Thursday, November 6, 2003

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

India frees beau accused of murder; Pal Park woman's family shocked 'beyond words'

It seemed certain to Leona Swiderski's family that the man accused of orchestrating her murder in India was headed for prison.

Relatives said Wednesday that authorities told them Pragnesh Desai, who lived with Swiderski in Palisades Park, had confessed to organizing a scheme in which the 33-year-old cosmetologist was abducted from an airport in Bombay, strangled, and her body dumped on a road Feb. 8.

Desai's release was the last piece of news they expected.

A Bombay court dismissed the murder charges against Desai last month. U.S. authorities are not sure why, and the American Consulate in Bombay said it has asked Indian authorities for transcripts of the proceedings.

"This is horrible beyond words," Susan Salyer, Swiderski's sister, said Wednesday. "It's insulting beyond words."

For Swiderski's family, Desai's release was as mysterious as her death. Swiderski started going to a beauty school and gave up her battered old car for a Mercedes-Benz shortly after meeting Desai three years ago. She moved into his rented, three-story town house in Palisades Park. Desai, a restaurateur, owns Bukhara Grill in Manhattan and a 7 Eleven in Cliffside Park.

Swiderski then began preparing for marriage. Last winter, Desai asked her to fly to Bombay with him. Once there, she vanished from the airport almost immediately. Her body was found several days later.

Desai was arrested and charged with paying a friend $22,300 to arrange Swiderski's slaying.

Despite the Indian acquittal, Desai still faces a wire fraud charge in the United States in connection with $1 million in life insurance policies on Swiderski that named him as the beneficiary. Federal prosecutors currently have a warrant for Desai's extradition based on the fraud charges.

Evidence against Desai includes testimony from Desai's close friends, who told authorities that he orchestrated the slaying, said Amato Galasso, the attorney for Swiderski's family.

Galasso said Wednesday that it was outrageous for Desai to be released.

"I feel shocked and disgusted that something like this can happen," he said.

U.S. officials in India were not sure why the charges were dismissed. In a letter dated Wednesday, the consulate in Bombay told Swiderski's mother, Madeline Swiderski of Glen Rock, that U.S. officials had requested transcripts of the court proceedings.

"We have still not received it," wrote Jeremy Cornforth, the U.S. consul general in Bombay.

Cornforth also said Desai's American passport has been revoked.

Desai's attorney, Miles Feinstein, said his client will not challenge the extradition and has agreed to voluntarily return to the United States to face the wire fraud charges.

But Swiderski's family isn't ready to give up.

"There is something wrong with this," Madeline Swiderski said.

"I just need some answers," said her daughter, Salyer. "I think my sister's life deserves some justice."