Thursday, November 13, 2003

Copyright 2003 Bergen Record Corporation
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Family sues man freed in slaying; Pal Park woman found dead in India

The family of a Bergen County woman slain in India in February has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against her former fiancè, a month after an Indian court dismissed charges that he murdered her to collect life insurance money.

Leona Swiderski, 33, of Palisades Park was strangled while on a trip to Bombay with Pragnesh Desai, a New York restaurateur whom she had dated for three years and was planning to marry.

Desai, 38, was arrested a few days later and charged with hiring a friend, Veepool Patel, for $22,300 to have Swiderski murdered. Desai was cleared of all charges last month.

Desai's release came as a shock to Swiderski's family, especially since Indian authorities had said in February that Desai had confessed to the crime.

Outraged family members filed the lawsuit against Desai and Patel late Monday afternoon in state Superior Court in Hackensack.

"They haven't found justice with the authorities in India and they are trying to find justice in the court system in this country," said Rosemarie Arnold, the attorney for Madeline Swiderski, mother of the slain woman.

The majority of wrongful death lawsuits deal with fatal accidents or medical malpractice in which the victim's family seeks to hold someone liable. In the few cases involving homicides, the lawsuits typically come after the defendant has been convicted.

However, a defendant cleared in criminal court could still face liability in a civil court, where a lower standard of evidence applies. A criminal conviction is obtained when all jurors are convinced of a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil proceedings, a majority must agree that a "preponderance of evidence" suggests the accusation is more likely to be true than not.

One of the more celebrated cases occurred nearly 10 years ago, when a California civil jury found O.J. Simpson liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, even though the retired football star had been acquitted of criminal charges.

The Swiderski family is seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages from Desai and Patel.

Leona Swiderski met Desai in 2000 while she was working as an administrative assistant. After becoming a beautician, she later moved in with Desai in Palisades Park and began planning her marriage just before her Feb. 8 trip.

Swiderski disappeared from the Bombay airport hours after the plane landed. Her body was later found near a highway. Medical examiners determined she had been strangled.

The investigation zeroed in on Desai, who had named himself as the primary beneficiary in Leona Swiderski's life insurance policy.

U.S. authorities have charged Desai with wire fraud, saying that he committed conspiracy to collect $1 million from the life insurance policy.

Federal authorities are seeking his extradition, said Steven Kodak, a spokesman for the FBI in Newark.

They also have been trying for three weeks to obtain transcripts of the court proceedings, but so far have been unsuccessful.

Kodak declined to comment on whether Desai could face murder charges in the United States.

Desai's attorney, Miles Feinstein, said his client is ready to return voluntarily to the United States.

He currently is free on bail in India and his American passport has been revoked, according to Jeremy Cornforth of the U.S. Consulate General in Bombay.

Feinstein also said neither he nor Desai had been served with the lawsuit Wednesday.

"[Desai] denies any complicity in the death or any other aspects of the federal investigation," the attorney said.

Meanwhile, friends of the Swiderski family Monday established a Web site as a memorial to Leona Swiderski and to help bring Desai to justice, said Susan Salyer, Leona Swiderski's sister.

"We want Desai to be held responsible for his actions," she said. "That is the only request we have."