On the morning of August 19, 1992, 23-year-old Kalpesh Vardhan, a recent graduate of UCLA with a degree in electrical engineering, pulled his car into a parking structure enroute to work in Los Angeles at Anderson Consulting.
More than seven hours later, a parking lot security guard found Vardhan’s body on the concrete behind some parked cars on the sixth floor. He had been stabbed 19 times and his wallet was missing. Police found a broken 3-inch blade of a small steak knife.
Kevin Shorts, a fellow employee of Vardhan’s said he drove into the parking structure not long after Vardhan and that he came up behind a mustard-colored car containing two black men. He said he saw Vardhan’s vehicle pull in and park near his vehicle.
In September, the Los Angeles City Council and two businesses, including the owner of the parking structure, joined to offer a $40,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the crime.
After the reward was offered, Shorts underwent hypnosis and he positively identified a man named Stanley Wilson as the man he saw in the car. Wilson was never charged in the case.
A parking lot cashier, Jose Cubias, told police that Vardhan entered the parking lot structure at 9:07 a.m. and that a car with two black men entered at 9:08 a.m. and departed at 9:13 a.m.
Police had no leads until October 19, 1992, when they questioned a man who had been arrested that day for stealing car stereos in nearby parking garages. After several hours of interrogation, the man, David Rosemond, told them he had seen the assault on Vardhan. He looked through Los Angeles Police arrest photos and selected two transients, Timothy Gantt, 46, and Michael Smith, 32, as the attackers. He said he recognized them because he knew them from the neighborhood.
Police found Gantt on skid row. Formerly a man with a family and a job repairing photocopiers, Gantt had become homeless after he succumbed to cocaine and alcohol. He had been convicted of burglary and car theft.
Gantt was searched at a nearby police station and in his pants pocket was a matchbook with a handwritten telephone number inside. The matchbook was from the Shalimar Restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, about 30 miles from skid row.
Detectives believed that given Vardhan’s heritage, he must have been carrying the Shalimar matchbook when he was attacked and killed and that it wound up in the possession of the attacker.
Gantt denied any involvement in the crime and said he had gotten the matchbook while hustling. He said he earned a meager living buying stolen telephone calling card numbers and then charged immigrants who wanted to make international calls to relatives back home. He said a customer had used the matchbook to write a telephone number he wanted Gantt to call for him.
Smith was arrested on October 21, 1992.
Neither Cubias nor Shorts were able to identify either Gantt or Smith.
Days later, when detectives took the case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office to request an indictment, they were rejected. Smith and Gantt were both released from custody.
In 1993, the detectives went to another deputy district attorney, Sterling Norris, and requested he examine the evidence. Norris went to the prison where Rosemond was being held after being convicted of the car burglaries and decided Rosemond was a credible witness.
Smith and Gantt were re-arrested in August 1993 and charged with murder.
They went on trial on February 28, 1994.
Rosemond, a homeless crack addict with a record of convictions for theft, testified that he was stealing car stereos when he saw Gantt beating Vardhan and that Smith was standing nearby holding a gun.
A police handwriting analyst testified that he compared some of Vardhan’s writings and that “it was possible” that Vardhan wrote the numbers in the matchbook.
There was no testing of a knife point found imbedded in a bone in Vardhan’s foot and fingerprints from the scene did not match Gantt, Smith or Vardhan.
Despite his previous misidentification of one man and inability to identify either defendant initially, Shorts testified at the trial that a man standing next to the car he saw in the parking garage was Smith. He identified Gantt as the driver of the car, despite having identified someone else earlier. “I have a very good memory for faces,” he testified.
Gantt and Smith were convicted on March 9, 1994. After the conviction, Gantt’s attorney for the first time hired his own handwriting expert who concluded Vardhan had not written the telephone number. He asked for a new trial, but was rejected.
On May 25, 1994, Gantt and Smith were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Both lost their initial appeals.
Gantt filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus on March, 1998, alleging that the prosecution had withheld evidence from his defense attorney. The petition contended that the prosecution had tracked down the telephone number on the matchbook to a home in Bangladesh. The owner of the home was shown a photograph of Vardhan and said he did not know him. The owner, however, said his son was a waiter at the Shalimar Restaurant. Detectives interviewed the son and he said he had never seen Vardhan before.
The petition also alleged that the prosecution failed to disclose that Rosemond received a portion of the $40,000 reward money.
In January 1999, the U.S. District Court denied the petition, ruling that the defense could have investigated the phone number and even if the evidence had been presented at trial, it would not have led the jury to acquit Gantt.
In November 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, ruling that the evidence might have made a difference, but remanded the case to the U.S. District Court for a hearing on whether the evidence had been suppressed by the prosecution.
Following two days of hearings, the U.S. District Court, in April 2006, found the evidence had not been disclosed to the defense and set aside Gantt’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The state appealed and the decision as upheld in 2007.
Gantt went on trial a second time on June 3, 2008.
Investigators for both sides interviewed the waiter at the Shalimar Restaurant, whose father’s phone number was found in the matchbook. The waiter, Ferdous Khan, said he purchased food once or twice a week for the restaurant from suppliers near the parking structure.
Another handwriting analyst hired by the defense said it was possible the handwriting of the telephone number was Khan’s.
Interviews with Vardhan’s younger brother revealed that family members often picked up matchbooks for their mother to use lighting incense at home and that Vardhan may have visited the Shalimar to find caterers for an Indian student association at UCLA.
On June 6, 2008, David Rosemond was called as a witness. Just before he took the witness stand, he recanted his identification of Gantt to the prosecution and said he was coerced by police into identifying Gantt and Smith. The prosecution dismissed the case that day and Gantt was released.
Smith then filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus and on November 2, 2009, the Los Angeles Superior Court granted the petition and vacated his conviction. The charges were then dismissed and Smith was released.
Gantt and Smith filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages, but in 2010 after a trial, the jury rejected their claim.
– Maurice Possley