They were at least dressed the part.
A trio of would-be political assassins wore all black, with black balaclavas covering their faces, as they waited outside a South Auckland temple late one night just days before Christmas 2020 - a duffle bag full of assorted weapons in the back of their dark SUV.
But the series of panicked missteps that were to follow - enough to fill a dark comedy had it been a movie instead of a hair’s breadth away from a real-life murder - would make the men’s amateur statuses glaringly obvious.
That was the scene painted today by devout businessman-turned-wannabe-hitman-turned-prison-inmate Jaspal Singh, 42, as he testified against a group of his former friends in the High Court at Auckland.
“It all happened so fast,” he repeatedly told jurors of the failed plot to kill Auckland-based international talkback radio celebrity Harnek Singh. “I freaked out. I think we all freaked out, to be honest.”
Authorities have charged seven men altogether with attempted murder for having allegedly planned, directly participated in or aided and encouraged the attack on the radio host. The victim suffered dozens of stab wounds but miraculously survived after his red ute was rammed as he pulled into the driveway of his Wattle Downs home. An eighth man has been charged with being an accessory after the fact.
Three of those men, however, have pleaded guilty. Jaspal Singh was the first to do so, over a year ago, while co-defendants Hardeep Singh Sandhu, 30, and Sarvjeet Sidhu, 27, followed suit late last month - on the eve of the current trial.
The remaining defendants, all of whom have pleaded not guilty, include Jobanpreet Singh, who is accused of directly participating in the attack alongside the witness; Jagraj Singh and Gurbinder Singh, who allegedly followed the radio host in a Toyota Prius, offering encouragement or support to the attackers; a man with name suppression alleged to have orchestrated the attempted hit; and Sukhpreet Singh, who allegedly welcomed two of the bloody attackers into his home to clean up following the incident.
Today marked the second consecutive day of testimony for Jaspal Singh, who outlined yesterday how the man with name suppression allegedly recruited him for the task a week earlier by calling him “the chosen one”. The radio host, known for espousing a liberal brand of Sikhism that courted controversy among more orthodox sects, was disliked by all of the men but the defendant with name suppression was the one who most ardently considered the radio host’s opinions a death-penalty offence, the witness said.
In their initial discussion about the planned hit, Jaspal Singh said he was left with the impression he would serve as a getaway driver in a stolen vehicle while two others, including a gunman, shared a motorbike. But on the day of the attempted killing, he said, he learned that the plan had changed - there was no longer a gun, he was to use his own SUV and he was to take a much more active role. He was handed a duffel bag filled with knives, bats and a baton, he said.
He also learned that day that Sarvjeet Sidhu, one of the men who already pleaded guilty, had been recruited to join him. Later that night, as they prepared for the attack, he said he was surprised when a third man - defendant Jobanpreet Singh - showed up as well.
So the trio changed the number plates on Jaspal Singh’s black Ford Explorer with stolen ones the man with name suppression had provided them, and parked across the street from the Papatoetoe temple where Harnek Singh’s radio studio is located, the witness recalled. They listened to his show live so they knew when he would head home for the night.
A cat-and-mouse drive over the streets of South Auckland followed as Jaspal Singh followed the unknowing target from a distance, sometimes taking parallel roads and meeting again at intersections, he said.
“To be honest, we didn’t really have a plan,” he said, explaining that he thought they might end up confronting him at a stoplight.
But somewhere along the route, the trio noticed a white Toyota Hiace van also following the radio host, he said, explaining that they recognised it as belonging to a friend. That’s when they realised even more men were in on the plot, he said.
In a passenger seat, convicted accomplice Sarvjeet Sidhu was talking to the occupants of the van on speakerphone trying to co-ordinate their next move on the fly as the radio host pulled into his driveway, he said.
“Hit the red ute! Hit the red ute!” he recalled Sarvjeet Sidhu telling the driver of the van.
“The van drove up pretty fast, went up on the kerb and smacked it on the passenger side,” Jaspal Singh said, explaining that he pulled up in the SUV and his two passengers jumped out.
“I eventually got out, got whatever I could out of the [duffel] bag and went towards the red vehicle,” he told the jury, explaining that in his haste he managed to grab a knife and a wooden baton. “Sarvjeet had a bat in his hand. He started hitting the front windshield.
“We were all on that [driver’s] side trying to break the window.”
Meanwhile, he said, the radio host was honking his horn repeatedly, likely to attract plenty of attention. And they were having no luck getting inside the locked vehicle.
“It was not successful at all,” he said.
Jaspal Singh said he kept trying to shatter the driver’s-side window with his baton, but it just bounced off, while Sarvjeet Sidhu wasn’t having any better luck attacking the windscreen with the bat.
“That’s when I grabbed the baseball bat off Sarvjeet, then I hit it [the driver’s side window] and it did break,” he said. “I dropped the bat. I got that [knife] out of my back pocket. We just tried to harm him - stab him.
“All three of us were going for stabbing him through the driver’s-side window, because that’s the only entry point we had.”
The witness said he can’t remember how many times he personally stabbed the radio host, but “there was a lot of blows going in and out” of the window and the attack lasted “for a while”. Because they were all crowded into a small space reaching into a small window with jagged glass, it was perhaps not surprising that two of the three attackers got cut themselves, he said.
Jaspal Singh said he didn’t know if the deep wound on the palm of his hand was from his knife, from a co-defendant’s or from the glass, but the wound caused him to drop the knife as blood started gushing out, he said.
“I pulled back [and] pulled my arm close to my chest just to stop the bleeding because it was a pretty deep cut,” he explained. “I went to look back in [the radio host’s truck] to see where my knife fell but I couldn’t see it. Also, I couldn’t get that door open either.
“I did want to get it but I couldn’t.”
With all three “freaking out”, they ran back to their vehicle, “did a U-ee and took off”.
Police would later find the knife inside the radio host’s blood-soaked ute. On the knife was Jaspal Singh’s DNA.
The trio hadn’t thought about what to do next so they sped away, with Jaspal Singh and Sarvjeet Sidhu wrapping jerseys around their wounds.
“My hand was pouring off with blood,” he explained. “He [Sidhu] was pouring out with blood as well. It was a mess.”
Jaspal Singh said he pulled out a “burner phone” and called the man with name suppression.
“I said, ‘It’s done,’ and his response was, ‘Thank you,’ and that was it,” he recalled. He then tried calling others, looking for a place to lay low, but people either weren’t answering or couldn’t help, he said. They dropped off the third man and decided to head towards the home of the man with name suppression even though that wasn’t part of the plan, he said.
“We didn’t know what to do,” he explained. “I was just panicking.”
When they got to the house, still dripping blood, they began knocking on the door but nobody answered. They decided to go around to the back door, which was unlocked, and helped themselves inside, where they saw the alleged organiser looking shocked to see them, he said.
“What are you guys doing here? What do you want?” they were asked, according to the recollection of the witness.
“We’re all cut up. What do we do now?” the witness recalled responding.
“He panicked as well. ‘Just give me a minute.’ Then he told us to go to an address.”
When they arrived at the address, Sukhpreet Singh - the lone defendant accused of being an accessory after the fact - was waiting for them outside, he said. The first order of business, Jaspal Singh said, was to get his SUV off the road. But Sukhpreet Singh’s garage was a mess, and so the men ran back and forth to move the clutter into the house so there would be room for the vehicle, he said.
But even after space was cleared his SUV was too big, Jaspal Singh said, explaining that the towball was hanging out the back, preventing the garage door from going down.
“I thought I’d give it a good nudge and get it in there. I accidentally drove into his front wall,” Jaspal Singh then explained. “I think I ... made a big hole.”
Prosecutor Luke Radich showed him a photo of Sukhpreet Singh’s damaged wall that was taken by police more than a year after the incident. Even with the hole in the wall, Jaspal Singh said the vehicle still didn’t fit so he settled for parking it in front of the garage.
They went inside, rewrapped their wounds in rags and explained to the homeowner what had just happened, he said, adding: “Personally, myself, I thought he was not alive.” Jaspal Singh said he was starting to feel light-headed so he lay down, and when he awoke a short time later the man with name suppression had also arrived at the house.
“He walked in, saw us lying there and sort of told us off: ‘Look at all this blood. What are you lying here? Go change your clothes,’” the man is alleged to have told the men. So they showered in Sukhpreet Singh’s home and put on fresh clothes he provided them with, before giving Sukhpreet Singh and the man with name suppression a play-by-play of what had happened that night, he said. He showed them dashcam footage from his SUV before the man with name suppression took the SIM card and snapped it, he said.
“He was happy,” Jaspal Singh said of the man with name suppression. “He was proud of us.
“The thing is, on that night we told him the whole story. I told him I got cut, I lost my knife, you know.”
But the man with name suppression had an eerie sense of confidence about it, the witness said.
“He said one thing, that they’re never going to find that knife. ‘Nothing’s going to come up.’
“The funny thing ... I believed him.”
Defence lawyer Peter Kaye, representing the third man alleged to have wielded a knife that night, suggested during cross-examination that Jaspal Singh was a liar only out to cut the best deal with the Crown by “betraying your friends”. He described the witness as an “enforcer” with a history of violent crime.
Jaspal Singh admitted to historic assault, threatening and weapons charges dating back more than a decade. They were all drinking and drug-related, he said, adding: “This one was not.”
The witness also acknowledged to Kaye that his potential prison sentence was cut in half - to five years and three months, for which he will be eligible to apply for parole in less than a year - due to his guilty pleas and agreement to co-operate with police.
“He was never there, was he?” Kaye suggested of his client. “You are setting out to frame him for being involved when he wasn’t there at all - what do you say to that?”
“That’s false,” Jaspal Singh replied. “I’ve got nothing to hide and nothing to lie about.”
Cross-examination is expected to continue when the trial resumes on Monday before Justice Mark Woolford and the jury.
Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.