Ten Years Later: Will Juan Martinez Ever Get to Prosecute 'Snake on a Plane'?

Police say Avtar Grewal murdered his wife in Scottsdale in 2007 then escaped to India on a plane
Police say Avtar Grewal murdered his wife in Scottsdale in 2007 then escaped to India on a plane Near and Far Photography

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Police say Avtar Grewal murdered his wife in Scottsdale in 2007 then escaped to India on a plane
Near and Far Photography
Avtar Grewal’s 10-year legal saga took him on four long-haul air voyages, into jail cells on two continents, on the path toward Arizona’s death row, and then back away from it.

He’s been scrutinized by a psychiatrists and stared into the eyes of the most famous — critics say infamous —  prosecutor in the county, Juan Martinez, who sent Jodi Arias to prison.

And while his case is one of Maricopa County’s longest-standing capital murder cases, it’s really only just beginning. Faced with fight or flight, Grewal has opted for flight at every turn.

County prosecutors charged Grewal in 2007 with the murder of his arranged wife of two years. He was back in court again this week for yet another pretrial hearing to determine if he was still too mentally ill to stand trial.

Phoenix police said in court documents that on March 29, 2007, Grewal, a forklift operator then 31 years old, flew down from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, broke into the house of his estranged wife Navneet Kaur, a 30-year-old project manager in Scottsdale, and killed her.

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Kaur had been bludgeoned, strangled, and drowned, court records said.

Media reports from the time quoted police saying that Grewal left this note at the scene:

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

But he didn't honor the second part of the promise.

Instead, Grewal went straight from the scene to Sky Harbor International Airport, Phoenix detective Matt Verthein wrote on a legal form. From there, the suspect boarded a Continental Airlines flight to Newark and then flew to New Delhi.

Phoenix New Times referred to him as "Snake on a Plane."

While Grewal was in the air, police were responding to calls from concerned neighbors at the two-story house on the 4200 block of East Redwood Lane. One had seen Grewal leaving the night before.

There, detectives found Kaur’s corpse and on the couch the confession signed by Grewal. Blood and upturned tables and chairs littered the home. The ceiling fan had been yanked loose. A yellow rope with a crude noose lay nearby.

Grewal had made it easy for detectives and hard for prosecutors. He was in New Delhi thinking he’d escaped justice, authorities said.

But the hand of law has a long reach, as they say, and Grewal’s flight from justice must have felt short compared to his time aloft jetting to the other side of the world.

Before long, a little more than 14 hours to be exact, Grewal found himself inside a cell at Tihar Jail in New Delhi. Indian police met him at the airport, after Continental refused American police's request to turn Flight 82 back to Newark. In the fall of 2011, agents from the U.S. Marshal’s Office and FBI plucked him out of his new digs and returned him to Phoenix.

Grewal’s public defender noted in court that the Indian native had been in the New Delhi jail four years. They entered a not guilty plea to the murder and burglary charges.

Prosecutors asked a judge to post bail at $4 million. A judge agreed on September 21, 2011, and ordered Grewal to turn in his passport.

By now, authorities were clearly fed up. In January 2012, prosecutors filed a motion seeking the death penalty.

Enter Juan Martinez.

Already, lawyers were talking about a three-week trial that May, only months before Martinez would begin to prosecute Arias. They had identified 60 possible witnesses, including Grewal’s travel companions and a sergeant with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada. Some of the Indian witnesses would need a translator.

Grewal’s day of reckoning, guilty or not guilty, was approaching. The hand of justice was near.

But the wheels of justice, as they say, turn slowly. That trial would not happen. Other court dates came and went.

The public defender’s office began a campaign to stop the case ever getting to a jury. Lawyers there filed dozens of motions to dismiss, defer, or detour the prosecution.

Some motions made for interesting reading.

As early as November 2011, Grewal’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, or, at a minimum, bar the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office from prosecuting it.

They argued that prosecutors violated Grewal’s constitutional rights, because when federal agents went to extradite Grewal, they grabbed something else besides their man. They pulled from his cell three binders of documents. And when police searched his Vancouver home, they grabbed three pages of typed letters.

Attorneys said the seizures were innocent enough, but when the feds turned them over to detectives and prosecutors, that violated the Constitution and jeopardized Grewal’s shot at a fair trial, the public defender’s office said in court.

“The state is in possession of two sets of privileged documents, three binders compiled by the defendant for use by his attorney in preparation for trial, and three typed pages … that were compiled for the defendant for his divorce lawyer,” they argued.

It was confidential attorney-client material and having it “severely prejudices” the case against Grewal, they argued.

Worse, they said, the FBI agents read the documents intended for Grewal’s attorneys, and told colleagues in a letter the trove could be valuable.

“The satchel contains three binders which document his relationship with Navneet Kaur, the killing of Kaur at his hand, and his attempt to cope with his actions via his faith in God,” the FBI agent wrote. “These items are being shipped via secure diplomatic pouch and are considered valuable or evidentiary.”

Federal authorities turned over all of it to the Phoenix Police Department before getting an appropriate court order, public defenders argued in a second motion days later. Police still had the documents and Grewal’s attorneys wanted them back.

And so it went. Motion after motion after motion, often filed and ruled in secret. Status conference after conference. Hearing after hearing.

There were important ones. The defense, under seal, told the court Grewal was not competent to stand trial.

They asked that he be transferred to a state psychiatric hospital in Mesa.

The judge refused. But now, the psychiatrists were evaluating Grewal. Later, they were ordered to restore him to competency, against his will if necessary. More motions, more status hearings. Along the way, a new judge took over the case.

In November 2016, under seal, Judge Dean Fink sided with the defense. He ruled that the death penalty be dropped.

The case continues at its own pace. All week, lawyers have been in court evaluating the evidence of Grewal’s mental state. It’s not clear when, or even if, Grewal will ever face a jury.
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Sean Holstege is the editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege