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Sikh arraigned on charges in 1996 drive-by shooting

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A Sikh man who fled to Canada shortly after a 1996 drive-by shooting in Richmond Hill that occurred against a backdrop of strife within the Sikh community pleaded not guilty to murder charges in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens Monday.

Tejpal Singh, 28, was extradited last Thursday to Queens from British Columbia, where he had been held for nearly two years in connection with the Aug. 25, 1996 shooting death of Kamaljit Singh in front of 123-16 97th Ave.

Singh was arrested Sept. 6, 2000 on a farm in Summerland, British Columbia, after detectives from the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad alerted Canadian immigration authorities that he had fled to Canada following the shooting, which was a result of dispute over the governing of the Sikh Cultural Society on 118th Street, family and law enforcement sources said.

In Judge Robert Hanophy’s courtroom Monday, Assistant District Attorney Michelle Goldstein formally charged Singh with murder, attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and criminal possession of a weapon. Singh was being held pending another hearing on July 23, when his lawyer, Steve Braunstein, said he will post a bail application.

Kamaljit Singh was killed when three men drove by the 97th Avenue house around 9:25 p.m. on Aug. 25 1996 and fired shots in his direction, according to a 1996 complaint filed in Queens Criminal Court. Another man was injured by the gunfire, the complaint said.

The case mystified authorities until Detectives James Annunziata and Thomas Mansfield picked it up in the latter part of 1998 and tracked Tejpal Singh to Summerland, a tiny farming community two hours northeast of Vancouver, according to a 2000 article in Spring 3100, a law enforcement journal. Both men have since retired from the Cold Case Squad and other officials from the outfit could not be reached for comment.

The whereabouts of the two other men allegedly involved in the shooting remain unknown. One was released on $1 bail in November 1996, according to a court receipt and sources said the other suspect fled to India.

The murder of Kamaljit Singh occurred against a backdrop of a nearly 5-year-old conflict within the Richmond Hill Sikh community over control of the 118th Street temple, which was the largest Sikh religious center on the East Coast before it burned down in March.

Tensions first flared in 1993, when shots were fired into a crowd at the temple during its general election. And in 1994, it took police more than three hours to quell hundreds of rioting Sikhs after a disputed election for the group’s president turned violent. The leadership struggles pitted two sects of Sikhs — Jat Sikhs and Lobana Sikhs — against each other.

The dispute that led to the shooting of Kamaljit Singh, a Lobana, was also between the two factions, sources said. Tejpal Singh is a Jat Sikh.

In 1999, the Lobanas broke away from the Sikh Cultural Society to form their own temple on 101st Avenue at 113th Street.

Though Queens District Attorney Richard Brown mentioned the internal strife in the Sikh community when he visited the scene of the temple fire March 8, a borough fire official has said there was no foul play involved in the blaze.

Sikh community leaders and members of Tejpal Singh’s family contend the shooting stemmed from the temple’s internal strife. They said Tejpal Singh was unfairly fingered for the crime because his father, Gurbhej Singh Sandhu, was active in temple politics and had gone to the police following earlier disputes. Sandhu is currently secretary of the temple’s board of trustees.

At a town hall meeting held last month in Ozone Park, former city council candidate Inderjit Singh presented a member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s staff with a letter signed by Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village), Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio (D-Richmond Hill) and a dozen Sikh leaders in the borough asking authorities to conduct a new inquiry into the 1996 murder.

“Tejpal Singh was wrongly blamed,” reads the letter. “He was not even in New York at the time of the incident.”

Singh’s father, a Jat Sikh, said his son was on his way home to Baltimore, Md., where he lived with his sister and worked as a messenger, when the murder was committed. He said the dispute that prompted the shooting began Aug. 23 1996 in the parking lot of the Milk Farm, a grocery store on the corner of 117th Street and 101st Avenue.

A police report against Tejpal Singh was filed that night, making him an obvious suspect when the shooting took place two days later, Sandhu said. His son fled to Canada because he was worried about being wrongfully accused of the crime, he said.

Tejpal Singh, a graduate of Richmond Hill High School and a former York College student, had come to New York for the weekend to attend an Indian festival at Flushing Meadows Corona Park on Aug. 24, his father said. The groups that argued at the Milk Farm had another verbal altercation at the festival, leading to the shooting the next day, Sandhu said.

A spokeswoman for Brown said the DA would not comment on the case. When approached following Monday’s arraignment, Goldstein also declined comment.

Roger McMeanf, senior counsel with the Extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance section of the Canadian Department of Justice in Vancouver, said a Canadian judge determined in September 2001 that evidence presented by the U.S. government was sufficient to warrant Singh’s extradition.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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