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Ventura County

2 Say Mother Threw Them in Water

Courts: Trial begins for a Port Hueneme woman accused of trying to drown her children in a harbor. Her son, 11, and daughter, 8, are among the first to testify.

June 26, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She woke the children in the middle of the night and told them to get dressed, saying only that they were going to wash their faces in the harbor. They walked out and sat on the edge of a darkened boat dock. And that is when it happened.

"She just threw us in," said 8-year-old Harpreet Virk, describing for a Ventura County jury Tuesday how her mother tried to drown her and her 11-year-old brother, Sonny, more than two years ago in Channel Islands Harbor.

As the girl spoke, 42-year-old Narinder Virk of Port Hueneme, who is charged with two counts of attempted murder and an allegation that she caused serious injury to her daughter, cried softly from her seat in the courtroom.

Virk has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Prosecutors contend she deliberately pushed her son and daughter off a boat dock, jumped in and held them underwater in an attempt to punish her estranged spouse.

But Virk's lawyer contends the Indian immigrant was a battered wife who "snapped" on the night of Jan. 12, 2000, after her husband boarded a plane to India, allegedly with plans to divorce her.

Virk's trial got underway Tuesday in Ventura County Superior Court and the children were among the first witnesses called to testify.

Sonny told jurors that his mother woke him in the middle of the night and led him and his sister from their apartment to the marina. "She told me we were going to the harbor to wash our faces," he testified. "Then she pushed us in."

Sonny said he cried for help and tried to paddle away, but neither he nor his sister knew how to swim. His cries were heard by marina resident Brian Wiggins, a former lifeguard, who pulled the family from the water as his wife, Angie, called 911.

Virk and her children were taken to local hospitals, and Harpreet spent a week in an intensive care unit after sustaining potentially life-threatening injuries, witnesses testified. Virk was later arrested and charged with attempted murder.

During the court proceedings, Virk wore a pale green chunni, a traditional Punjabi scarf, draped over her head while she sat between her lawyer and an interpreter. She looked at her children longingly as they walked out of the courtroom. Barred by a protective court order, Virk had not seen or spoken to her son or daughter in more than two years.

During opening statements, Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon told jurors that evidence to be presented this week would show that Virk deliberately tried to drown her children to punish her husband after he walked out on the family.

Simon said Virk left an audio tape for her husband, telling him that when he returned from India he would only have the dogs to feed--a remark the prosecutor contends indicates Virk's plan to kill herself and the children.

Simon also suggested that Virk, while she waited for treatment at a hospital, instructed her son in Punjabi to lie to authorities, instructing him to tell police officers that they went to the harbor to wash pepper spray from their eyes after a burglar assaulted them.

But Deputy Public Defender Cynthia Ellington argued that Virk was so distraught that she could not have formed the intent to kill. She told the jury that three medical experts would testify that Virk was severely mentally disabled on the night of the incident as a result of prolonged spousal abuse and cultural isolation.

Virk, who is illiterate in her native Punjabi and speaks very little English, was totally dependent on her husband and suffered a break from reality when he abandoned the family, Ellington argued.

She said the tape was not a suicide recording, but was made eight months before the January incident and shows her client's crazed mental state.

Ellington did not deny that her client pushed her children into the harbor. But twice during testimony she objected to Simon's characterization of the incident as an attempted drowning.

During the children's testimony, Simon asked them whether there was domestic violence in the Virk home. Both children testified that their parents argued, but they denied that their father beat their mother. Instead, Sonny and Harpreet testified that their mother hit them.

On cross-examination, Ellington tried to show that the children were coached by law enforcement officials.

Virk's trial is expected to last about a week and would advance to a second sanity phase if the jury convicts her. She remains free in lieu of $500,000 bail, posted by a group of supporters. Testimony is to resume today.

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