Acrimony, alimony and an Amway alibi — they all played a role during opening statements as a twisting murder trial got underway Tuesday in Montgomery County.
Baldeo Taneja, a 63-year-old doctorate-level biostatistician, and his wife, Raminder Kaur, 64, are accused of driving from Tennessee to Maryland last year to kill Taneja’s ex-wife, Preeta Gabba, 49. She was shot three times — in the back, chest and stomach — as she walked along a Germantown street at 7:45 a.m. on Oct. 12 to catch a bus.
Before leaving Maryland, the couple checked into an Amway conference in the District, which on one level made sense: Taneja has long been involved in Amway businesses, in the United States and his native India. But in this instance, prosecutors said his conference attendance was a ruse.
“The way in which this man and woman worked together to construct this alibi is a very important piece of evidence,” prosecutor Jessica Hall told jurors. “What they created was a cover story.”
Taneja and Kaur are being tried at the same time — an arrangement that might test the limits of their marriage.
In his opening remarks, Kaur’s defense attorney, Alan Drew, sought to distance Kaur from the crime. He noted that it was her husband’s name on a receipt for the purchases of two guns shortly before the murder, his name on applications for the purchases, and Taneja who signed up for instructions at a shooting range.
“Raminder Kaur never enrolled in that class,” Drew said, painting his client as submissive and self-sacrificing — characteristics he said were ingrained while she was growing up in India. “Raminder Kaur was at the beck and call of Mr. Taneja.”
Drew’s description — visually at least — could hit home with jurors. Earlier measured at 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds, Kaur on Tuesday wore a large blue button-down shirt that made her look at least that small.
Prosectors contend that Kaur fired the shots from close range with a snub-nosed .357 designed for easy concealment. Taneja was with her “every step of the way,” from the plotting to the execution, prosecutors added.
Taneja’s attorney, Andrew Jezic, attacked the prosecution’s case and said his client was too smart to leave behind so many purported clues linking him to a murder.
Jezic spoke of Taneja’s lengthy career as a college professor, at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and at pharmaceutical companies.
“He was a biostatistician — that’s what he had his PhD in,” Jezic told jurors. “A job — and I think this will become important later — which required great attention to detail, precision regarding looking at a problem and looking at the problem comprehensively. That's who Baldeo Taneja is. That is what he does every day when he goes to work.”
The events leading to the trial, prosecutors said, date back years. Taneja and the victim, Gabba, married in India. Taneja moved to the United States. When Gabba came a few years later, Taneja had moved on to Kaur, they said.
Taneja and Gabba divorced in 2011, and he was ordered to pay alimony of about $2,200 a month. He fell behind in 2013, according to court records.
The split was filled with anger, prosecutors said. Hall told jurors they would see evidence “that shows the degree to which they put thought and planning into killing this woman that they hated, this woman that they wanted to see die.”
Prosecutors’ timeline has the couple going into a Nashville gun shop on Sept. 28, 2013 — an excursion captured on video surveillance. They purchased two boxes of hollow-point bullets, a Ruger LCR revolver and a larger Ruger GP100 revolver.
“A his-and-a-hers set,” Hall said.
The morning she was killed, Gabba made breakfast for her son and lunch for herself and headed out along Crystal Rock Drive, near the Germantown Road exit on Interstate 270. Prosecutors said a witness saw a woman with dark hair and a brightly colored scarf near Gabba about the time she was shot.
Detectives quickly closed in on Taneja, based on the contentious divorce, the gun purchases and phone and hotel records that put him in the area.
Taneja and Kaur checked into the Amway conference at 11:37 a.m., according to prosecutors. Defense attorneys noted that it was about four hours after the murder. If the couple were going to conference for an alibi, Jezic said, why did they wait hours?
Taneja and Kaur were there for less then 45 minutes, Hall said, before GPS records showed them driving back to Tennessee.
Detectives caught up with the couple in Nashville. They found Taneja and Kaur in a car that had the two Rugers inside, along with a wig, hair dye and about $3,000 in cash.
Jezic said that they were on their way to a shooting range. But prosecutors told jurors that experts would testify that the smaller of the two revolvers and the bullets the defendants purchased could be matched to Gabba’s mortal wounds.