SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – The suspect in the kidnapping and slaying of an 8-month-old baby, her parents and an uncle had worked for the family’s trucking business and had a long-running feud with them that culminated in an act of “pure evil, a sheriff said Thursday.
The bodies of Aroohi Dheri; her mother Jasleen Kaur, 27; father Jasdeep Singh, 36; and uncle Amandeep Singh, 39, were found by a farm worker late Wednesday in an almond orchard in a remote area of the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland.
Investigators were preparing a case against the suspect — a convicted felon who tried to kill himself a day after the kidnappings — and were seeking a person of interest believed to be his accomplice. Relatives and other members of the Punjabi Sikh community, meanwhile, were shocked by the killings.
“Right now I have hundreds of people in a community grieving the loss of two families, and it’s worldwide. These families are across different continents,” Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke told the Associated Press. “We have to to show them that we can give them justice.”
The suspect, 48-year-old Jesus Salgado, was released from the hospital and booked into the county jail Thursday night on suspicion of kidnapping and murder, the sheriff’s office said. It was not clear if he had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf.
Earlier, Warnke urged prosecutors to seek the death penalty. The sheriff called it one of the worst crimes he has seen in his 43 years in law enforcement and pleaded with Salgado’s accomplices to surrender.
“There are some things you want to take to the grave. This to me was pure evil,” he said in an interview Thursday.
The city of Merced, where the family’s trucking business was located, will hold evening vigils in memory Thursday through Sunday. The victims’ bodies were found near the town of Dos Palos, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Merced.
Warnke would not discuss the condition of the adults’ remains at the orchard Thursday, but said it was unclear how the baby died. Warnke said the child had no apparent trauma and an autopsy will be performed.
Salgado was previously convicted of first-degree robbery with a firearm in Merced County, attempted false imprisonment and attempting to hinder or deter a victim or witness. Sentenced to 11 years in state prison in that case, he was released in 2015 and discharged from parole three years later, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He has also been convicted of possession of a controlled substance, the department said.
Relatives of Salgado contacted authorities and told them he had admitted to them his involvement in the kidnapping, Warnke told KFSN-TV on Tuesday. Salgado tried to take his own life before police arrived at a home in Atwater — where an ATM card belonging to one of the victims was used after the kidnapping — about 9 miles (14 kilometers) north of Merced. Attempts to reach Salgado’s family were unsuccessful Thursday.
The victims were Punjabi Sikhs, a community in central California that has a significant presence in the trucking industry, with many of them driving trucks, owning trucking companies or other businesses associated with trucking.
Public records show the family owns Unison Trucking Inc., and relatives said they had opened an office in the past few weeks in a parking lot that the Singh brothers also operated. The feud with Salgado dated back a year, the sheriff said, and “got pretty ugly” in text messages or emails. Other details about Salgado’s employment and the nature of the dispute were not immediately available.
Warnke said he believes the family was killed within an hour of the Monday morning kidnapping when they were taken at gunpoint from their business.
Surveillance video showed the suspect — later identified as Salgado — leading the Singh brothers, who had their hands zipped behind their backs, into the back seat of Amandeep Singh’s pickup truck. He drove the brothers away and returned several minutes later.
The suspect then went back to the trailer that served as a business office and led Jasleen Kaur, who was carrying her baby in her arms, out and into the truck before the suspect drove them away shortly before 8 p.m. 9.30.
Hours later, firefighters on Monday found Amandeep Singh’s truck on fire in the town of Winton, 10 miles north of Merced. Police officers went to Amandeep Singh’s home where a family member tried to reach him and the couple. When they were unable to reach their family members, they called the sheriff to report them missing.
They were probably already dead.
Dazio reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and news researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.