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Arson Murders Resulted From Hotel Rivalries, Officials Say

July 30, 2002|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A business rivalry over control of an alley separating neighboring hotels in Studio City was the motive for a quadruple homicide, authorities alleged Monday as three men were charged with capital murder.

Pravin Govin, 33, the owner of the Studio Place Inn, his brother Victor Govin, 35, and Carlos Amador, 25, each were charged with four counts of murder for setting a blaze at a Hollywood Hills home on May 4 that killed the family of a business rival. Each is charged with murder for financial gain, arson murder, murder during a robbery and multiple murder.

They also were charged with one count each of first-degree robbery, first-degree burglary, arson and use of a handgun to commit the crimes.

An attorney for the victims has said $3,000 to $4,000 in hotel cash receipts were missing from the home.

Prosecutors said they will decide later whether to seek the death penalty.

Found in what was left of the Lakeridge Drive home were the charred remains of Gita Kumar, 42, who with her husband owned the Universal City Inn next-door to Govin's hotel; her son, Paras, 18; her daughter, Tulsi, 16; and her mother-in-law, Sitaben Patel, 63. Interim Los Angeles Police Chief Martin Pomeroy said Monday that an "ongoing dispute between the Govins and the Kumars," whose neighboring hotels are in the 10700 block of Ventura Boulevard, was the apparent motive for the slayings.

Tests still are being conducted to determine the cause of death, LAPD Robbery-Homicide Capt. Jim Tatreau said.

"The nature of the dispute that we know of, and we're not saying that is the entire motive for this crime, [involves] some land that the two hotels apparently shared," Tatreau said.

Tatreau said the men were involved in setting the fire, which was discovered by Gita Kumar's husband, Harish "Harry" Kumar, about 11:15 p.m. after he drove the short distance from the Universal City Inn.

Investigators said a battle evolved over an alley shared by the facilities. Plans by both men to expand may also have played a role in the dispute, they said.

Six days after the blaze, the city Planning Commission was to hear Kumar's plan to level his 40-room hotel for a 65-room, three-story structure.

Matt Szabo, a press deputy for Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, said her staff was interviewed by police detectives about the zoning and land-use issues surrounding the two hotels and the request to expand the University City Inn. Detectives told them not to discuss it publicly, Szabo said.

Govind Patel, a relative of Kumar, said Gita Kumar and the Govins had argued over the alley and land that divided their properties. The family businesses were in competition to join a major chain, he said.

"I think it was more than the land," Patel said. "It looks like jealousy. Gita and Harish were doing much better" with their business, he said.

Patel said both Indian-immigrant families had socialized at events involving the local Indian community.

The Govins "came to [the] funeral," he said. "It's a shock to everyone."

Harish Kumar, 47, told investigators he returned from a trip to Bakersfield to find his house in flames. Unable to enter the smoke-filled home to reach his wife of 20 years, his mother and children, he called 911. Firefighters arrived three minutes later and found him screaming on the front lawn. Investigators found the bodies in one room.

"It was apparent that it was a homicide," Tatreau said.

"That made it particularly disturbing," he continued, "in that it wasn't an accidental house fire, which is tragic enough, but that this was an intentional act."

Pravin Govin was convicted of burglary in 1992 and in 1995 of assault with a firearm.

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