Snake on a Plane

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin