Trail grows cold in Florence double murder - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

Trail grows cold in Florence double murder

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Florence County Sheriff's Deputies, acting on a welfare check, went to the home at 3119 Nicklaus Court in the Country Club of South Carolina the evening of June 25, 2011. Florence County Sheriff's Deputies, acting on a welfare check, went to the home at 3119 Nicklaus Court in the Country Club of South Carolina the evening of June 25, 2011.
Investigators say two women had been stabbed several times. The victims were identified as 31-year-old Punam Gopaldas and her mother, 56-year-old Vinaben Patel. Investigators say two women had been stabbed several times. The victims were identified as 31-year-old Punam Gopaldas and her mother, 56-year-old Vinaben Patel.
A few days later, investigators had probable cause to arrest Hiral Gopaldas and charge him with two counts of murder. He was denied bond. A few days later, investigators had probable cause to arrest Hiral Gopaldas and charge him with two counts of murder. He was denied bond.

FLORENCE COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - It was a brutal double murder in a quiet Pee Dee neighborhood, but nearly a year and a half later, no one is behind bars for the crime and court documents show a case full of twists and turns.

Florence County Sheriff's Deputies, acting on a welfare check, went to the home at 3119 Nicklaus Court in the Country Club of South Carolina the evening of June 25, 2011.  Inside, they found a gruesome crime scene. Investigators say two women had been stabbed several times. The victims were identified as 31-year-old Punam Gopaldas and her mother, 56-year-old Vinaben Patel.

At the time of the murders, deputies told WMBF News people who lived in that area had nothing to worry about.

"I really believe this is isolated.  We've told a number of neighbors that we believe they're safe," Lt. Brett Camp told our crew on the scene.

Just days later, FCSO deputies arrested Gopaldas' estranged husband but in the summer of 2012, a year after the crime, all charges were dropped.

Right now, no one is behind bars for the crime and the victims' family wonders if they'll ever get justice for Punam and Vinaben.

The crime scene, in an upscale Florence County neighborhood, is not an area known for these types of cases.

"We rarely have a call out here and nothing of this magnitude," Lt. Camp said at the time of the murders.

Family members say Patel moved into her daughter's home to help her as she neared the end of what most agree was a long and contentious divorce and custody battle with Hiral over their toddler son.

Jeff Scott is not involved in this case, but he's been a crime scene investigator for more than a decade.

"A lot of times you look at the, who's the closest person in the home. Is it the husband, wife? A lot of times you look at those factors, especially if it was reported such things as domestic violence," explains Scott.

Scott says that explains why investigators probably initially looked at Hiralkumar Gopaldas as the main suspect. But, Scott says it's likely he wasn't the only person investigated.

"A lot of times they may look at one specific person but in a homicide, you have to keep it open for other avenues in case it's not that one specific person," Scott says.

In 2010, during their divorce, Punam and Hiral Gopaldas agreed to exchange their son on Saturday afternoons at 3:00.

Around the same time, Punam would Skype her out-of-state relatives. On June 25, those family members got worried when they couldn't make contact with either woman. The family called the Florence County Sheriff's Office for a welfare check and once inside the home, deputies found the crime scene. Punam's toddler son was also in the house, unharmed near her body.

A few days later, investigators had probable cause to arrest Hiral Gopaldas and charge him with two counts of murder. He was denied bond.

"You have to follow evidence wherever it leads, sometimes it leads toward people sometimes it leads away from people," FCSO Captain Mike Nunn told a WMBF News reporter at the time of the arrest.

Those close to the victims believed it was case closed, but in fact it was just heating up.  Among other pieces of evidence, investigators cited the divorce and the fact Hiral Gopaldas was at the house that afternoon to drop off the child as reason why he was the suspect in the killings. Court documents show a witness in the neighborhood also told deputies Hiral Gopaldas was seen driving away from the crime scene at a high rate of speed.

In September 2011, FCSO investigators broadened their case with the arrest of Hiral's father, Ranjit Kalabhai.  They say they found evidence linking him to the crime scene. Kalabhai was given a $25,000 bond that fall, but then another twist: just five months after the murders, a judge ordered the investigation turned over to SLED.

At the same time, Hiral Gopaldas' defense attorney asked all murder charges be dropped because she heard a recording an investigator taped of her conversation with FCSO deputies in an evidence room.

The judge didn't drop the charges but said SLED needed to take over the case because it involved "a lot of unusual circumstances" and he said SLED would have to reinvestigate and recreate a lot of files FCSO originally investigated.

Scott said it's not uncommon for SLED to take over an investigation from a local agency.

"They have a broader scope, they have more personnel that can help out, they have other avenues they can go into such as the forensic field, the labs, they can analyze evidence, have investigators that can go out and talk with other witnesses and victims," he says.

But if Gopaldas' defense attorney, Rose Mary Parham, was to prepare for his upcoming double murder trial, she claims she was missing key parts of the investigation. Court documents show by February of this year, eight months after the crime, she hadn't received DNA from the scene, a list of the state's witnesses or any of the victim's records she'd requested. When Parham asked a judge for bond again, she cited the length of time in getting to trial and lack of evidence, including a murder weapon.

"A lot of times you can look at other pieces of evidence because there's not a murder weapon," Scott says about the investigation. "They might want to do extra [analyzing] on other pieces of evidence, do other interviews, see if they get more leads [so they can] possibly find out where the murder weapon could be."

In April 2012, a judge agreed to a $200,000 bond for Hiral Gopaldas with the conditions he not have contact with the victim's family and he wear a GPS monitoring device at all times. It wasn't what the victims' family wanted to see happen, but the news of all charges being dropped this past July, more than a year after the murders, was even harder for them to understand.

It wasn't a surprise for Hiral Gopaldas' defense attorney, who claims he still maintains his innocence and has alibis to back him up. When all charges were dropped, Parham issued this statement:

"The dismissal of the charges against Hiral Gopaldas and his father proves what we have said all along - that they are innocent. This is a case where law enforcement rushed to judgment and charged two innocent men with no evidence and left my client in jail for 10 months away from his three-year-old son.

This is a case where law enforcement used improper tactics, including the unethical taping of two attorneys. What is most appalling about this case is that law enforcement has known for six months that my client is innocent and that there is a killer on the loose, but done nothing about it.

These groundless charges have been pending for more than a year without even being presented to a grand jury. It is amazing citizens could be treated this way in the 21st Century. This injustice is a disgrace to our system and represents law enforcement at its worst."

A SLED spokesman tells WMBF News it is still an open and ongoing investigation, with more to be done. Scott says it's not uncommon for a case like this one to take a while to bring to trial.

"Some cases could go on for more than a year or possibly two years just based on the analysis, the information, doing interviews, going back through crime scene, going back through information to see if they can come up with information for trial," Scott states.

The victims' family and the defense attorney are not allowed to speak publicly about the case because of a gag order imposed by a family court judge in the custody case. Once SLED finishes its investigation, the case will be turned over to the Attorney General's office, who will then decide whether or not to prosecute.

Copyright 2012 WMBF News. All rights reserved.

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