The tale of the Chohan murders

In early 2003, the Chohan family vanished without a trace, what follows is a truly shocking story of greed and brutality

In late February 2003, Onkar Verma suddenly stopped getting phone calls from his sister Nancy. The siblings lived half a planet apart—Verma in New Zealand and Nancy Chohan in a London suburb. Yet they had always been close, and spoke with each other on the phone several times a month.

Strengthening this connection, perhaps, was the fact that Nancy had married a much older man. Amarjit Chohan was twenty-one years older than the pretty twenty-five-year-old Punjabi girl.

Also just eight weeks previously she had given birth to her second son, Ravinder. With Amarjit engrossed in his ostensibly thriving exports business, Nancy was a busy woman with a household and two very young sons to manage. This is surely why the family had recently flown over Nancy’s mother, Charanjit Kaur, to London. Her brother’s voice over the telephone no doubt gave Nancy added comfort.

Thus the sudden silence was unusual in itself. But something else bothered Onkar deeply. In one of their last calls, on 14 February, Nancy had sounded frantic. Amarjit, she told Onkar, hadn’t come home from work the day before. And his mobile phone was switched off.

She had called up her husband’s company, CIBA Freight, only to be told that Amarjit had flown to the Netherlands on an urgent business meeting. Nancy was aghast. The trip was news to her. Amarjit had made no mention of it. Then there was the voicemail on Nancy’s phone. In which Amarjit told her that he would be back home soon.

But none of this made sense to Nancy Chohan. For one thing, the voicemail message was in English. And Amarjit always left messages in Punjabi. What was most unusual, however, was the trip to the Netherlands. That was impossible. Because Amarjit Chohan’s passport was with the UK government. Chohan had recently applied for a residency permit. How could he have possibly flown to Holland for a meeting?

A day later, and two days after Amarjit Chohan supposedly flew to the Netherlands without a passport, the rest of the Chohan family vanished. Nancy, her sons Ravinder and Davinder, and her mother, Charanjit Kaur, simply disappeared from their home at 35 Sutton Road in Heston. There would be no more phone calls between the siblings.

Police were first alerted to the disappearance by CIBA Freight employees who tried to contact Amarjit and Nancy without success. Preliminary investigations brought up something unusual but not particularly alarming.

Police discovered that just days after Chohan’s disappearance a business acquaintance had turned up at CIBA Freight with documents and a power of attorney signed by Amarjit Chohan. In these documents Amarjit Chohan made a startling announcement: He had decided to leave England with his family, and had handed over the company to a new owner.

In most cases such letters should have tipped off the police that something was afoot. But at the time the UK police were not excessively provoked to action. Amarjit Chohan, as we shall see, had something of a criminal history. Also it was not unusual for immigrant families to suddenly go back home after an unhappy stint in the United Kingdom.

No one in London seemed to particularly care for the Chohans. At best it was a case of immigrants feeling homesick. At worst, a businessman with a chequered past had fled from the authorities. Six weeks later at least one story in the Guardian newspaper suggested that Amarjit Chohan ‘may have had financial problems’.

But in New Zealand Onkar Verma was utterly distraught. On 5 March 2003 he flew down to London. He began an incessant campaign to get the police to take the case seriously. Regardless of what the police thought, or what the signed documents at the CIBA Freight offices suggested, Verma was certain that his sister would not have vanished without giving him an inkling of her plans. Something was certainly amiss.

When the police, egged on by Verma, entered the Chohan home the scene that faced them was utterly peculiar. It was as if the family had just vanished. There was no sign of struggle or violence. There were clothes still in the washing machine and food on the table.

It looked as if the Chohans hadn’t even bothered to pack. Clothing belonging to the two children had all been left behind. Not only that, Charanjit Kaur had even left her copy of the Guru Granth Sahib sitting on her table.

That’s when Onkar Verma knew, without a doubt, that Nancy and her family had not simply run away. His mother would never, Verma told the police, leave home without her Granth. Never. She could leave everything else behind. Even her return tickets to India. But his mother would never abandon her holy book.

A fortnight later a typed letter from Amarjit Chohan, postmarked Calais in France, was received by relatives in London. In it Chohan reiterated that the family was on the run, and on their way back to India. They had ‘had enough of England’. But even here there was something odd. Chohan, relatives told the police, always wrote his letters by hand. Why would he suddenly type one out from France?

On 21 March 2003, in no small part thanks to Onkar Verma’s persistence, the case was handed over to Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Group. There was mounting worry at this stage that the family had been abducted or even murdered. Yet the money in the Chohan family bank accounts remained untouched. Something had happened to Amarjit, Nancy, Davinder, Ravinder and Charanjit. But what?

Then in April a father and son canoeing off Bournemouth Pier found a body floating in the sea close to the pier.

The first of the missing Chohans had been found. The investigation that followed shocked the British public for the sheer greed and brutality it threw light on.

Edited excerpts taken from The Corpse That Spoke: The True Story of the Chohan Murders (Rs30) by Sidin Vadukut with permission from Juggernaut Books.

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