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Snake on a Plane

Landon Armstrong

Continental Airlines Flight 82 departed from Newark, New Jersey, on the evening of March 30, bound for New Delhi, India.

One of the 300-plus passengers on the Boeing 777 jetliner attracted little attention as he boarded and settled quietly into a window seat in an emergency-exit row.

He was 32-year-old Avtar Grewal, known as Raju, a slender native of India who had been living near Vancouver, British Columbia.

As the big bird soared to its cruising altitude, a veteran Phoenix police sergeant sitting in a van on a street in suburban Ahwatukee was making a series of urgent cell phone calls.

Sergeant Mike Palombo has a cool-under-pressure reputation (he was a key supervisor on the Baseline Killer case), but the escalating situation was testing his patience.

"I began to express my concerns to Continental about [its] lack of cooperation with us," Palombo tells New Times. "I said I did not think it was a big deal for [the airline] to turn a plane around and get a homicidal and suicidal lunatic into custody."

The "lunatic" to whom the sergeant was referring was Raju Grewal.

Inside a two-story home on East Redwood Lane, the battered body of a clothed woman was face-down in a bathtub filled with bloody water.

She was 30-year-old Navneet Kaur, Grewal's wife of two years and a project manager for Assist Technologies, a Scottsdale firm that provides touch-screen technology for pharmaceutical clinical trials.

The normally tidy home near Pecos Road and 40th Street was like "helter skelter," according to one eyewitness, a reference to the Manson Family carnage in 1969.

Blood was seemingly everywhere, chairs and tables were overturned, knives strewn about, a ceiling fan in the master bedroom pulled from its moorings, and a long piece of yellow rope fashioned into a noose nearby.

On a couch in the family room was a note written and signed by Grewal.

It said, "I killed this selfish bitch who tortured me for two years. Made my life hell. Now I will kill myself."

Evidence at the scene suggested Grewal's chosen mode of self-destruction had been hanging from the ceiling fan and cutting himself with a razor blade (in which order is uncertain).

But he was more adept at murder than at suicide, and he made a run for it instead. Grewal had a 14-hour head start on police by the time they tracked his whereabouts by accessing credit-card records and other legwork.

Flight 82 had taken off late for New Delhi, and still was in U.S. airspace as Sergeant Palombo and others pleaded with Continental officials to get the plane back to Newark, where authorities could collar their murder suspect. But police reports, interviews with key players and other data show that Continental Airlines officials rebuffed the requests.

Sergeant Palombo says an officer from the multiagency task force ACTIC (Arizona Counter-Terrorism Information Center) told him that Continental officials expressed a continuing concern about the significant cost of turning the plane around.

Airline officials allegedly wanted to know who was going to pay for thousands of dollars of fuel that Flight 82 would have had to jettison to return safely to Newark or another nearby airport so soon after departure.

A Continental representative declined repeated requests to answer specific questions about this disturbing and previously unreported clash between law enforcement and the nation's fourth-largest airline.

That spokeswoman, Julie King, wrote in a May 24 e-mail to New Times that "because of a variety of legal issues, Continental does not identify specific passengers on our flights unless required to by law or subpoena. The normal procedure in these types of situations is for local law enforcement to work with immigration authorities to detain the suspect upon arrival, which is what happened in this situation."

But Continental's lack of cooperation with police, especially in this security-heightened, post-9/11 environment, continues to vex law enforcement officials and most of the aviation-safety experts contacted by New Times for this story.

To them, it's not the point that Raju Grewal was taken into custody without incident by New Delhi authorities when Flight 82 landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport, about 14 hours after takeoff.

(Grewal remains jailed there as the process of extraditing him to Phoenix to face a first-degree murder charge moves at a glacial pace.)

Mary Schiavo, a respected aviation law attorney, author, and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, says that "beyond the altruistic motivation of helping law enforcement because they pleaded for help, we're talking here about an airline that aided and abetted the flight of a felon, and possibly hindered an ongoing investigation. Back when I was a federal prosecutor, I would have taken this to a grand jury for consideration as a criminal act.

 

"Can you imagine if this had been an Islamic guy from Saudi Arabia? I don't think they would have been saying, 'Oh, this guy just killed his wife, so let's let him go to New Delhi.' Instead, they blew off their obligations to the safety of their passengers, especially in this post-9/11 world."

Schiavo, a South Carolinian and private pilot who wrote the prescient 1997 book Flying Blind, Flying Safe, also says "this man had just been willing and able to take another person's life and apparently had made an effort or two at taking his own.

"What if he had decided to commit a suicidal act on the plane? We have seen people set fires in bathrooms on planes, take hostages in desperation by pretending to have a weapon and what have you. The only right thing for Continental to have done is land that plane as soon as possible."


By the accounts of her friends, coworkers, and family, Navi Kaur usually hid the desperation and unhappiness of her life as Raju Grewal's wife.

A sensitive soul whose natural beauty was equaled by her estimable mind, the native of India had been living in the States for years. But she remained close to her family, and to her homeland's cultural norms.

In 2001, she married an Indian man she had known for all of three days, after a meeting arranged by family members.

The ex-husband, who lives in Phoenix, told the Toronto Globe and Mail after the murder that he had known within days after marrying Kaur that her strong-willed, independent personality spelled trouble for the union.

The couple divorced in 2005, with Kaur assuming ownership of the home on East Redwood that later would be the site of her murder. That year, she met Raju Grewal in a meeting apparently arranged by Grewal's sister, who knew Kaur's parents.

Kaur came from a prominent family — her father is a retired Indian Police Service superintendent — and they were eager for her to marry fellow divorcé Grewal.

Dutifully, she did so at a ceremony in India later that year.

But Kaur soon confided to friends that Grewal tried to control her every move once he had slipped the wedding ring on her finger.

For starters, he wanted his new wife to quit her top-drawer job in Scottsdale to be with him in Canada. Though he had been an accountant in India, Grewal had worked in Vancouver for a few years as a truck driver and forklift operator.

But Kaur declined to make the move, a relentless source of humiliation to her new husband. The couple spent little time together, just swapping weekend visits every few months.

A neighbor and close friend of Kaur's named Sravanthi Sankranthi later told Phoenix police that long absences from Grewal did not made Kaur's heart grow fonder.

Shortly before she died, Kaur told Sankranthi that Grewal's incessant phone calls from Canada would make her teeth chatter with stress. She expressed concern about her husband's mental health, saying he was depressed and irrational at times, especially about the state of the strained marriage.

Gina Wilkins, who was Navi Kaur's manager and good friend, later told a detective that Kaur had spoken with Grewal by phone on the night before the murder.

Kaur confided in Wilkins that she had told her husband she wanted a divorce.

Wilkins said Kaur told her that Grewal had responded, "If you want a divorce, tell me in person because you might as well kill me."

Raju Grewal apparently made plans to fly to Phoenix the following day, March 29. Terrified at having to face her husband in person, Kaur expressed her fears to Wilkins a few hours before she was supposed to pick him up at Sky Harbor International Airport late that afternoon.

Wilkins said she implored her friend to seek refuge at a cousin's home in the East Valley, but Kaur said that Grewal would track her down.

Wilkins last spoke to Kaur by cell phone about 5:25 p.m., at which time she offered her own home as sanctuary from Raju Grewal. Kaur thanked her but said she already was on her way to the airport.

Navi Kaur's colleagues immediately became concerned when the usually punctual manager didn't show up for work at 9 the next morning, March 30. Late that morning, Gina Wilkins and another employee drove to Kaur's home in Ahwatukee, several miles away, to check on her welfare.

They got to Redwood Lane a little after noon.

No one answered the front doorbell, so the women walked around the side of the house. Though a locked gate stymied them, they peered in through a kitchen window and saw broken glass, upended furniture and a knife on the floor.

 

Distressed, they retreated to the front yard, where Kaur's pal and neighbor, Sravanthi Sankranthi, wondered what was up. Sankranthi had a key to the house, and the three women stepped in the front door, calling out loudly for their friend.

When Kaur didn't answer, one of the women called 911, while the other two went to look for her.

Thankfully, the women didn't find Navi Kaur's beaten body. But they did see that the ceiling fan in the master bedroom had been pulled down. They also saw the yellow rope, another knife, and blood — some of it smeared on the tile floor, as if a body had been dragged.

Fearing the worst, the trio decided to wait outside for Phoenix police.

As they waited, Gina Wilkins noticed an airline itinerary with Raju Grewal's name on the ground. It noted Grewal's trip the previous day from Vancouver on U.S. Airways.

She placed a rock on top of it to keep it from blowing away.

Sankranthi recalled that around 10:30 the night before, her husband had mentioned seeing Grewal leaving the neighborhood in a taxi. That had surprised her because Kaur hadn't told her Grewal was in town.

Phoenix police arrived at Redwood Lane about 30 minutes after the call, around 12:30 p.m.

Officer Kwan Jin found Navi Kaur's lifeless body in the tub. He and another officer called their supervisor and checked the rest of the home to make sure no one else was there. Then they closed the front door behind them and waited for homicide detectives and other officers to show up.

By law, no one would be allowed back inside the home, now a crime scene, until homicide detectives secured a search warrant from a judge, a process that would take about five hours.

By then, Grewal already was sitting in the Newark airport, eager to hightail it out of the States that evening on Continental Airlines Flight 82.


It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to know that Raju Grewal was the prime suspect, the only suspect in his wife's murder.

When the homicide investigation began in earnest shortly before 3 p.m., Sergeant Palombo asked his detectives to investigate their best lead: Grewal's U.S. Airways itinerary.

Someone soon contacted Phoenix Detective Eric Davis, who works at Sky Harbor for the city airport's Drug Enforcement Bureau. Davis' first job was to contact U.S. Airways to find out if Raju Grewal was scheduled to fly somewhere from Phoenix or if he already had flown out.

A U.S. Airways official said Grewal wasn't scheduled to fly anywhere on that airline, though the official did confirm that the suspect had flown from Vancouver to Phoenix on U.S. Airways a day earlier.

Palombo assigned Detective Lois Weiss to look into Grewal's recent credit-card use. She learned that the suspect had bought a one-way ticket the previous night for a Continental flight from Phoenix to Newark.

It was now nearing 6 p.m. in Phoenix.

Working his phone out of Sky Harbor, Detective Davis tried to learn from Continental officials about Raju Grewal's whereabouts. But reaching anyone in command at the airline was time-consuming.

Finally, about 6:30 p.m., a supervisor at Continental confirmed to Davis that Grewal had boarded Flight 1034 early that morning. The plane landed at 3 p.m. in Newark, which was noon in Phoenix.

The supervisor told Davis that Grewal then had bought a ticket for Continental Flight 82 from Newark to New Delhi, scheduled for an 8:45 p.m. (5:45 p.m. in Phoenix) departure. He also said the plane had taken off on time, about 45 minutes earlier.

Davis immediately called Palombo back at the crime scene.

The careful sergeant asked a detective to check the Continental Web site to ensure that Flight 82 truly was airborne.

Turns out, it wasn't.

The pilot had returned to the gate at the last minute to drop off luggage, which delayed the departure to New Delhi by about half an hour.

"We tell Continental that their computer is showing that the plane is still on the ground," Palombo says. "Time is moving. We're trying to get answers, but we're not getting them."

The sergeant called Port Authority police at the Newark airport for assistance: "I tell them, `I need to track down what gate this plane is at. We have a murderer onboard and we need to get him off before they leave."

About the same time, Detective Davis finally got through to Continental Airlines operations and spoke to a supervisor known to police as "Raul." (New Times was unable to obtain the supervisor's full name.)

 

A few days later, Davis would write in his police report, "[Raul] said the plane took off about two minutes ago. I asked him if it could be ordered to return to the airport. He said he would let the corporate offices in Houston, Texas, know about this. He said this matter was out of his control other than to notify them.

"I asked Raul if he could communicate to the plane's captain that there is a man on board who is homicidal and suicidal so the captain would be aware of the potential danger this man could pose to the people on board. He said he had no way to directly communicate with the plane, but some kind of communication could possibly be made with the plane from the corporate office if it was deemed appropriate. He said he thought that since [Grewal] made the flight, he probably thinks he is home free.

"Raul speculated that it might be better to not notify the crew, because they might then act differently around Grewal, tipping him off that they knew what he had done. I told him I thought the captain would want to know about this man on his plane."

Davis called Sergeant Palombo as soon as he hung up with Raul. Palombo says he tried to use his powers of persuasion on Raul three times over the next several minutes.

"I told him, 'Look, I can't be any more crystal clear to you. This isn't a guy on a watch list. This is a known lunatic. This guy has admitted killing his wife and he's attempted suicide at the scene twice. And he's on your plane. You need to get it down!' He kept saying that that kind of decision was above him, and he'd pass it up the chain of command. Then in another conversation, he told me that the captain had received a 'non-verbal communication' advising him of the situation. That was it."

Palombo was worried about Grewal's exit-row window seat, though each of the aviation experts contacted by New Times said that wouldn't have been a safety issue in itself because cabin pressurization makes opening an emergency door during flight virtually impossible.

The sergeant also had contacted ACTIC for assistance.

Formed after the September 11 attacks and based in north Phoenix, the multiagency task force includes FBI personnel and is designed to be a one-stop shop for police in circumstances involving terror suspects and criminals.

"According to our protocol, ACTIC is our liaison with the FBI and other agencies, and they responded to us immediately," Palombo says. "Within minutes, I learned from ACTIC that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were going to play ball with us, that they would take our guy into custody if the plane landed up there."

But another hitch soon arose.

The ACTIC liaison told Palombo he had spoken to someone at Continental, and that airline brass were wondering who was going to pay for refueling Flight 82 if the pilot dumped thousands of gallons of fuel to ensure a safe landing.

"I was, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" the sergeant says. "He said he wasn't . . . I estimated that it might be 10 or 15 grand, something like that."

Palombo told the liaison he couldn't authorize that size of an expenditure, but, within minutes, he got the go-ahead from Assistant Police Chief Kevin Robinson.

"By now, the FBI, TSA and the FAA had become involved, and everyone was getting frustrated," Palombo says. "At this point, I'm in the mode of, `Just land the freaking plane! We promise to pay for it, okay?'"

All but one of the six aviation-safety experts contacted by New Times says Continental erred at this point.

Ross "Rusty" Aimer, chief executive officer of Aviation Experts, a San Clemente, California, consulting firm says, "If you have a fugitive killer on your airplane and law enforcement presents a direct case for landing that plane, then it's outrageous that you don't come back to Newark or land in one of the many other airports along the way. All I can think of is maybe the pilot was concerned that if he or she started turning back, the killer would go berserk and start killing people. But I really don't buy that."

Aimer retired from United Airlines in 2004 as an international 767 pilot and also flew for Continental during a distinguished 40-year career.

"The FBI had the authority to order a pilot to land [within U.S. airspace]," he says. "I'm surprised they didn't do that. I also don't understand why the FBI or another authority didn't pick up the phone and talk to that captain. They've done that with me, with a phone patch through air-traffic control — and even over the water."

 

But FBI Special Agent Deb McCarley claims her agency wasn't directly involved in the Grewal case until hours later, when Flight 82 was going to land in New Delhi.

"I have been advised that the FBI itself did not make any request of Continental Airlines to turn around that plane," spokeswoman McCarley says, adding that Phoenix police may have made their initial request through a U.S. Department of Justice field office "that wouldn't have had the authority to order the immediate landing of a trans-Atlantic flight."

Palombo responds drolly, "The FBI was involved. Actually, all of us [in law enforcement], including the FBI, were working on the same page, which was to get our suspect into police custody as soon as we could."

But Todd Curtis, the Seattle author of Understanding Aviation Safety Data and founder of the Web site AirSafe.com, says it wasn't a certainty that Flight 82 would return to Newark or divert to another airport just because police wanted it to.

"Everything is trumped by the captain's prerogative," says Curtis, an airplane-safety analyst who worked at Boeing for almost a decade and has a doctorate in aviation risk assessment. "The pilot is ultimately responsible for the safety of the passengers and the plane, and even if ordered, can do what he or she thinks is right. This guy [Grewal] didn't seem to be a direct threat by showing any kind of imbalance on board that might cause trouble. Also, Continental had an obligation to its 300 or 400 passengers on board to land or not to land early, and this was a call it had to make. And, yes, financial considerations can come into play, though safety always comes first."

Patrick Smith, an aviation expert who has written extensively on matters of air safety and security, agrees with Curtis that the captain had final authority about whether to divert a plane from its course.

But Smith adds, "I suspect that most captains, aware that one of his charges was presumably so dangerous, would have opted to divert."

As for the cost of landing Flight 82 prematurely, it almost certainly would have been far more than the $10,000 or $15,000 that Sergeant Palombo had estimated.

"Costs can vary considerably," says Smith, "The fuel costs [dumping, subsequent refueling, plus the fuel used for the diversion arrival and departure] are only part of it, though certainly the largest part. You would probably have to replace all or most of the crew due to duty time constraints, the effects of which would trickle through the carrier's scheduling matrix.

"Then you have the issue of passengers who might need to be re-accommodated or rerouted, as I'm sure many people were making onward connections from Delhi. And that's best-case, with the plane returning to Newark. I have heard that long-haul diversions to more remote locations — northern Canada, Russia — can run well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars."


Night had fallen in Phoenix on March 30. Personnel from the Medical Examiner's Office finally had lifted Navi Kaur's body out of the tub and taken it to the morgue.

Her autopsy would show that she died of severe blunt-force trauma to her face and body. Kaur's assailant had beaten her, strangled her, tried to suffocate her with a pillow and stuck her in the tub (it's uncertain, according to the postmortem, if she was dead or alive at that point).

Though Canadian police were ready to arrest Raju if Flight 82's pilot landed there, Palombo says his ACTIC contact told him that Continental had decided not to land in Canada and the plane already was eastbound across the Atlantic.

"So," the sergeant says, "we're thinking that with the total lack of cooperation from Continental that this operation was going to be a total loss. We started to transition to, 'What do we do if this plane gets all the way to India?'"

But the cops had one last chance at nabbing Grewal short of India.

Mike Palombo says he learned from ACTIC "that the FBI was coordinating with the Air Force to land the plane at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. I'm thinking that we're on really good grounds, because the Air Force base is like a consulate, like American soil, and we wouldn't have to worry about extradition. But Continental just wouldn't land."

FBI spokeswoman McCarley reiterates that, "to my knowledge," the agency wasn't involved in this part of the operation.

 

By now, Interpol, a sprawling multinational agency similar in concept (but far larger) than ACTIC, was involved in the chase and had fashioned an international arrest murder warrant against Raju Grewal.

Palombo says the FBI generated a plan to take Grewal into custody as he exited the plane in New Delhi and then hold him in an airport concourse before he cleared customs and officially entered India. (On this point, the Phoenix sergeant and the FBI spokeswoman finally agree.)

The idea was to put Grewal back on the next plane to the States with an FBI agent and a State Department representative as escorts.

But none of those plans panned out, as Indian authorities immediately took their allegedly murderous native son into custody.

The machinations involving Grewal's possible extradition are in their earliest stages, and attorneys familiar with the process say years may pass before Grewal is returned to Maricopa County for trial.

Navi Kaur's murder made bigger news in India and Canada than in Phoenix, where it occurred.

"The Mysterious Phone Call That Changed A Life," was the headline of a story in Toronto's Globe and Mail, referring to Kaur's pronouncement to Grewal's husband shortly before her murder about wanting a divorce. (It could have been titled "The Phone Call that Ended A Life.")

The Hindustan Times wrote that Raju Grewal had told Indian interrogators he had been planning to commit suicide after visiting his parents back home.

"He told us that he loved his wife very much," the paper quoted a senior police investigator as saying, "[but] on the fateful day, he killed her in a fit of rage. He slapped her so many times that she lost consciousness and, after that, he strangled her."

The investigator said Grewal had described how the ceiling fan collapsed during the suicide attempt at Redwood Lane. The suspect also claimed that he had been the victim of domestic violence, not vice versa.

None of the news accounts referred to the troubling behind-the-scenes clash between law enforcement and Continental Airlines, though Continental's abiding corporate concern became evident to irate Phoenix police a few days after Grewal's arrest.

Detective Davis contacted a Continental ticket agent at Sky Harbor to get some routine biographical information for his report on the murder case. The agent had sold Grewal the one-way ticket from Phoenix to Newark a few hours after Navi Kaur's murder.

Wrote Davis, "Before I could say anything to [the agent], she told me she would love to cooperate in this investigation, but she was told by her employer not to talk to me about it. She said she did not want to lose her job."

That anecdote speaks volumes to aviation expert Rusty Aimer, the former Continental pilot.

"This incident has all kinds of big-picture implications for the public," Aimer says. "Most important is that an airline and a pilot did not respond in a timely manner or at all to a legitimate request from law enforcement. I'd love to know exactly what Continental told the pilot about the fugitive on board and about the serious concerns that the police had with the guy."

New Times asked Continental spokeswoman Julie King for a response to that, among other queries. She politely declined to elaborate on her brief, earlier e-mail.

So the last word goes to Mary Schiavo, the ex-government aviation watchdog turned harsh critic of the airline safety system.

"It comes down to this," Schiavo says. "Continental was aware they had a very recent alleged murderer on board, and so they obviously knew he could endanger other passengers as well as himself and the safety of the plane. A killer on board and you don't land the plane as soon as humanly possible? This was a very bad, a very dangerous call."


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