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Man Whose Family Was Killed Testifies at Murder Trial

Harish Patel tells jurors that he didn't think a dispute with the accused had been that serious.

March 26, 2004|Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writer

A man whose family was slain in their Hollywood Hills home, allegedly by men in a business dispute with him, testified Thursday that the dispute had not seemed that serious.

Harish Patel told a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury that he didn't mention the names of the two men now on trial for first-degree murder, his rivals in the hotel business, to authorities until 10 days after the crime.

Patel said he himself had been the first suspect in the case.

Patel spoke in short phrases delivered quickly and in an unemotional tone as he testified on the first full day of trial for Virendra "Victor" Govin, 36, and Pravin "Peter" Govin, 34.

If convicted, the two brothers could face the death penalty for the May 4, 2002, killings of Patel's wife, Gita Kumar, 42; his son, Paras Kumar, 18; his daughter Tulsi Kumar, 16; and his mother, Sitaben Patel, 63. They were strangled with plastic ties and then burned in a fire set in their home on Lakeridge Drive.

Patel told jurors Thursday that the business dispute between his family and the Govins had not been a big concern.

"There was never any sort of a grudge -- it was just a small matter," he told police, according to testimony.

Patel testified that he arrived at home minutes after his family had been attacked.

"I was shocked to see my mother's room was kind of burning," he said. He tried to go inside, but could only go a few feet because of the smoke pouring out, he said. He kept calling out for his family, but no one answered, he testified.

A tape of the call Patel made to 911 was played for jurors, who could hear windows shattering from the intensity of the fire.

The dispute between the two families stemmed from an alley bordering their neighboring Studio City hotels.

The Govins were financially driven, according to the prosecution. They wanted control of the alley to expand their hotel, Studio Place Inn, prosecutors said. Patel, his brother-in-law Mike Kumar and Gita Kumar owned Universal City Inn next door in the 10700 block of Ventura Boulevard. They wanted to use the same alley for an expansion.

During questioning by Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Hunter, Patel said that Victor Govin stopped by the hotel one day with documents. Govin asked Patel to surrender his rights to the alley.

"He left them with me" overnight, Patel testified. "We decided not to sign the papers."

About 10 days later, Victor Govin came around again.

"He was trying to tell us that this alley really does belong to" him, Patel said in court.

Under questioning by the defense, Patel said the issue had been "verbally resolved," but he was not asked to explain further.

Prosecutors said a key city hearing on the future of the alley was scheduled six days after the killings.

"The Govins stood to lose a lot of money if they lost" the deal, Hunter said.

The prosecution's key witness will be Carlos Amador, 27, who said he committed the killings with the Govins. Amador made a deal with investigators last year and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He is scheduled to be sentenced to four concurrent terms of 15 years to life in prison after he testifies.

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