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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Woman Accused of Trying to Drown Children Freed on Bail

Crime: Immigrant community rallies behind Indian mother. Supporters say she is a victim of spousal abuse. Prosecutors contend she is a flight risk.

September 21, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weeping and expressing gratitude to supporters, a 40-year-old Indian immigrant accused of trying to drown her two children was released from jail Wednesday after those benefactors posted $500,000 bail.

Draped in a traditional Punjabi scarf and borrowed clothes, an emotional Narinder Virk stepped out of Ventura County Jail and embraced her supporters.

In her native language, she thanked them and clung to their arms as she shuffled outside the jail for the first time in eight months.

"She's quite nervous," said 66-year-old Nina Singh, a Los Angeles County resident who put her personal property up as collateral to make Virk's bail. "The only thing she said was, 'Thank you very much.' "

From their offices near the Ventura jail, prosecutors expressed concern about Virk's release. Deputy Dist. Atty. Adam Pearlman said Virk has invested nothing to make bail and poses a flight risk and threat to her children.

"Obviously, since we had bail set at half a million, we thought that not only was she a flight risk but a danger to the community," Pearlman said. "We still have those concerns because nothing has changed."

Virk was arrested in January on suspicion of attempted murder after an Oxnard man pulled the woman, her 6-year-old daughter, Harpreet, and 9-year-old son, Sonny, out of the icy water at Channel Islands Harbor.

Authorities say Virk walked her children to a boat dock in the middle of the night, pushed them into the water and held their heads under. Sonny managed to swim away and his cries summoned help from former lifeguard Brian Wiggins. Prosecutors have charged Virk with two counts of deliberate attempted murder.

But Deputy Public Defender Christina Briles says her client committed no such crimes.

Briles says Virk was distraught after being abandoned by an abusive husband and snapped after he boarded a plane for India with plans to divorce her. Last week, Virk pleaded not guilty to the charges by reason of insanity.

Since her arrest, Virk's case has galvanized members of the Indian community across Southern California. For them, she is a symbol of a battered woman trapped in a tortured marriage and the rigid values of her culture.

Virk doesn't speak English. Nor can she read or write in her native tongue. After emigrating to the United States with her husband, supporters say, she endured a violent marriage that left her isolated and paralyzed with fear.

"We feel really certain that the girl is a victim of circumstances," said Dr. Amarjit Marwah, a dentist and Sikh community leader in Los Angeles.

For the last seven months, Marwah and other people who have never met Virk have rallied to raise bail.

Through fund-raisers and donations at Sikh temples, they raised $50,000, or 10% of the total bail amount, to cover the required cash payment.

The remainder of the bond came from four sources: two brothers who each donated $25,000, a man who put up his Van Nuys apartment building valued at about $200,000, and Singh.

A past victim of domestic abuse, Singh said she identified with Virk and put up $250,000 of her own property as collateral to get Virk out of jail.

"I did it because I've been through it myself," said Singh, a former Diamond Bar resident who recently sold her home and is now living with friends in Los Angeles County.

Briles said she has never seen such an outpouring of support.

"I think what it says is this woman represents a lot of different things to different people," she said. "She is from India, where women are not viewed with the same value as they are here. And we also have a sensitivity to women who are abused."

Virk is expected to return to Ventura County Superior Court today for a hearing on a defense motion to force Oxnard police to turn over documents the defense believes is important to the case.

Briles argued that Virk, who is staying at an undisclosed location, is not a flight risk and will continue to show up in court because she hopes to see her children again.

That issue is expected to be argued in family court in coming weeks.

Sonny and Harpreet are living in Port Hueneme with their father, Santokh Virk, a liquor store owner who has filed for divorce. Briles said Narinder Virk wants to see her children but is awaiting the family court's decision on the issue.

"She is not going to do anything until the Superior Court makes a decision," Briles said. "She wants to do what is best for her children."

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