A judge has ordered Amherst police to return $422,000 and other property seized from the owner of the Taste of India restaurant as investigations into possible criminal activity continue.
Owner Deep Singh sued the Town of Amherst, seeking the cash, electronic devices, business records and other items taken after police executed a search warrant in late October at the Sheridan Drive restaurant and at Singh's Carmen Road home.
The town objected, saying the property was potential evidence in ongoing investigations by Amherst police, the Erie County District Attorney's Office and federal law enforcement.
But Erie County Judge James F. Bargnesi last week ordered the town to return Singh's property by Friday, revealing that Singh had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for helping police find a missing teenager and agreeing to cooperate in a related investigation.
"I think the document speaks for itself," said Justin White, Singh's attorney. Town Attorney Stanley Sliwa referred questions to the DA's Office, which declined comment.
Much of the case remains a mystery, but recent court filings, including the judge's order, provide more details about the raids on Singh's home and business and the continuing probe.
Amherst Police Captain Scott Chamberlain, in an affidavit opposing return of the property, said Singh is "implicated" in the trafficking of a minor.
Amherst police obtained a search warrant for Singh's properties because investigators wanted help finding a missing teenager. The 14-year-old from India was on a tour bus here and went missing Oct. 17 from the Taste of India, 3192 Sheridan Drive at Bailey Avenue, Amherst Police Chief John Askey said.
Amherst police executed a search warrant at the restaurant, Singh's home and three SUVs on Oct. 23 and 24, seeking items that included surveillance footage from security cameras; clothing or other possessions of the teen identified by his initials, G.S.; electronic devices that Singh may have used to communicate with the missing teen; or any other evidence linking Singh or someone named Lakhvir Padda to the teen's disappearance.
Singh helped police locate the missing teen. He was found unharmed in another state, Askey said, but the police chief declined to say more because of the ongoing investigations.
Singh's attorney, White, said in court papers that Amherst police should have stopped their raids after the teen was found. Instead, police continued and took an extensive collection of property and records. The haul included the $422,000, six cellphones, five laptops and tablets, computer disks and business records.
In his suit, Singh said the property had been "unlawfully seized." A second person who owned some of the seized property also is a party to the lawsuit.
Responding to the suit, Deputy Town Attorney Jeff Marion said police have the right to keep the property until that case concludes.
Askey said police, fulfilling an agreement reached with Singh's attorney, returned Singh's clothing and business records, among other items. But the cash, devices and other property remain in the possession of law enforcement.
In his Dec. 19 order, Bargnesi revealed Singh was promised immunity in exchange for his assistance in the search for G.S. and for his cooperation into the investigation into Padda, including testifying before a grand jury or at trial. Because police found the teen, and because the immunity grant includes property crimes related to the seized property, Bargnesi ordered the town to return the rest of the items to Singh.
Padda does not have a family or direct personal relationship with Singh, but the two are acquainted, Askey said, declining further comment.
Askey said the federal government is helping sift through the extensive cache of materials.
"This is a significant investigation, and it's going to take some time to review computer data and things of that nature," Askey said Thursday.
White, for his part, said he doesn't want to battle police and prosecutors through public statements.
Asked whether the case has hurt Singh's business, White said, "It's been disruptive. It's been disruptive to his life. He's getting back on track. Let's just leave it at that."