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2 fires, a beating and 2 bodies are part of Anaheim Hills crime case

One of the dead is the daughter of the injured woman, whose husband could be the other.

May 23, 2007|Ashley Powers and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

The 53-year-old woman, savagely beaten, lay unconscious on a neighbor's lawn. When authorities arrived in Anaheim Hills late Monday, her home was ablaze. Leela Dhanak's husband was missing. So was one of their daughters.

Several hours later, about 20 miles away, another blaze ignited. Authorities responding Tuesday morning to a small brush fire in an Irvine park discovered two burned bodies.

One was Dhanak's older daughter, Karishma, a 20-year-old community college student. Investigators were looking into whether the other -- too badly burned to immediately identify -- was Dhanak's 56-year-old husband, Jayprakash.

Late Tuesday, police had not explained why the Dhanaks, described as polite and devout Hindus, were targeted in a strange sequence of crimes, although Jayprakash "Jay" Dhanak had a criminal record. In 2002, he pleaded guilty to bilking the U.S. Postal Service out of millions of dollars and served more than two years in federal prison.

"Jay did plead guilty to a federal crime, and that is a serious matter," said his attorney in the case, Rafael Bernardino. "But it was not a crime of violence. Jay was a quiet guy, not a gangster type or a rough guy."

The Dhanaks lived in a well-kept enclave of tract homes just south of the Riverside Freeway for about a decade, neighbors said. The couple emigrated from India to California, where they worked their way into management jobs in the mail-sorting business, said Leela Dhanak's former attorney, Stanley L. Friedman.

The couple had two daughters, the younger of whom no longer lived at the family's two-story home in the 6100 block of Camino Correr. The 18-year-old was unharmed, authorities said.

Karishma Dhanak was enrolled at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, where she joined the speech team and was an honor student. A link to her MySpace.com page, which is private, is headlined "Confidence is what makes a girl sexy."

The family was active in the Indian community, and Leela and Jay Dhanak would often travel to Hindu conventions, the couple's former attorneys said. Leela Dhanak also taught religion classes at the family's temple in Whittier.

But a few years ago, federal agents flooded their neighborhood to arrest Jay Dhanak in connection with a multimillion-dollar mail fraud scheme.

Jay Dhanak was the operations manager for a direct-mail company that used various tricks to defraud the Postal Service, according to court records and the couple's former attorneys.

The company was ordered to pay $3 million in restitution, and Jay Dhanak $2.5 million. Charges against Leela Dhanak, who took over as president while her husband was being investigated, were dropped.

"They were under a lot of pressure in the criminal case, but they were always very calm and polite people," Friedman said.

Jay Dhanak was released from prison in November 2005.

Late Monday night, neighbor Linda Tufts said her son Brian saw a young, slender man dragging "someone or something that looked like a rolled carpet" -- which he later learned was Leela Dhanak -- out of the house. Shortly afterward, at about 11 p.m., black smoke began pouring from the back of the home, her son said, and a car drove away.

Meanwhile, Charlie Robertson and his wife, Kathleen, were watching a movie when they heard a thud and popping noises.

"It sounded kind of like Disneyland when the fireworks go off, but it was too late for that," Robertson said.

Robertson peered out his window. The Dhanaks' house was ablaze. As his wife called 911, he stepped outside, heard sirens and saw Leela Dhanak's bruised body on a nearby lawn.

"I didn't know it was a person. I thought it was a pile of rags someone had drug out and put on the ground," he said. "She didn't move."

Leela Dhanak was taken to a hospital with serious injuries and is expected to survive, said Anaheim Police Sgt. Rick Martinez.

Just after 4 a.m. Tuesday, Irvine authorities were alerted to a possible fire in the brush off a bike path near Concordia University.

They quickly doused the blaze at William R. Mason Regional Park and discovered the burned bodies at the fire's origin.

Karishma Dhanak was identified through fingerprints; authorities said they might need dental records to identify the other person.

Authorities spent much of Tuesday combing through the Dhanaks' blackened home, looking for clues. Officials carrying evidence from the home in brown bags passed a charred sport-utility vehicle parked in the driveway.

"I have no idea what would possess somebody to do something like this," Martinez said.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

david.reyes@latimes.com

*

Times staff writers Dave McKibben, Seema Mehta and Nardine Saad and researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this report.

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