuing to explain, Kamau added, “no matter the reason, none of these police behaviors were supported by law or policy. The deliberate refusal to properly receive complaints undermines the credibility of the prosecutor’s claims against the Athwal brothers.”
A properly managed investigation, Kamau said, “would not have included deliberately damaging property, highly inappropriate and abusive language and deliberate attempts to undermine a family’s ability to support itself through its business operation.”
Through spokesmen, Kamau noted, “police investigators claim that none of this happened.” Policeabuse.com, however, “has taken witness statements supported by affidavits saying that they most certainly did.”
As a result, Kamau continued, “nothing said by prosecutor’s can be trusted because they haven’t properly investigated the complaints against the prosecutor’s investigators. Rather, they simply proclaimed themselves innocent and accused the Athwals of complaining, as a strategy to derail the prosecution without supplying a single shred of evidence to support this baseless claim.”
This argument, Kamau said, ” is circular and leaves the Athwal brothers with no where to go. If they don’t complain, the abuse will continue. But if they do complain, prosecutors will accuse them of leveraging the complaints as a strategy to thwart a proper and legitimate prosecution.” This line of argument is preposterous and fair-minded people easily see through it, Kamau said.
The District Attorney and the Sheriffs Department, Kamau charged, “want to destroy a successful minority-owned business. As such he said, “there is a race and class component to this prosecution. Low-income whites, African Americans and people of color like the Athwals are neon targets for these kinds of prosecutions which zero in on one’s ability to earn a living as part of the case he pointed out.
“Starving a business of sorely needed revenue can force targets to accept a plea or offer evidence,” he noted. “Extorting a plea like this would not be tolerated in a high income business community. If the Athwal’s liquor stores were owned by affluent, well connected Modesto citizens, these behaviors would not be brushed off by Stanislaus County’s political, social and economic elites–there would be outrage.”
In contrast, Kamau said, “it is abundantly clear that they are trying to drive Baljit out of business, in part because he is considered insignificant. He is a dark man, from India, who is not connected to political power sufficient to stop this wholly unjustified assault on his family.”
Moreover, Kamau said, “the District Attorneys abusive and unprofessional treatment of the Athwals strongly suggests a racial component to the repeated actions of the police assigned to her office. Telling Baljit’s wife that he is an adulterer sleeping with prostitutes appears designed to humiliate and ridicule the family in a manner recognized in minority communities. The affront to the dignity of the father of the household is deliberate and intended to cause a special type of pain and embarrassment.”
Policeabuse.com, Kamau said, “is also appalled that Fladager and her police unit have harassed attorney Frank Carson. However, the key distinction, he said, is “the enormous financial, physical, psychological and emotional damage inflicted on the Athwals. Given a choice between targeting the Athwals or Carson, Fladager obviously believes they are the easier and most vulnerable of the two targets.”
Fladager and her men, Kamau said, “hope to beat something, anything at all, out of Baljit; they know they can’t go toe to toe with an attorney, especially one of Frank Carson’s stature.”
Police broke down a door at one of Carson’s properties and seized his daughter’s computer, but have since returned it. Although Carson, his family and friends weren’t subjected to comparable abuse, intimidation and harassment, Kamau said “police and the prosecutor are inflicting as much damage on him, but in a different form: Among voters, in the political arena, where Fladager can smear him and sully his reputation.”
“The District attorney and her police unit,” Kamau added, “have attacked the Pop N Cork stores to exhaust the Athwal’s resources, and because they can. They think if they squeeze hard enough, they’ll get something.”
If these officers, Kamau said, “begin going door to door in Frank Carson’s neighborhood to harass his family, friends and clients, then, and only then, will I believe that the suspects are being treated equally regardless of race. But this inconsistent, hostile, investigation is tailored to hurt the targets where they are most vulnerable. For Carson it is political for the Athwals it is financial.”
Carson said he intends to respond to the District Attorney’s allegations, but not immediately.
For the moment, he said, “the Athwals are honest men, of the highest integrity and in every sense of the word.”
Some 24 days after the raids, Kamau left a message for Bunch, “warning him against further harassment. Policeabuse.com intends to file a bar complaint against the District Attorney and a personnel complaint against you. If you walk into either of Mr. Athwal’s stores, everything you say will be recorded; you are not to ask him any questions,” Kamau said.
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