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Monday, October 16, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strange twists for trial

Seattle Times staff reporter

There's no question who squeezed the trigger, but the upcoming murder trial of a Seattle taxi driver has all the makings of a legal conundrum: recanting witnesses, conflicting testimony and intimations of threats in a tight-knit ethnic community.

On Dec. 28, Paramjit Singh Dhaliwal shot and killed Jasbir Bassi from the driver's seat of his taxicab at the intersection of Westlake Avenue and Olive Way. Both men were Sikhs, members of the Seattle Far West Service taxi company, and worshippers at temple Gurudwara Singh Sabha in Renton.

Detectives said the shooting stemmed from a disagreement between two factions of the cab company. Prosecutors charged Dhaliwal with first-degree murder and carrying an illegal weapon.

Dhaliwal said the shooting was self-defense. Attorney Fred Leatherman interviewed witnesses in the Sikh community who said Dhaliwal had been threatened by a faction in the temple that opposed his traditionalist religious views.

But before the trial was to begin last month, several key defense witnesses changed their stories, saying they had been coerced into signing false affidavits to support Dhaliwal's claim.

Leatherman resigned as Dhaliwal's attorney because he is now a potential witness who possibly will be called to rebut testimony he believes is false.

"It's just a weird case," Leatherman said. "It's a big huge mess right now, that's all I know."

In court papers, prosecutors say Bassi and Dhaliwal were friendly acquaintances who were on different sides of an internal debate over Far West business practices. The day of the shooting, Bassi and four others borrowed a white Honda to find Dhaliwal and iron out their differences.

The Honda followed Dhaliwal's cab as it returned from the airport to downtown Seattle. Dhaliwal dropped off a passenger at the Westin Hotel and waited at a red light at Westlake and Olive. Bassi got out of the Honda and knocked on the window of Dhaliwal's cab.

Dhaliwal rolled down the window and fired a single shot at Bassi. He then got out of his cab and fired three more shots as Bassi staggered toward the Honda. Dhaliwal sped away and remained at large for three months before turning himself in.

Meanwhile, prosecutors allege that Dhaliwal's cohorts intimidated witnesses and began concocting a story of self-defense.

In April, Dhaliwal posted bail of $250,000, secured by friends who put up their homes as collateral. But in August, the bail bondsman appeared before a King County Superior Court judge and said several people had complained to him that they faced threats if they did not post Dhaliwal's bond.

The judge raised bail to $750,000, and Dhaliwal was taken into custody.

Leatherman disputes almost every aspect of the prosecutor's case.

The troubles began not at the taxi company, he said, but at the Sikh temple in Renton.

In early December, the temple held an election for positions on the management committee. The voting was so divisive that the temple hired a private security firm to keep the peace.

According to legal papers, Dhaliwal supported the traditionalist faction that eventually came to power.

Representatives of the temple would not return phone calls. Observers say the tensions within the Renton temple can be found in Sikh communities up and down the West Coast.

The Sikh religion was founded in 1469 by Guru Nanak, the first of 10 gurus, or teachers, who have interpreted a faith that began in the Punjabi region in northern India amid conflict between Muslims and Hindus. Sikhism emphasizes belief in a universal God and human rights. Adherents opposed the caste system in India, a belief that resulted in worshippers sitting together on the floor of the sanctuary, eating a communal meal.

But factions in Sikh communities abroad have become divided on how to eat the meal: seated in chairs, or sitting on the floor.

"In the Sikh temples in India, people sat on the floor," said Frank Conlon, an international-studies professor at the University of Washington. "But there are a lot of Sikhs who have immigrated and may see sitting at a table in no way a significant deviation of the principles of the religion."

Conlon added that traditionalist factions in Sikh temples in British Columbia have thrown seats and tables from their place of worship.

With the Dec. 12 election over, the newly elected leaders of the Renton temple attempted to reach out to their adversaries. In a signed statement, the temple treasurer said he approached Rajpal Singh Padda, a vocal member of the nontraditional party, Dec. 19. The treasurer said Padda was disappointed by the election and threatened to kill Dhaliwal. The treasurer said he warned Dhaliwal about the threat and characterized Dhaliwal as a "peaceful and hard-working man."

That warning gave Dhaliwal reason to fear Padda, who was riding in the Honda that followed him from the airport, Leatherman said.

The day of the shooting, three Sikh cab drivers, including the president of the Far West taxi company, said they received panicked phone calls from Dhaliwal as he drove from the airport to downtown Seattle.

According to signed depositions, the three men said Dhaliwal told them he was being followed by five men wearing turbans, including Padda, and he feared for his safety.

Early last month the self-defense theory started to unravel. On Sept. 13, days before a jury was to be selected, Leatherman said prosecutors told him at least two pro-defense witnesses were changing their stories.

The temple treasurer told prosecutors that he was pressured by Dhaliwal's cousin to give a statement and that he never heard any threats to Dhaliwal.

One of the three men who said Dhaliwal called them about being followed the day of the killing said he, too, gave a false declaration after being pressured by Dhaliwal's cousin.

Leatherman said he won't speculate why the witnesses changed their stories so close to trial, but he is prepared to rebut their testimony by reading back their original statements. Still, it's difficult to walk away from such a compelling case, he said.

"I really liked my client, and I like the case. I think it's a good self-defense case. I would have loved to have tried it."

Dhaliwal has retained another attorney, and the trial has been delayed until next month.

Alex Fryer's phone message number is 206-464-8124. His e-mail address is afryer@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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