A PhD-level biostatistician and his wife — both in their 60s — were convicted of first-degree murder in Montgomery County on Thursday in the shooting death of the man’s ex-wife on a quiet Germantown street at 7:45 in the morning last October.
During the seven-day trial, prosecutors asserted that the current wife, Raminder Kaur, used a snubnose revolver to fire three rounds from close range into Preeta Gabba, 49. Prosecutors also showed that Kaur’s husband, Baldeo Taneja, was with her that weekend, implying that he was at the scene as well.
Jurors deliberated for seven hours Thursday before announcing their verdict at 5:38 p.m. Taneja, dressed in a coat and tie, showed no emotion.
Kaur, wearing a large pink shirt that made her look even smaller than her 5-foot-2 frame, subtly shook her head but also displayed little emotion. Jurors also found the couple guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and handgun charges. They face the possibility of life sentences in prison.
“Justice was served. They got what they deserved,” said Lim Gabba, 23, a son of the victim, who was living with her when she was shot.
During the trial, prosecutors laid out a series of audacious events planned by Taneja and Kaur.
“These two conspired to murder, to execute, Preeta Gabba,” Assistant States Attorney Marybeth Ayres told jurors in her closing argument.
A key piece of evidence in the trial was the murder weapon. It was found hidden in Taneja’s car — with Taneja behind the wheel and Kaur in the passenger seat — about 30 hours after the murder. The gun was matched to bullets from Gabba’s body.
Taneja and Kaur’s motivation, according to prosecutors, dated to a contentious relationship between Taneja and Gabba. Those two married in India and got involved in an Amway operation there. Around 2007, Taneja moved to the United States. Gabba arrived later, and their relationship soured.
“In a nutshell,” Taneja wrote to Gabba in a 2010 e-mail, “you do not deserve to be a parasite on me for financial support.”
Gabba filed for divorce about that time. At one point, according to prosecutors, Taneja was ordered to allow Gabba to live by herself in his condo — a development that prompted Taneja to have a drywall barrier erected inside the condo that made the living space smaller. The two eventually agreed on an alimony plan, in which Taneja was to pay Gabba about $2,200 a month.
In time, Taneja married Kaur. They moved to Nashville, where Taneja worked at a pharmaceutical company after a career that included stints as a college professor and an employee of the Food and Drug Administration.
At one point, Taneja fell behind in his alimony payment. Gabba filed a contempt-of-court motion, and that was the last straw, prosecutors said. “He got pushed to the point of wanting to kill, and so did she, and he recruited her,” Ayres told jurors.
Their plan was deliberate and left behind clues — so many clues, in fact, that Taneja’s attorney, Andy Jezic, argued to jurors that someone as smart as Taneja would not have made such moves.
Taneja enrolled in a gun shooting and safety class. He took notes throughout, according to a teacher who testified, and wrote a phrase about semiautomatic handguns and how they discharge shell casings onto the ground. “Evidence (brass) on the ground,” Taneja wrote, according to his notes, which were found by police and given to jurors.
On Sept. 28, 2013, Taneja and Kaur went to a gun shop in Nashville and bought the snubnose and a longer revolver.“A his-and-hers set,” prosecutor Jessica Hall called them.
In early October, detectives would later establish, the couple spent a Friday night near Gabba’s apartment. Prosecutors asserted they had come to the Washington area to scout out her Saturday morning routine. They returned to Nashville.
On Oct. 11, according to data later taken from a GPS device in the couple’s car, Taneja and Kaur drove to Montgomery, checking into a Red Roof Inn in the Gaithersburg/Rockville area. They spent time in Maryland the next morning, and were back on the road, headed for Tennessee by 12:12 p.m.
Just before the two left town, they checked into an Amway conference in the District, something that on its face wasn’t unusual because they also were involved with the company. But the couple stayed so briefly at the conference that prosecutors were able to depict the stop as a cover story to explain what they had been doing in the area.
“They’re probably in that conference for 20 minutes,” Ayres said in her closing argument.
By then, detectives were several hours into the case. They quickly identified Taneja as a person of interest, based in part on the divorce case. One of them started calling gun shops in Nashville — and found out about the Sept. 28 purchases from the first store he called.
The detectives flew to Nashville, catching up with Taneja and Kaur in their car near their home and pulling them over. Inside, they found the murder weapon, the second revolver, a wig, hair dye and about $3,000 in cash. “They were going to lay low for a while,” Ayres said.
Police also found notes Kaur had written to herself. One of those notes, presented to jurors by prosecutors as something she wrote on the way home after the murder, stated: “You calm down. We are now in TN near my home.”
Defense attorneys had a stiff challenge dealing with evidence against their clients, particularly the gun found in the car. In his closing argument, Jezic suggested that the shooter was a different person, firing from the distance. “Whoever shot that pistol, whoever did, was an amazing shot,” Jezic said.
He also played up a series of character witnesses he called who spoke to Taneja’s past acts of kindness — saying that Taneja was hardly a man with a “murderous soul.”
Kaur’s attorney, Alan Drew, questioned the value of eye witnesses who testified. They said they saw a woman near Gabba on the street. But none of them saw a gun, Drew noted. One of the witnesses held her hands to her face, as if she was startled by what she saw — an indication she was bystander, not a shooter.
Drew also said that when the small gun was found in Tennessee, there were no fingerprints or DNA linking it to Kaur. They were “not really able to connect this gun to Ms. Kaur,” Drew said.