THE ATHWAL BROTHERS: FROM THE AMERICAN DREAM TO A CONTINUING NIGHTMARE PART I

brigit-fladager-da-stanislaus-county
Stanislaus DA Birgit Fladager is responsible for the raids described in this story
brigit-fladager-da-stanislaus-county
Stanislaus DA Birgit Fladager is responsible for the raids described in this story

(Original article posted on www.policeabuse.com)

The hard-earned success of Baljit Athwal, his parents and siblings mirrors the American

Dream.

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.

Brandishing semi-automatic weapons, the officers, in black SWAT Team gear, broke down the doors at Pop N Cork and Daljit’s home, a block from Baljit’s house in Ceres, a small community close to Turlock.

athwals-busted-doorShouting 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.

Investigator 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.

storage-box-Athwal-police-abuseWhile Officers 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, I Pad 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 verified 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.