May 26, 2008

Ceres woman, 86, killed in her home

Ceres police are investigating the stabbing death of an 86-year-old woman at her Rose Avenue home, authorities reported.

The stabbing appears to have happened between Saturday night and Sunday morning, said Sgt. Allen McKay of the Ceres Police Department.

The woman was identified by the Stanislaus County coroner's office as Jagir Johal.

Police questioned the woman's husband, Piara Johal, 85, for an hour Sunday morning, McKay said. Johal then developed shortness of breath and chest pains. He was taken to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto and was admitted.

Police have identified the husband as a "person of interest," McKay said.

Neighbors said Piara Johal, who had a pacemaker, returned home last week after being in the hospital for at least a week.

Hospital staff would not comment on his condition.

Around 4:45 p.m. Sunday, police entered the house with a search warrant to investigate the woman's death. The room in which she died could be seen through a door from the garage into the home. Just inside the door was a walker. Beyond it, the woman's thin legs could be seen coming off the couch in the dim family room. The floors in the garage and the family room appeared tidy, the lawn and hedges neatly trimmed.

Police did not expect to make an arrest Sunday, McKay said.

The couple's son-in-law called authorities Sunday just after 10 a.m. to report his mother-in-law's death, McKay said. He had stopped by the couple's home, on the 2600 block of Rose Avenue, after family members were concerned when they could not reach the Johals by telephone.

When the son-in-law arrived, McKay said, Piara Johal was on his bed. He told his son-in-law that his wife was sleeping or "not listening," McKay said. The son-in-law found her with multiple stab wounds on a nearby couch. She had not been moved since the attack.

The son-in-law could not be reached for comment.

Johal had a knife wound on his hand. The man was "suffering from some kind of confusion. He's not sure what happened," McKay said. "He acted as if he didn't know of her injuries."

Police found what they believe to be the murder weapon, a long butcher knife that appeared to have blood on it. There were no signs of a struggle and no signs of forced entry, police said.

Johal told police he was home during the attack, McKay said. The couple lived in the home alone. There had been no calls to police for domestic violence at that address, McKay said.

This was the first homicide in Ceres since July 8 when 18-year-old Michael Ilttreb was shot at a party. Ilttreb did not appear to be the intended target, officials said. His family has offered a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for his death.

Lived in house for 25 years

The Johals immigrated to the United States from India about 40 years ago, police said.

Neighbors said the couple had lived in the home for at least 25 years, but that they rarely saw Johal's wife. They heard no suspicious sounds the night she died.

They described Piara Johal as a friendly man with various health troubles who often worked in his front yard, trimming the bushes or mowing the lawn.

He would wear nothing but boxer shorts and rubber mud boots while mowing, said Marza Nowaya who lives several houses down. Johal was quiet but friendly. But Nowaya said his neighbor hadn't seemed quite as aware of his surroundings after getting out of the hospital last week.

Neighbor Bea Cowan, 76, said Johal's wife often slept at a daughter's home. The couple had five daughters. Cowan never really spoke to the woman because of a language barrier.

"She didn't speak English," Cowan said. "That's what she would tell me whenever I tried to talk to her."

She said Johal used to work for Campbell's Soup and that he was a "really nice guy." After Cowan's husband died, she said, Johal "always kept an eye on my place."

"They were very quiet people," she said. "They've been good neighbors, and I don't know what could have possibly happened."

Ceres police ask anyone with information about the case to call the the Police Department detectives division at 538-5727.

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

Related content