A San Diego County man facing trial on accusations of posing as a federal agent to bilk unauthorized immigrants out of at least $1.5 million is on the run.
Hardev Singh Mohan Singh Panesar, 70, cut off his GPS ankle bracelet last week and fled to Mexico, according to court documents.
A warrant has been issued for his arrest, and his wife is now facing a federal charge of making false statements after she admitted to lying about his whereabouts, according to court records.
Panesar could be a difficult man to track down.
He was born in Kenya and speaks five languages, has frequently used aliases and is accused of being a chronic liar, authorities said. During the yearlong FBI wiretap investigation, he was recorded telling someone that then-President Obama had given him a jacket during a meeting. When he was arrested, he initially claimed he was a National Security Agency agent, a prosecutor said.
On the evening of June 21, when authorities were alerted that the GPS ankle bracelet had been tampered with, they also received an email from the co-signer of Panesar’s $100,000 bond that expressed “great concern” about Panesar’s intent to flee.
“He has a Nigerian passport and he’s planning on running when the GPS device is removed,” Bob Virk wrote.
Several attempts to contact Panesar at home were unsuccessful.
Panesar is accused of posing as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent and promising more than 100 victims that he could obtain legal immigration status for them or stop their deportation proceedings, for exorbitant fees. He and his co-defendant are accused of flashing a DHS credential, giving victims immigration forms to fill out and even taking their fingerprints, authorities said.
Victims would be asked to pay $20,000 to $40,000 or more for the service. When some clients began to get suspicious and demanded their money back, he threatened violence, including threatening a beheading at least once, according to court records.
Prosecutors argued for detention without bail after he was arrested in June 2017, but the magistrate judge granted release on $100,000 bond.
In January, his attorney requested he be taken off home detention and allowed to be out between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. He had performed well on bond thus far and was employed, the lawyer said. The judge granted the request, without opposition from prosecutors or Pretrial Services.
Authorities were alerted to the possibility of escape at 8:42 p.m. last Thursday. On Saturday, Panesar’s wife, a U.S. citizen who lives in Mexico, was detained when she entered the United States through the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. She was questioned by the FBI and warned several times that lying to federal agents was a felony, according to the complaint.
Leticia Panesar said her husband had only called her once that day, and she hung up on him. But after agents looked at her phone and pieces of paper with various numbers written on them in her car, she admitted: “I’m sorry, I lied.”
She said her husband was staying at her house in Mexico. She agreed to stay in the United States that evening so law enforcement could try to arrest him. But she fled back across the border and admitted to warning him, she told an FBI agent, according to the complaint.
He was gone when Mexican law enforcement arrived about a half-hour later.
Leticia Panesar was arrested on Monday as she crossed back into the United States. She has pleaded not guilty. When a judge on Tuesday asked if she understood the charge against her she said, “Yes, sir, but…” and then kind of shrugged, an unspoken gesture that indicated her loyalty to her husband had won out. A public defender admonished her to not say anything else in court.
She was brought back to court Thursday for a hearing to determine if she should be released on bond, but it was continued to Friday because she said she felt ill.
Meanwhile, the case involving her husband was continuing against others. Gurdev Singh, of Bakersfield, accused of helping recruit victims, pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Rafael “Rafa” Hastie, accused of being Panesar’s right-hand man, has pleaded not guilty.
And earlier this month, a former U.S. Homeland Security Investigations supervisor, Johnny Martin, 59, was charged with lying to the FBI about improper transmission of sensitive law enforcement information. Authorities said he ran searches on immigrants in a confidential law enforcement database and shared the biographical information with someone tied to Panesar’s scheme.
Panesar and Hastie then used the confidential personal information as a way to convince victims that the men were bona fide federal agents, prosecutors said. Martin, a Chula Vista resident who retired from Homeland Security Investigations in 2016, has pleaded not guilty.
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.