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The Investigation Begins
It was supposed to be John Kovalick’s day off. The 47-year-old staff sergeant from the Richmond detachment, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was enjoying the peaceful Sunday morning in his home not far from Vancouver International Airport. Only the occasional roar of a big jet taking off or landing disturbed the quiet of the morning. But there wasn’t to be a day off for Kovalick, a soft-spoken veteran policeman – not today. He’d heard the news of the bomb explosion at Narita Airport and the larger tragedy of Air India flight 182 on the morning radio news. Still, when the call came in from his office, it took him by surprise. The head of the Richmond detective section had just been handed the biggest assignment of his career.
Kovalick wasted no time in getting to the station. As he drove the short distance to his office, through the nearly deserted streets of this slumbering suburb – generally regarded as a ‘bedroom’ of neighboring Vancouver – he thought about the task that had been landed in his lap. A criminal investigation into two aviation tragedies, half a world apart, in of all places, Richmond. It was unheard of. The veteran cop had probed many criminal cases in Richmond. Stabbings, murders, robberies, rapes. But nothing like this. Ever.
Driving into his reserved parking spot at the Mountie office on Minoru Boulevard, Kovalick went upstairs to be greeted by Inspector Bruce Giesbrecht, who had also come in from a day off. Together, Kovalick and Giesbrecht, chief of operations, sat through a briefing in which the sketchy details that were available were laid out.
From Japanese police, the Mounties had already learned that the explosion had occurred in a bag off-loaded from CP Air Flight 003, which had made a non-stop flight from Vancouver to Tokyo. The Japanese police had quickly seized the passenger list and held those who had arrived aboard the flight. But it became clear to them that no one in his right mind would board a flight knowing that a bag bomb was aboard. It had also become clear quite quickly from Air India officials that two transit passengers, A. Singh and L. Singh, who were supposed to board Air India Flight 301 to Bangkok two hours after the CP Flight landed in Tokyo, had not shown up. It was more likely that the bag belonged to one of the no-show passengers.
At the briefing in Richmond, the mysterious destruction of Air India Flight 182 was so far the bigger question mark. But theories of sabotage and of a possible link between the Narita explosion and the Air India tragedy were already the subject of speculation. For the moment, though, Narita had the immediate proof of sabotage – most likely launched from Vancouver from where the flight had come from. They had the evidence in the form of shattered bodies of Japanese baggage handlers and thousands of pieces of debris. They also had the lead on the two missing passengers.
There were other reasons, however, for launching an immediate Canadian probe into the disasters. The credibility of the Canadian transportation system as well as its security was at stake. The public had to be assured that it was safe to travel to and from the country. And because the airport fell into the jurisdiction of the Richmond detachment, the probe would have to begin with Kovalick and Giesbrecht, a 28-year veteran of the force. As the briefing wound up, both men shared the same thought. Nothing like this had ever happened in Canada before. It was a type of criminal investigation that had never been undertaken in Canada – one, possibly two, terrorist acts which had taken a total of 331 lives.
As the detectives from the Richmond general investigation section began their work that afternoon, Kovalick and Giesbrecht could be sure of only on thing. They were in the middle of making history. (Author’s update: There were other meetings under way as well, at higher levels between the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which told the Mounties that one of the primary targets of investigation, should be a key Sikh militant group known as the Babbar Khalsa. The group, known by its acronym the BK, had been under surveillance by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The separatist Sikh group was known for preaching violence in achieving its aim of creating a separate Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab state. CSIS said it had the group’s leader, a fiery preacher by the name of Talwinder Singh Parmar – a resident of a suburb of Vancouver – under both, physical and electronic surveillance as the agitated Sikh community in Canada headed towards commemorating the first anniversary of the bloody Indian army assault on the Golden Temple in the Punjab. The raid, on June 6, 1984, had shattered the historic Golden Temple and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Sikhs. Among those killed was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of a Sikh rebellion in the Punjab. This meeting with CSIS resulted in RCMP obtaining key information about some potential suspects. The government soon after ordered the RCMP to form a massive task force to probe the bombing.)
From the beginning of the investigation one-day after the disasters that rocked the world, it was obvious that CP Air reservations and sales agents would have a story to tell. At least they could tell the Mounties something about the two Singhs missing at Narita Airport. The first job, after the briefings ended, was to track down the CP Air personnel who had vital information. This wouldn’t prove too difficult, for most of the agents involved had already put two and two together and were busy discussing among themselves curious incidents that had happened to them hours before the tragedies.
The most vital early interview would be with reservations agent Martine Donahue, who had booked one of the Singhs who failed to show up at Narita. But the RCMP had something else going for them, too. Every airline ticket has its own biography. The time it was booked, the time it was picked up and paid for, the telephone numbers of patrons or their place of contact and even previous route selections and cancellations are kept on a computerized file called a PNR. Even more information is available from computer data banks used by most major airlines nowadays.
It was while going through passenger manifests that they learned that a third passenger using the name Singh had also gone missing. This one was supposed to have taken CP Flight 60 out of Vancouver on Saturday, June 22, 1985, and to have connected with Air India Flight 182 in Toronto. As far as the detectives could tell in the early hours of the probe, one of the two Singhs missing in Narita, A. Singh, had made a reservation for the flight to Tokyo but had never purchased a ticket.
However, the two others had. Both were East Indian males. Both had given the name Singh as their surname. It had to be more than sheer coincidence. This would be the first real clue for the Mounties in piecing together the story of what had happened to Air India Flight 182. But who were the Singhs and how had they made their bookings?
The answer to this question lay a the Bental Centre. A tall office tower in the heart of Vancouver’s central business district, the fanciful glass and steel tower is home to CP Air’s booking operations. Within hours of their Sunday-morning briefing, the Mounties were being shown a bewildering maze of reservations and cancellations for Singhs flying on both Air India and the CP Air flight to Narita which had carried a bomb across the Pacific.
The file would be a revelation to the Mounties. The maze of bookings and cancellations appeared to indicate that those who had booked the flights weren’t certain of where they were flying to or when. But of course it only seemed that way. They knew precisely where they were going. And when. The tangled web of booking changes was partly the result of the computer’s habit of meticulously recording every move of eager ticket agents anxious to meet their customer’s request for a particular connection.
The first suspicious booking, in the name of A. Singh, had been made on 16 June, a week before the tragedies. The passenger was holding a confirmed seat on CP Flight 003 to Tokyo leaving Vancouver on 22 June. From Tokyo’s Narita Airport, he was booked on Air India Flight 301 to Bangkok. He never bought a ticket, however. The telephone number left behind for this passenger would help the RCMP connect this booking to subsequent ones made by the same people.
On Wednesday 19 June, three days after the first Singh booking, a man telephoned the CP Air reservations office seeking bookings for two other passengers. During a marathon conversation of over 40 minutes with agent Martine Donahue, he changed his mind several times before settling on a final agenda. Initially he asked for the same flight that had been booked for A. Singh, but he wanted to make a reservation for a man called Mohinderbell Singh. He did not mention the previous booking for A. Singh. He was out of luck, the agent informed him, for CP 003 was full on the June 22 flight. She suggested a seat on Flight 003 leaving on 21 June and a connection with Air India in Tokyo on 23 June. But the gap of two days between arrival and departure in Tokyo was not what the man wanted, so the agent offered him Flight 001, which was to leave Vancouver an hour after 003 left on Saturday the 22nd. However, both the agent and the customer wondered if that would leave the passenger with too short a time in Tokyo to connect with Air India. While they were talking, though, a seat became available on Flight 003 on Saturday, and the customer got the booking he had originally asked for.
During the same conversation, the caller also went to an extraordinary amount of trouble to book a flight out of Vancouver on the same Saturday that would connect with Air India Flight 182 before it left Canadian soil. He wanted a connection in Toronto for a man initially called Jaswand Singh (the booking was changed to the name M. Singh the next day). But CP 60 out of Vancouver on Saturday was full. Finally, he agreed to take Flight 96 out of Vancouver to Montreal’s Dorval Airport. He was satisfied with that – for the moment.
Later on, after reservations agent Donahue left for home that night, the man called again. He didn’t like the Dorval connection because it would mean transferring his bag from Dorval to the Mirabel Airport in Montreal, for it was from Mirabel that the international Air India flight would depart. But he was lucky this time; a seat had become available on CP 60 leaving from Vancouver on Saturday and the agent offered to put him on the waiting list for Air India Flight 182.
Going through the computer printouts of the history of the tickets, it became obvious to the Mounties that a man had taken great pains to connect two passengers with Air India flights leaving from Toronto and Tokyo. One flight – Air India 182 – was going east from Toronto, while the other – Air India 301 – was heading west to Tokyo from Vancouver. It was the first real break in terms of a connection between the two tragedies.
While the printouts gave them valuable information, they could not tell the Mounties how the man talked, what his accent was like, whether he sounded educated. But the agent who had spent 40 minutes on the phone with him could.
The clerk who could give the police those crucial answers was Martine Donahue. She would even remember that the man had a cultured voice, like that of Rajiv Gandhi, the Rime Minister of India. RCMP officers John Schneider (who would many years later take control of the Air India investigation as the head of the Air Disaster Task Force) and Bobby Sellinger would go over her story with her again and again. It was an amazing story. One interview started with Schneider asking her about the call on 19 June.
‘In relation to the phone call that you received from a Mr. Singh June 19, 1985 at the CP Air reservations office In Vancouver, will you please tell us exactly what you can remember about the conversation with this man,’ Schneider asked.
‘The gentleman who eventually called himself Mr. Singh called (in) these reservations for two other people,’ recalled Donahue, ‘other than himself that is, one was to Bangkok and one was to Toronto; both had to link up with Air India.’
‘At the time this fellow called, what exactly did he say to you?’
‘Er, he just said, “I want to make bookings for two people, one going to Bangkok and one going to Toronto.” So we worked on the, er, we started with Bangkok and then he specified that, um, it was to be on the Saturday on the … I can’t remember the date on Saturday on our flight to Tokyo to link up with the Air India flight going to Bangkok. I had a difficult time finding a connection so I suggested Hong Kong…so we fiddled around a little bit and eventually found a seat on Air India which I booked and it was an excellent connection to our connection which… required time at Narita Airport. After we completed that we discussed the fare,’ said Donahue.
‘Yes, what did he say in his own words?’ Schneider probed.
‘Well, first of all I had to get into contact with the tariff desk to get the fare and when I told him the fare there was no problem at all, there was no discussion at all on how high it was, because it was a high fare, no argument whatsoever. And then I said was the other person going, so we were looking for a flight to Toronto on Friday and there was nothing available. At the time he called there was nothing available to Toronto either, so I suggested Sunday and we had flights available and he said, no, that would be too late, so I said, “You seem to have a deadline, what is it?” so he said, “It’s to connect with the Air India flight”…
‘So I looked up the computer and found that the Air India flight left on Saturday from Toronto and made a stop in Montreal. Then I checked our flights to Montreal which happened to be available so I suggested that one, so I booked the other Mr. Singh on that one …I explained to him that he had to go, make his own way between Dorval Airport and Mirabel Airport, which is the international airport.’
‘Were there any particular phrases or words spoken by the caller that seemed unique?’ asked Schneider.
‘No, nothing outstanding; he spoke good English.’
‘Is there anything else about the conversation that you can remember?’
‘Nothing, no, the only thing is when he gave the names of Singh I said, er, I said, “You must be Sikhs with a name like that,” and he sort of laughed and I said is your name Singh too and he said yes. So that’s the only sort of personal contact there was in the whole conversation,’ she replied.
‘Do you think you could possibly describe his laughter?’
‘Oh! Quiet. Like the rest of the conversation, it’s not a peal of laughter. Um … very pleasant voice, mature, er, poised voice with good command of English, a good choice of words … simple but precise …’
‘Did he have any speech impediments?’
‘No, not noticeably so. I could tell he was East Indian but not that accent that you could cut with a knife, probably somebody that spoke (English) fluently a long time.’
‘Can you estimate the age of the caller?’
‘Well, it’s difficult to say, I’d say at least 40 anyway, 42…’
‘Did he speak fast?’
‘No, very forthright. About like you’re speaking now.’
‘And how about the depth of his voice? Was it a deep voice, high voice?’
‘No, it was not a high voice, it was very poised, more of a deeper tone …a nice voice.’
‘Did Mr. Singh mention to you who the tickets would be for?’
‘No, he didn’t. I knew from the start that it wasn’t for him, so he must have said something to indicate other people …’ Donahue broke off, searching her memory.
‘There’s one flight to Bangkok, so did he, did he know that there was an Air India flight leaving Tokyo?’ Schneider asked.
‘He did, he did, because we had to link up and he also knew that CP Air connected with that flight, although my computer didn’t give it to me, he knew it …’
‘Did you tell him that it would be cheaper to go through a local travel agency? Did he bring up anything to do with that?’
‘No, the only mention of travel agency was when it came to picking up the tickets. I said where would you like to pick up your tickets? …Most East Indians go through a friend or a travel agency … I asked him if he was going to pick them up from a travel agency and he said, “Oh, no, we’re not far from the airport, we’ll go to the airport” … oh, (I mean) he said “we’re not far from you, from your office” … but they went downtown finally.’
‘So, he said they were not too far from the office, he would pick them up downtown?’
‘He would pick them up from us, yes.’
‘Okay, how about the other one?’ Schneider continued.
‘The other one … I only booked Montreal. They wanted Toronto but there was nothing available,’ said Donahue.
That particular interview was the third for her in less than a month after the Air India tragedy. Earlier, when Schneider asked her who she would compare the caller’s voice to, Donahue had replied, ‘Rajiv Gandhi. I’ve heard Gandhi talk quite often on television.’
In the first interview, she told Schneider that the conversation with the Singh who had called her probably lasted more than half-hour. She said she booked him on Flight 096 from Vancouver to Montreal because no flight was available to Toronto.
‘What names did he give you to book the flights in?’ Schneider asked.
‘I’m doubtful about the name he gave me. The caller spelled out a name of Mohinderbell Singh (more likely Mohinderpal Singh) for the Vancouver-Tokyo flight, however, I don’t know if he gave me his name or the passenger name. I definitely remember writing out the name Mohinderbell Singh on that reservation. I don’t remember the name Jaswand Singh on the eastbound reservation. I don’t remember what name he gave me for the eastbound flight.’
Later on that night, the caller who first talked to Martine Donahue telephoned again. This time, another agent picked up the phone. Mr. Singh wanted to change his route for the eastbound flight from Vancouver. By this time, a seat had become available on CP Flight 60 leaving Vancouver on Saturday 22 June and connecting with Air India Flight 182 out of Toronto. This agent also tried to book a seat for Jaswand Singh on Flight 182 from Toronto, but he had to be put on a waiting list for the ill-fated flight.
Donahue told police that she thought the caller had made the change to Toronto from Montreal because he would have had to transfer his bag himself from Dorval to Mirabel. She told Schneider of a telephone number supposedly given as a means of contacting Mr. Singh where he lived.
In an earlier statement on 24 June, one day after the tragedies, she told RCMP constable Bobby Sellinger and CP Air investigator Hank Martins that the man seemed determined to link up with Air India flights on both bookings. In one case, when she suggested he take CP Flight 001 from Vancouver, he declined because the flight left later than Flight 003 and would not be at Narita early enough to link up with Air India.
‘I wait-listed him on the Royal Canadian Class (higher fare than economy class) on 003, that’s the only one he wanted,’ Donahue said. ‘He didn’t want 001, which I believe was available, and the reason he wanted (003) was that it linked up with Air India (in Tokyo).’
Sellinger was also told that the clue to whether a passenger had actually boarded a flight or not was to be found at the departure lounge, where the passenger presents his boarding pass, and where his flight coupon is pulled out before he goes aboard the airplane carrying the pass. If the passenger had not boarded, she said, the coupon would not be with CP Air personnel.
When the Mounties completed their interviews with Donahue, they were armed with some valuable information. They now knew that both tickets, one for CP Flight 003 to Tokyo to connect with Air India Flight 301 to Bangkok and the other for CP Flight 60 to Toronto to connect with Air India Flight 182, had been booked together. The bookings were for two people going in entirely different directions from the same departure point, Vancouver. It was also clear that they wanted to link up with Air India in both cases.
Why would anyone go to that much trouble and then not board his flight? That was the mystery which still had to be solved.
There was no further indication of what had happened to A. Singh, the man for whom a flight to Tokyo was booked initially on 16 June. The booking was never canceled and no one by that name picked up a ticket. It could however, indicate, that up to that point, on June 16, 1985, terrorists had plans to bomb only one plane and something happened afterwards to enable them to change the plan to bomb two Air India aircraft. On Sunday 23 June, when the telex arrived from Air India’s office in Tokyo asking what had happened to two passengers, the query was made regarding passengers A. Singh and L. Singh. Neither had showed up for Air India Flight 301 to Bangkok, said the telex to the Air India Vancouver office. A. Singh has remained a mystery, having left no trace except the Vancouver telephone number 324-7525 as his contact point. The number, belonging to the main Sikh temple in Vancouver, a hotbed of Sikh militancy at the time, and constant gathering place for some of the suspects, was given to Air India Vancouver by CP Air when an inquiry was made about where the passenger could be reached. That happened before CP Air security stepped in, pulling all information on the booking and ticket sales relating to the Singhs from the files.
When the telex from Air India Tokyo arrived In Vancouver, it raised a tantalizing question for investigators. The names of A. Singh and L. Singh: Could they be the two alleged terrorists Ammand Singh and Lal Singh hunted by the FBI in the US in connection with a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during a trip there prior to the Air India crash? Only days before the crash, the Mounties and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had been alerted by the US Secret Service and the FBI (FBI Operation Rite Cross) that the men might be hiding either in Toronto or Vancouver, both of which have large Sikh communities.
Were they involved in the Air India disaster of did somebody want to make it look as though they were? That was the question the Mounties faced in the days following the crash. They began carrying pictures of the hunted pairs as they knocked on doors in Vancouver to see if anyone could recognize Ammand Singh and Lal Singh, who had fled from an FBI dragnet in May, 1985. (Author’s update: Both Sikhs, Lal and Ammand, had received training in explosives from Frank Camper’s mercenary training school in Alabama but eluded arrest while some of their cohorts were arrested. It would be learned many years later that Ammand Singh had a sister in a Vancouver suburb and that Lal Singh was at that time taking shelter in the Vancouver area, in a temple and later at a farm. Ammand Singh was later killed in a car accident in the United States. He was using an alias at the time of his death and it took several days to identify him positively as the FBI’s suspect. Lal Singh became a senior associate of the International Sikh Youth Federation and was sent on a mission to Sikh terrorist camps in Pakistan. He used the name Manjit Singh. Later, Lal Singh was captured by Indian police in Mumbai and tried to kill himself. He remains in custody in India and has been questioned by RCMP’s Air Disaster Task Force.)
Police thought it was quite possible that efforts to find the two in the Vancouver area had given local militants the idea of using the hunted pair’s initials for the bookings to plant a false trail. Just about ten days before the crash, Canadian authorities and US Secret Service agents had visited some Punjab separatists, including a key suspect in the air disaster, to see if they recognized pictures of the two wanted men. The bookings were made after these pictures were shown around.