FRESNO, Calif. – The former Indian army officer who was wanted for murder in his homeland and killed his family in California last weekend had been living illegally in the U.S. for at least five years, federal immigration officials said Tuesday.
Avtar Singh, who killed his wife, two children and himself in their Selma, Calif. home on Saturday, had been arrested by investigators for unlawful presence in July 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori Haley told The Associated Press.
He was "subsequently placed in removal proceedings. At the time of his death, ICE Homeland Security Investigations was continuing to investigate his case," Haley said in a written statement.
Haley did not say where or why Singh first came to the attention of U.S. authorities, why ICE released him, or whether ICE officials knew of his alleged crimes in India.
Singh was sought with an Interpol notice for the 1996 killing of Jalil Andrabi, a lawyer and prominent human rights advocate, in the disputed region of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Andrabi disappeared at the height of protests in the region, where nearly a dozen rebel groups have fought Indian 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 crackdown.
A police investigation said Andrabi had been picked up in Kashmir's main city, Srinagar, by Indian troops and killed in their custody. His body was recovered in a local river — he had been shot in the head and his eyes were gouged out.
The probe blamed Singh and his soldiers for that killing and accused Singh of involvement in the killings of six other Kashmiri men.
Singh lived freely in India for years after the charges against him were filed. India did not request Interpol to issue a so-called "red notice" on him until 2009. He is believed to have fled to Canada before moving to California after the Canadian Center for International Justice pressured the Canadian government to locate him, said Hafizullah Mir, Andrabi's lawyer.
Singh, who owned a trucking company in Selma, had been arrested in Selma in February 2011, after his wife said he choked her.
Police then discovered that he was being sought in India on a murder charge, Selma Police Chief Myron Dyck said shortly after that arrest. Dyck said at the time, that he could not keep Singh in custody on the murder charge, so Singh bailed out of jail.
Dyck hasn't responded to calls seeking comment about the 2011 arrest.
Singh was charged with felony domestic violence, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor of false imprisonment, and was sentenced to three years of probation and a 52-week batterer's treatment program, said Sonia De La Rosa, spokeswoman for the Fresno County District Attorney's Office.
Interpol Washington officials said the U.S. does not consider an Interpol notice alone to be a sufficient basis for the arrest and detention of a person, because it does not meet the requirements for arrest under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.
Interpol Washington passed the message that Singh was in Selma to the National Central Bureau of Interpol in India, said the agency's spokeswoman LaTonya Miller.
Indian Embassy officials in Washington did not return calls for comment as to why Singh was not immediately extradited after his location came to light.
Laura Lichter, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said it was not atypical that someone with a complex immigration case would wait five years to go before an immigration judge.
But, she said, it was rare Singh was not detained by immigration authorities after his domestic violence arrest.
"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 ten that person ends up in immigration custody," Lichter said.
Selma police last had contact with Singh about two months ago when he called to complain that a reporter who was in the area wouldn't leave him alone because of the murder warrant. The Kashmiri 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.
On Saturday, Singh called police around 6:15 a.m., telling them that he had just killed four people, Fresno County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Curtice said. Police found the bodies of Singh, a woman believed to be his wife and two children, ages 3 and 15, Curtice said. All appeared to have died from gunshot wounds.
A 17-year-old believed to be the man's son was also found "barely alive," Curtice said. As of Tuesday, he remained in the hospital in critical condition.
Investigators were still trying to determine a motive in Saturday's killing.