By David Brand
Inside the cramped Richmond Hill apartment they shared with another immigrant family, Shamdai Arjun treated her two granddaughters with love and compassion.
But to 9-year-old Ashdeep Kaur, Arjun allegedly played the role of wicked stepmother. She denied Ashdeep food and attention before ultimately strangling her to death and leaving her body in a bathtub, lead prosecutor Denise Tirino told the 12-person jury during opening statements in Arjun’s murder trial Monday.
Arjun is charged with second-degree murder for the Aug 19, 2016 crime, a charge that carries a minimum sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Justice Kenneth Holder presides over the Queens Supreme Court trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks.
Tirino portrayed Ashdeep as the Cinderella of the family, treated with cruelty by the woman who married her father and allegedly killed her just three months after she moved to the United States from her native India. Ashdeep’s mother wanted her to have a better life with her father in Queens, Tirino told the jury.
“But instead of a better life, she suffered a violent death at the hands of this defendant,” Tirino said, pointing at Arjun, who wore a rumpled lavender pants suit, her waist-length black hair streaked with gray, as she stared straight ahead during opening statements. “Instead of taking care of her, she killed her in a most brutal fashion.”
Tirino said Arjun squeezed Ashdeep’s neck and “left her lying dead, naked in a bathtub in their home” before she “fled” with the two grandchildren, a laundry bag full of clothes and a fanny pack full of identifying documents to the Ozone Park home of her ex-husband.
Arjun, her husband Sukhjinder Singh and the three young children shared the two-bedroom home in Richmond Hill with another immigrant family in order to save money on rent and utilities.
On the day of the murder, the mother of the other family noticed that the bathroom door was locked and the light was on, even though there was no movement or noise inside the room.
After a few hours, the mother encountered Arjun leaving the home with her two granddaughters and asked, in broken English, who was in the bathroom and where Ashdeep was, Tirino said.
Arjun said Ashdeep was washing her hair and quickly left the home, but the housemate remained suspicious, Tirino said. Arjun and Singh had never asked her to babysit their children before and she barely knew them after living together for just 13 days.
She called Singh, Ashdeep’s father, at his job at a Crown Fried Chicken in Brooklyn. Singh panicked and “pleaded with” his housemate to open the door by any means necessary. So she called an acquaintance who came over and kicked in the door.
“That’s when they found her lying in the tub, not breathing, her lips are blue … motionless,” Tirino said, “She was in rigor mortis.”
FDNY and EMS arrived at the scene in minutes, but could do nothing for Ashdeep who had died hours earlier. Instead, they treated Singh, who fainted when he discovered that his daughter was dead.
Tirino said that Singh implicated Arjun immediately after he came to. Witnesses allegedly heard him say, “She did it. My wife killed my daughter. She threatened to kill her before.”
Investigators also found hair allegedly belonging to Arjun on Ashdeep’s body, including a strand wrapped around her rigid thumb.
The NYPD used cell phone positioning data to locate Arjun at her ex-husband Raymond Narayan’s home in South Ozone Park within a couple hours. After a stand-off, Narayan let officers enter the home, where they arrested Arjun.
Defense attorney Todd Greenberg contended that the circumstantial evidence in the case was not what it seemed. He urged the jury and three juror alternates to see past the heartbreaking nature of the crime and the emotional testimony to come — including from Singh.
“When you look at the evidence in this case and you evaluate it, you will not be firmly convinced of the guilt of Ms. Shamdai Arjun for this tragic, tragic death,” Greenberg said. “There’s much more to this case and I’m going to ask you to look at the circumstances.”
For one thing, Greenberg said, there were no eyewitnesses to the brutal murder. Arjun’s departure from the home was not some hasty getaway, he added, but a pre-planned trip to Narayan’s house.