By: Abbie Shull and Grace Goodwin
In the 1990s, in the shadow of the FBI’s large-scale takedown of New York’s most infamous mafia family, an Indian immigrant was quietly building his own criminal organization. Gurmeet Singh Dhinsa came to the United States from the Punjab region of India with little to his name. He quickly built a multi-million dollar gasoline empire.
For over a decade he terrorized the Sikh community in Brooklyn and Queens with his violent enterprise. So how did police finally catch the Indian Godfather?
ABBIE: My family has always been really into movies. But more than anything, we love gangster movies like The Godfather.
MUSIC IN — THEME FROM THE GODFATHER
SCENE FROM THE GODFATHER PART II
MICHAEL CORLEONE: I know it was you, Fredo, you broke my heart
ABBIE: My mother will go to her grave saying The Godfather part two is not only one of the greatest sequels of all time,
KAREN: I really liked it- it’s really good.
ABBIE: but it’s also better than the original.
GRACE: I got into the mob movie mania a few years ago. I fell in love with Goodfellas…
SCENE FROM GOODFELLAS
SOUND IN — GUNSHOTS
HENRY HILL: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster
SOUND IN — “RAGS TO RICHES” BY TONY BENNETT
GRACE: And This winter, I finished all six and a half seasons of The Sopranos.
SOUND IN — THEME FROM THE SOPRANOS (FADE OUT)
SCENE FROM THE SOPRANOS
MEADOW SOPRANO: Are you in the mafia?
TONY SOPRANO: I’m in the waste management business, everybody immediately assumes you’re mobbed up. It’s a stereotype. And it’s offensive.
GRACE: That’s Tony Soprano, and there’s some truth to what he’s saying. Thanks to TV and movie stereotypes, most people assume that all mobsters are Italian. Or worse, that all Italians are mobsters.
Or they think all New York organized crime comes down to La Cosa Nostra, The Five Families, the mafia.
ABBIE: But, like 13 million other Americans, my family recently spent our Thanksgiving watching The Irishman.
SOUND IN — THEME FROM THE IRISHMAN
SCENE FROM THE IRISHMAN
JIMMY HOFFA: Hiya Frank this is Jimmy Hoffa,
FRANK SHEERAN: Hello sir it’s good to meet you
JIMMY HOFFA: yeah good to meet you too even if it’s over the phone…I heard you paint houses.
ABBIE: He doesn’t paint houses, he kills people. In case you haven’t seen it, The Irishman is about Frank Sheeran, an Irish truck driver who becomes a hitman involved with the Bufalino crime family. He’s the only Irish guy in the bunch.
GRACE: Most of the movies we love are about Italian, and sometimes Irish, mobsters. But, in reality, organized crime is just as diverse as the city of New York
ABBIE: So, when I came across a story from 1997 about a 35-year-old man who called himself The Indian Godfather, I knew I had to learn more.
MUSIC IN — MINUTES
ABBIE: Gurmeet Singh Dhinsa was a Sikh immigrant who came from a poor village in India to New York City in the early 80s. He arrived with no money, but within a few years, he amassed a criminal gas station empire worth millions of dollars. It involved murder, bribery, corruption, and intimidation.
EDWARD KORMAN: The whole thing was shocking. Two young immigrants from India who were basically murdered in cold blood in a contract killing. But this kind of story is not unheard of in America. [laughs]
GRACE: We wanted to know – how does a guy come to America with nothing and end up the Indian Godfather?
MUSIC IN — SQUEEGEES
ABBIE: I’m Abbie Shull…
GRACE: and I’m Grace Goodwin…
ABBIE: And this is Shoe Leather, an investigative podcast that digs up stories from New York City’s past – TO FIND OUT HOW YESTERDAY’S NEWS AFFECTS US TODAY.
GRACE: This is Season 1: New York in the 90s…: The Indian Godfather
FADE OUT MUSIC — SQUEEGEES
SCENE FROM FBI FILES
ANTHONY CALL: In the 1990s, a close-knit immigrant community was terrorized by one of its own.
ABBIE: In 2001, Discovery Channel produced this docudrama series called FBI Files. It had a special episode about Dhinsa called “Deadly Business.”
SCENE FROM FBI FILES
ANTHONY CALL: If the FBI got close enough to uncover one man’s deadly business.
GRACE: When Abbie and I first discovered this show, we couldn’t believe how hilariously corny it was.
ABBIE: I’m not sure what I expected but basically the whole episode is done with reenactments. And they’re not scripted so it’s just very dramatic narration over these scenes for forty-five minutes.
ABBIE: In the early 1980s, Gurmeet Singh Dhinsa came to the United States from the Punjab region of India. He settled in the Bronx where he took a job as a gas station attendant. Just a year later, he managed to take over the lease of that gas station. It became the first location of what would soon become a regional chain of gas stations called Citygas.
GRACE: That gas station was known in the neighborhood for being a sort of unofficial parking lot. People could park there without the risk of being towed. There’s a local legend about the first day Dhinsa took over that gas station
GRACE: Apparently, he took a baseball bat and smashed in all the windows on every single car in the lot that night. This established him in the Sikh community in Queens. And began his reign of terror.
MUSIC FADES OUT
ABBIE: Within five years, Dhinsa had 51 gas stations in New York City. His annual profits topped 60 million dollars.
CAMPBELL: Ben Campbell.
ABBIE: Hi Ben This is Abbie Shull.
CAMPBELL: Hi, Abbie, how are you?
ABBIE: I’m doing good. How are you?
CAMPBELL: I’m fine.
ABBIE: Ben Campbell, a former United States Attorney, was one of the prosecutors on Dhinsa’s case…
ABBIE: …case and we’re just really fascinated by this because it’s just such a different story than you’re used to hearing. And there’s so many elements of it that were so interesting to us from his business model to the high-priced lawyers that he ended up with.
CAMPBELL: Well, it’s definitely an unusual case. And it’s got some things that they could feel like a classic organized crime case. But it was very distinctive.
ABBIE: Ben was one of the people interviewed for that episode of FBI Files
CAMPBELL: Wow that’s kind of funny because I had a lot more hair back then…
ABBIE: In 1997, his team’s investigation led them into the heart of a Sikh immigrant community in Queens. Though most New Yorkers at the time didn’t know about Dhinsa, this neighborhood did.
CAMPBELL: There’s a Sikh population in New York of 50 to 100,000 People. I mean, every time you talked to somebody from that group, they all knew about him. And we had never heard of the guy because nobody ever really contacted law enforcement to tell anybody about it.
GRACE: Dhinsa had hundreds of employees. Most of them were immigrants from the same region of India that he’d come from. They traveled to the United States and settled mostly in Queens neighborhoods like Woodside, Flushing, Corona, and Elmhurst.
ABBIE: A note for our listeners: Many of the people in this story have the same last name: Singh. In the Sikh religion, it’s common for male members to take the name Singh, which means “lion” in the Punjabi language.
CAMPBELL: The more we learn, the more we talk to people in the community, the more that the legend got bigger and bigger and bigger, we were more and more about him, 08:10 and began to realize this is a much bigger problem than we thought it was initially.
GRACE: Dhinsa made his millions by overcharging customers. He set up a pump rigging scheme at each of his gas stations. Here’s now it worked. An electronic device operated by remote control would overcharge Citygas customers by about six to seven percent on every purchase. Most gas station owners make a profit of about 10 to 15 cents per gallon. But Dhinsa was earning around 50 cents per gallon.
CAMPBELL: He’s ripping people off and it’s everywhere. Every one of his gas stations every one of these devices was installed and they’re very elaborate, they got better year over year.
ABBIE: Dhinsa was even bribing an inspector from the Department of Consumer Affairs. He would pay him every two weeks in exchange for warning him about upcoming inspections. He’d then turn off the pump rigging via the remote control.
GRACE: Profits from the gas stations allowed Dhinsa and his wife Miriam Azadalli to move their growing family into a large oceanside home in the Mill Basin neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Wind and footsteps
ABBIE: So we’re out here in Mill Basin Brooklyn, which doesn’t, it’s a part of New York that doesn’t look like New York.
ABBIE: One of the first things Grace and I did when we started reporting was visit Dhinsa’s old neighborhood…
GRACE: It looks very suburban. We just took a train to a bus…took us almost two hours total.
ABBIE: This neighborhood is a coin toss into the ocean.
ABBIE: The 2,400 square foot home on Jamaica Bay cost $525,000 when he bought it in 1991. It even had a swimming pool, space for his 34-foot yacht and a brand new BMW.
GRACE: The house has tall columns that frame the doorway. It has a red-brick pattern with ornate stone fencing around the yard. It kind of looks like a McMansion. You know, those suburban homes with a bunch of mismatched architectural features.
ABBIE: I never really understood “old money” versus “new money” until we wandered around this area. This is a “new money” neighborhood.
GRACE: …I think there’s someone on the other side of the door…
GRACE: His house was sold over ten years ago.
NEW OWNERS: No sorry she doesn’t live here anymore
GRACE: The new owners told us they bought it from Dhinsa’s wife, Miriam, but they didn’t know her or the family personally.
NEW OWNERS: My brother purchased the house from her about five or…..
ABBIE: Dhinsa had so much money that he could afford some of the best attorneys in the country. One of them was Gerald Shargel, who had once defended notorious mafiosos like John Gotti and John Gotti Jr. Here’s Ben Campbell again:
CAMPBELL: It was a little surprising when we found out that Jerry was his lawyer. And we knew what his background was quite well from our organized crime colleagues. So it raised an eyebrow when he hired him, oh, wow, okay, maybe we’re onto something here. Maybe, maybe this guy is a bad guy. And then when Jerry was talking about him and saying that he’s his best client and that he’d been representing him for years. How come we don’t know about this guy?
ABBIE: One of Dhinsa’s other lawyers was Alan Dershowitz.
GRACE: You know – the Alan Dershowitz who represented President Trump at his impeachment trial.
ABBIE: Dershowitz also represented O.J. Simpson.
GRACE: AND Jeffrey Epstein,
ABBIE: Harvey Weinstein,
GRACE: And Mike Tyson.
GRACE: Despite Dhinsa’s big-name lawyers, there were only a few newspaper accounts, and many of the people…
JIM KALLSTROM: Tell the truth, I don’t remember that case.
KORMAN: I have no idea. At this time i have no recollection.
GRACE: Who were a part of the case couldn’t remember the details.
JIM TAMPELLINI: I don’t know…i don’t know I just don’t remember exactly.
ABBIE: We knew we had to get our hands on the court records. Normally, we’d be able to access these records through PACER — the Public Access to Court Electronic Records database. But Pacer only had a fraction of the documents. About 30 pages – They contained the details of just one of Dhinsa’s dozens of crimes. An especially brutal one…..
GRACE: In the summer of 1995, Kulwant (COOL-WANT) Singh was working as a gas station attendant at a Citygas location in the Bronx. One night, the gas station was robbed. And Dhinsa blamed Kulwant. Because Kulwant had supposedly forgotten to lock the safe. Days after the robbery, Kulwant went back to work at the gas station. That night witnesses saw him get into a Citygas truck with two of Dhinsa’s cousins. He was never seen again.
ABBIE: At the time, Jim Tampellini was a detective with the NYPD Department of Investigations squad. He says this case was tricky because Kulwant was a recent immigrant, and nobody really knew him very well.
TAMPELLINI: No big contacts in America and so the guy goes missing..the last time he was seen, duh duh duh.
ABBIE: Three months later, in the fall of 1995, Kulwant’s brother, Manmohan Singh, came to New York from India. He wanted to figure out what happened to his brother. It was not normal for Kulwant to all of sudden drop off of communication with his family. So Manmohan got a job working at another gas station, not one of Dhinsa’s.
GRACE: For the next two years, Manmohan gathers evidence about his brother’s disappearance. Dhinsa made multiple threatening phone calls to Manmohan telling him to stop looking for his brother. But Manmohan didn’t stop. Police say he had multiple confrontations with Dhinsa where he accused him of killing his brother. According to those 30 pages of court records, on March 16, 1997, Manmohan was working at the gas station. He was approached by a man asking for a can of oil. Manmohan and the man went into the office at the gas station. Then the man pulled out a gun. He ordered Manmohan to kneel down. The man told him to put his head on a small couch in the office. Then he shot him twice in the back of the head.
ABBIE: Here’s detective Tony Burzotta talking about Manmohan’s murder in his interview for that FBI Files episode.
SCENE FROM FBI FILES
TONY BURZOTTA: It looked like it was a typical gas station robbery in the beginning. But then, examining the scene thoroughly, it seemed that it was more like an assassination or that this person was a target because he shot very close range behind the head and it was on his knees.
ABBIE: The hitman was Marvin Dodson, a young man from Queens. Dhinsa had given him 4,000 dollars to kill Manmohan. Dhinsa wanted him silenced before he could go to the police.
TAMPELLINI: They made it looked like a robbery. But they whacked him.
GRACE: We hadn’t given up on tracking down the court records from Dhinsa’s case just because they weren’t on PACER. On a rainy day in February, Abbie and I visited the Eastern District Court of New York in Brooklyn, where the case was tried. We expected to walk away with everything we needed. But, we were told that the documents now live in the National Archives….in Missouri.
DONNA: National archives may I help you?
GRACE: Hi, I’m looking for a specific court record of someone in New York State from the 90s.
ABBIE: We spoke to Donna at the National Archives. She told us we’d need to call back the eastern district court in Brooklyn to get more information from them. THEN she could tell us if her archive even HAS the records. So we called the Clerk of Court in Brooklyn.
OPERATOR: WAIT WHILE I TRANSFER YOUR CALL….
CLERK: Civil Court, how can I help you.
GRACE: Hi, I was wondering if you could help me find the accession or transfer number for a specific case. it’s one colon nine seven dash c r dash zero….
CLERK: Hold on Please
GRACE: Thank you.
GRACE: Did she hang up on us?
ABBIE: She hung upon us
GRACE: We spent about two weeks going back and forth between the National Archives in Missouri and the Eastern District Court in Brooklyn. We did finally get what we needed to make the request from the National Archives.
GRACE: So, we call back Donna. And she tells us….
DONNA:. So you’re looking at approximately $1,000 a box.
GRACE: A thousand dollars a box. We needed a total of eleven boxes of documents. That would be eleven thousand dollars… eleven THOUSAND dollars. to get public records that are supposed to be easily accessible to the public, for the public.
ABBIE: Since when do public records cost thousands of dollars? Grace and I are students so there’s no way we’d be able to pay that. Even for a journalist with an institution backing them, $11,000 is obscene.
GRACE: We continued calling Donna and the people at the eastern district court in Brooklyn. Eventually, we got the request down to about $500 dollars. [BIG PAUSE] Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
ABBIE: The Eastern District Court in Brooklyn closed. The National Archives in Missouri closed. Most courts across the country closed. And just like that, we were back to square one, with very few records to tell us the details about this case.
GRACE: When Abbie and I went to the Eastern District Court in Brooklyn back in February, we did actually walk away with a single packet of documents. Those documents detailed even more grisly murders directed by Dhinsa.
ABBIE: It all started at the funeral of Manmohan Singh, the man Dhinsa had killed for asking too many questions about his brother’s disappearance. A man named Satinderjit Singh was at the funeral. And so were a couple of NYPD detectives. The detectives introduced themselves to Satinderjit. And Satinderjit told them he’d be willing to talk about Manmohan’s death and Dhinsa’s other crimes. He even convinced his friend, Sarvjeet Singh, to talk to police as well.
GRACE: As it turns out, Sarvjeet had been a witness to one of those other crimes – a 1991 murder. It happened at a party at a restaurant in Queens.
ABBIE: Sarvjeet told police he saw Dhinsa’s brother, Gurdip “Gogi” [GO-GhEE] Singh, shoot and kill a man in what was essentially a bar fight. We don’t know many details, but we do know that almost immediately after that shooting, Dhinsa sent Gogi back to India so he could evade the police.
GRACE: So, when Sarvjeet and Satinderjit first go to the police, they tell them that Gogi — Dhinsa’s brother — is back in the United States.
CAMPBELL: They got the courage to call the police. They told the officers Gogi is back and the police started to put together their case
ABBIE: A few months later, in June 1997, police arrested and charged Gogi with the murder.
GRACE: Of course, this was not good for Dhinsa. So he looked for every way possible to get his brother out of a jam and have him flee the country again. Dhinsa suspected that Satinderjit had been talking to the police. So Dhinsa called Satinderjit’s girlfriend. He threatened to kill both of them if Satinderjit didn’t stay quiet.
ABBIE: With the information from Satinderjit and Sarvjeet, police were ready to go to the U.S. Attorney’s office with their evidence against Dhinsa. That’s where Ben Campbell came in…
CAMPBELL: We all decided, well, the next thing we should do is maybe sit down, talk to some of the informants and start to work the case out. So that’s in June, I said, Well, I’m, I’m going on vacation for a week or two when I get back, why don’t we why we turn to this
GRACE: While Ben was on vacation, all hell broke loose. On June 18, 1997, Satinderjit Singh, the informant police met at the funeral, got in his car with his cousin outside his house in Queens. But when he tried to pull out into the street, his car was blocked on both sides. A Citygas van blocked him from the front and a black Lexus sedan from behind.
ABBIE: Inside the van were three hitmen – Marvin Dodson, Evans Alonzo Powell and Walter “Jazz” Samuels. Marvin tried to exit the passenger door, but it was broken. So he climbed around the passenger seat, into the back of the van, and got out the sliding back door. He walked right up to Satinderjit’s car and fired ten shots from a 9 millimeter Ruger. Killing him.
GRACE: Satinderjit’s cousin, Kirpal, was actually in the passenger seat, but he wasn’t hurt. He got out of the car and started to run away. Marvin ran after him. Marvin then grabbed the closest thing he could find, a mango, and threw it at Kirpal as he was running away.
ABBIE: Marvin got back into the van, and the group drove back to a Citygas station with the black Lexus following closely behind.
GRACE: Driving the Lexus was Dhinsa. Marvin later testified that Dhinsa had paid him and the two other hitmen 5,000 dollars each to kill Satinderjit. After the murder, he told them to get out of town.
ABBIE: Police picked up Marvin on July 4th, 1997, just a few weeks after Satinderjit’s murder. Marvin told police he’d been hired by Dhinsa to work security at one of the gas stations. But Marvin said he quickly became Dhinsa’s enforcer. Dhinsa even gave him a machine gun for protection. He said one day, Dhinsa approached him and said: “You shoot somebody, I’ll give you $5,000.”
GRACE: Marvin said Dhinsa had given him photographs of Satinderjit, and printouts of his home address and license plate number. He wanted to make sure Marvin killed the right guy.
ABBIE: The same day they spoke to Marvin, police arrested Dhinsa. They charged him with murder in aid of racketeering and using a firearm during a crime of violence. He was later charged with additional counts of fraud and murder.
ABBIE: So remember that FBI Files episode? At the beginning, it’s introduced by a man named Jim Kallstrom…
SCENE FROM FBI FILES
KALLSTROM: I’m Jim Kallstrom, former head of the FBI’s New York office. When the promise of the American dream was shattered by murder and corruption, the FBI provided hope to those people who have seen their lives and families torn apart.
GRACE: We talked to Jim about his time running New York’s FBI unit. He worked on thousands of cases, so he couldn’t remember the specifics of Dhinsa’s case. But, he had a lot to say about the larger landscape of organized crime.
KALLSTROM: The criminals today don’t have the sophistication or the organization that La Cosa Nostra did…
GRACE: La Cosa Nostra. Hollywood, as much as we love it, would have us believe that all organized crime in America started with the Italian mafia.
ABBIE: In reality, the underbelly of organized crime in New York City began not with Italian mafias, but with Irish mobs.
GRACE: In the 1840s, Irish immigrants began arriving in New York by the thousands. As outsiders in a new society, some formed secret brotherhoods and street gangs to get ahead in an unforgiving city.
KALLSTROM: all the businesses they were running illegally: the cement business, the garbage business, the unions, the meatpackers…went on and on and on and on.
GRACE: It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Italian immigrants began arriving in droves. Some brought with them a tradition of criminal activity based in old-country family hierarchy. In New York, they formed La Cosa Nostra, or Our Family.
SOUND IN — NEWSREEL: Vintage Gangsters
Gang warfare…the gangsters turn against each other….
Millions were revolting against the prohibition amendment in a mass disregard for the laws of the land…
Enforcing their orders by violence, even by murder…
GRACE: And by the 1930s, the five most powerful Italian mafia families emerged.
SOUND IN — NEWSREEL
ANNOUNCER:“Joe Columbo” is himself often identified as the head of one of New York’s five mafia families of organized crime…
ABBIE: For the next 50 years, the Italian mafia dominated the New York crime scene.
SOUND IN — NEWSREEL: Vintage Gangsters
Let the gamblers, Kinghorn, racketeers, and gangsters take notice that they have to keep away from New york from now on.
ABBIE: That is, until…
KALLSTROM: The Rico law was passed back in the 1970s.
GRACE: RICO stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations. It enabled the FBI to charge multiple members of the same organized crime operation at the same time.
KALLSTROM: In the 80s we really did away with what was organized crime.
ABBIE: Mob crackdowns continued into the 90s, most notably with the John Gotti and John Gotti Jr. trials.
SOUND IN — 60 MINUTES
STEVE KROFT: “For nearly three decades the name Gotti has been synonymous with organized crime in America.
GRACE: One thing all mob empires, regardless of their ethnicity, have in common is their roots as immigrants and their use of violence to get ahead. Like Dhinsa. But unlike the Italian mafia, and even the Irish mob, Dhinsa’s criminal empire disappeared when he did.
GRACE: At Dhinsa’s trial in 1999, prosecutors needed people from the Sikh community to come forward and testify against him. At first, no one would do it because they were terrified of retribution.
ABBIE: Ben remembers clearly how he and his team fought to keep Dhinsa from getting out on bail once he was finally arrested
CAMPBELL: And then when they did realize he was not coming home, we got a lot of cooperation from the community, because remember, he preyed on his own. They didn’t rally to him as somebody that they really liked. They were afraid of him because he preyed on them because they all spoke the same language
ABBIE: During the trial, Ben says the courtroom was usually pretty empty, but one day he walked in and the typical “defense” side of the courtroom was filled with people from the Sikh community.
CAMPBELL: So we walk in there, like these people all must be for Dhinsa. we look around, and there’s some people there that we know, because we interviewed them. And at one point, we have a break for lunch. And one of the agents goes to talk to one of them, because they want to find out who these people are. And they said, well, we’re all here for the government.
GRACE: It turned out they’d all sat on the wrong side of the court. When the court resumed after lunch, everyone had shifted to the other side of the room. They were not on Dhinsa’s side, they all wanted him convicted.
ABBIE: Also present at that trial was none other than John Gotti Jr.
ABBIE: According to court records, Ben and his team presented nearly 100 witnesses during the four-month-long trial. Police were able to connect Dhinsa to Sanderjit’s murder using cell tower data. Which was new at the time. They knew it was him driving the black Lexus. Ben Campbell says it was highly unusual that Dhinsa would order a contract killing, but then still show up at the scene of the murder to make sure the job got done.
CAMPBELL: It sealed his fate. It made it crystal clear that the cooperators were telling the truth about what he did.
GRACE: Judge Edward Korman presided over the trial case. It’s been 30 years. But he says he’s never forgotten this case.
KORMAN: The whole thing was shocking. Two young immigrants from India who were basically murdered in cold blood in a contract killing. But you know, this kind of story is not unheard of in America. [laughs]
GRACE: In March 1999, the jury found Dhinsa guilty of 21 out of the 29 counts he was charged with.
ABBIE: Dhinsa was convicted of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy.
GRACE: Two counts of murder.
ABBIE: Three counts of conspiracy to commit murder.
GRACE: Two counts of obstruction of justice murder also known as informant murder.
ABBIE: Threatening to commit murder.
GRACE: Using a firearm during a crime of violence.
ABBIE: Six counts of mail fraud. And one count of mail fraud conspiracy
GRACE: One count of conspiracy to commit interstate kidnapping AND interstate kidnapping.
CAMPBELL: whenever I hang up the spikes, hands down, it will probably be one of the most important things I ever worked on.
ABBIE: The prosecution asked for the death penalty.
GRACE: The New York Times, The New York Post and The Associated Press all wrote that Dhinsa’s wife — Miriam — cried during testimony as she was asked how her husband’s death would affect their children.
ABBIE: Judge Korman said the jury was moved by a video shown of Dhinsa’s children.
KORMAN: And the three children talked about how devastating it would be if their father died.
ABBIE: After just an hour of deliberation, the jury gave Dhinsa six life sentences. Dhinsa is still appealing. In April 2020, Dhinsa filed an appeal on the obstruction of justice murder charge.
GRACE: Dhinsa’s brother Gogi is now in prison too. In 1998 he was convicted for that murder in the bar in Queens. He’s serving out his sentence in a maximum-security prison in Comstock, New York. Back in early March, Abbie and I wrote a letter to Dhinsa. We had the letter translated into his first language, Punjabi. We sent both the English and Punjabi version of the letter to Dhinsa at Federal Correctional Institution Schuylkill [SHUL-KILL] in Pennsylvania
GRACE: Dear Mr. Dhinsa, We’re part of a team of journalists working on a series of stories about notable events in New York City in the 1990s. We’re hoping to talk to you about your business, Citygas Gasoline Corporation. There’s been a lot written in the past about your case and about the trial, but there seems to be something missing from the reporting.
MARIAM KHAN: [IN PUNJABI] ਅਸੀਂ ਇਕ ਪੱਤਰਕਾਰ ਦੀ ਟੀਮ ਹਾਂ ਜੋ 1990 ਦੇ ਦਹਾਡੇ ਵਿਚ ਨਿਊ ਯੋਰਕ ਸਿਟੀ ਦੀਆਂ ਮਹੱਤਵਪੂਰਣ ਘਟਨਾਵਾਂ ਬਾਰੇ ਕਈ ਕਹਾਣੀਆਂ ਲਿਖਣੀਆਂ ਦਾ ਕੰਮ ਕਰ ਰਹੀਆਂ ਹਾਂ। ਅਸੀਂ ਤੁਹਾਡੇ ਕਾਰੋਬਾਰ, ਸਿਟੀਗੈਸ ਗੈਸੋਲੀਨ ਕੋਰਪੋਰੇਸ਼ਨ, ਬਾਰੇ ਤੁਹਾਡੇ ਨਾਲ ਗੱਲ ਕਰਨਾਂ ਚਾਹੁੰਦੀਆਂ ਹਾਂ। ਤੁਹਾਡੇ ਕੇਸ ਅਤੇ ਮੁਕੱਦਮੇ ਬਾਰੇ ਪਹਿਲਾਂ ਬਹੁਤ ਕੁਝ ਲਿਖਿਆ ਗਿਆ ਸੀ, ਪਰ ਲੱਗਦਾ ਹੈ ਕਿ ਰਿਪੋਰਟਿੰਗ ਵਿਚੋਂ ਇੱਕ ਚੀਜ਼ ਗਾਇਬ ਹੈ: ਤੁਸੀਂ ਇੰਨੇ ਥੋਡੇ ਸਮੇਂ ਵਿਚ ਇੰਨਾ ਵੱਡਾ ਰਾਜ ਕਿਵੇਂ ਬਣਾਇਆ?
ABBIE: We never heard back. The one photo we found of Dhinsa is a mug shot in the New York Post next to a story about his conviction.
GRACE: The headline reads, quote, “Millionaire Guilty.” “Jury convicted Gurmeet Dhinsa Singh of 20 counts,” unquote. It doesn’t even get his name right.
ABBIE: What strikes me about the photo is his eyes. They’re dark and stern like he’s looking right through you. He has a heavy brow, which probably adds to his air of intimidation.
CAMPBELL: You know, if you would meet him today, he would, he would be smart, articulate, charming, you know, he, he would be polite. He had a good sense of humor. 25:12 He would be, he would present as a smart, savvy businessman. And that’s what he was like.
TAMPELLINI: I don’t think he thought that he would ever get caught……..he was like the John Gotti of the Indian community
GRACE: Jim Tampellini says Dhinsa’s organization didn’t have the scope of others like Gotti and the Gambino crime family. Dhinsa kept his criminal activity confined to just a few people. He didn’t have a cascading hierarchy of underbosses, consiglieres, and foot soldiers to maintain his criminal enterprise. He rarely involved people from the Sikh community in his crimes. He just intimidated them, stole from them, and sometimes, killed them. He didn’t really trust anyone. Because he was the sole mind of the operation, it ended when he went to prison.
ABBIE: But Ben did compare Dhinsa’s organization to GoodFellas.
SCENE FROM GOODFELLAS
HENRY HILL: You know, we always called each other GoodFellas.
CAMPBELL: You watch Goodfellas, and you cut down the number of people in that, by two thirds because. And you make everybody Sikh. you would have a story that was very similar.
SCENE FROM GOODFELLAS
HENRY HILL: We were GoodFellas. Wiseguys. (:46-:58)
ABBIE: Remember Kulwant [cool-want], the gas station attendant who disappeared, whose brother later came looking for him? Dhinsa was charged but never convicted in his disappearance. There was a rumor that Dhinsa dumped his body into the ocean from his boat. Divers even searched the water behind Dhinsa’s house on Jamaica Bay. But came up empty.
TAMPELLINI: I’m sure there’s more than that. I don’t think you really know how many people he killed.
ABBIE: According to Detective Jim Tampellini, police went looking for a body buried at one of Dhinsa’s gas stations in Brooklyn. They even spent some time digging up the ground under the tanks.
TAMPELLINI: …looking for his body. The word has it that we had the wrong gas station. Somebody’s buried under a gas tank somewhere in Brooklyn that we haven’t found yet.
ABBIE: There’s a chance someone is still buried at an old Citygas station on Avenue C.
GRACE: Jim Tampellini believes we’ll never truly know the full extent of Dhinsa’s crimes. Ben Campbell says that in organized crime cases, it’s common that not all the crimes get solved.
CAMPBELL: We all started with just that one drive-by shooting in Queens and it turns out there’s this whole story that just emerges. It was like, like finding out you have termites, you know, you scratch a little bit and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
ABBIE: And what about those 11 boxes of court records we were never able to get? What was in those? Are there more bodies lost in the sea, or forgotten underneath gas tanks?
GRACE: Perhaps only Dhinsa knows.
MUSIC IN — SQUEEGEES
GRACE: Shoe Leather is a production of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This episode was reported, written and produced by me Grace Goodwin,
ABBIE: and me, Abbie Shull. Joanne Faryon is our executive producer and professor. Dale Maharidge is our co-professor. Keshav Pandya is our technical advisor. Punjabi translations by Mariam Khan and Harpreet Kaur. Stuart Karle is our legal advisor.
GRACE: Special thanks to Columbia Journalism Librarian Kristina Williams, Columbia Digital Librarian Michelle Wilson, Peter Leonard from Gimlet Media, Rachel Quester from The Daily, Madeleine Baran and Samara [SAM-AIR-A] Freemark from American Public Media, Emily Martinez and David Blum from Audible, Susan White from Garage Media, Nate Di Meo [MY-O] from The Memory Palace, Jonathan Hirsch from Neon Hum Media and Clint Schaff from the LA Times Studios.
ABBIE: Shoe Leather’s theme music – ‘Squeegees’ – by Ben Lewis, Doron Zounes [ZOO-Ness] and Camille Miller. Other Music by Blue Dot Sessions.
For more about this episode and Shoe Leather, go to our website shoeleather.org. To stay up to date on the latest Shoe Leather happenings, follow us on social media. We are on Facebook at facebook.com/ShoeLeatherCast and on Instagram and twitter @ShoeLeatherCast.
MUSIC OUT — SQUEEGEES
© Abbie Shull & Grace Goodwin, 2020
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