I'm Still Around by Samuel Kerr
In April of 1994, the CTV News Hour invited two rival gangsters on air to threaten one another. Bindy Johal was in studio, dressed in a leather jacket and white collared shirt with the top two buttons undone, his hair styled high and tight. He said, “This Jimmy Dosanjh, they portrayed him as a hit man, this-that. I guess he was a very serious person. From what I’ve seen of him on the street, I don’t think he could hit his way out of a paper bag.” At the time of the interview Jimmy Dosanjh was dead and Bindy Johal was the prime murder suspect.
Ron Dosanjh, Jimmy’s brother, was also invited on a television to offer his perspective on the dispute. Ron said, “Bindy, I’m here and I’m badmouthing you, buddy. If anybody’s a nobody, buddy, it’s you. Maybe that’s why your life is worth a loonie on the streets. I wouldn’t shoot you in the back. I’d do it face-to-face, square in the forehead.” Two weeks later, Ron Dosanjh was murdered in a drive-by shooting. He was waiting for the traffic light to change at the corner of Kingsway and Fraser when a shooter pulled up beside his truck and opened fire with an AR-10 assault rifle in broad daylight.
This wasn’t your average gangland slaying. It was a public execution that had been foreshadowed on television and it made Bindy Johal into Vancouver’s first celebrity gangster.
Bhupinder Singh Johal was born in Punjab, India on January 14, 1971. When he was four years old his family immigrated to Canada and set down roots in East Van. His father was a mill worker and his mother was a secretary. There is little reporting on Johal’s youth but it would seem that he had a normal childhood. Rob Sandhu, a teacher at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary, said, “When he came into Grade 8 it didn’t seem like he had any problems.”
Five years later he was a different man. Johal’s propensity for violence and lack of respect for authority earned him a reputation in East Van and in the halls of Tupper. He was expelled from school in Grade 12 after a visit to the principal’s office ended in violence. The story goes that Johal was called in for a lecture about his attitude. When questioned about his alleged gang activity, he responded by kicking the vice principal in the groin so hard that the man needed to be rushed to the emergency room. Johal was charged with assault and sentenced to 60 days in jail.
It was at Tupper where Johal met one of his first criminal associates: Faizal Dean, a member of Los Diablos street gang. Los Diablos was a mid-level criminal organization that retailed drugs on the street and carried out the violent “contract work” that larger outfits like the Lotus gang aimed to avoid. In the 1960s Los Diablos was mainly made up of people who spoke Spanish but the gang became more multiethnic over the years. By the time Johal joined in the late ’80s its members were almost exclusively of South Asian descent.
Leadership of Los Diablos was held by the Dosanjh brothers; Ron was the brains and Jimmy was the muscle. They bought narcotics in bulk and used their network of dealers to distribute the cocaine to customers across the city. Johal was one of the dealers. When asked in court about his relationship with Jimmy Dosanjh, he said, “I was a small-time drug dealer. He was a big-time guy. Wherever we went, we got respect because everyone was afraid of him... He was a big shot and when I was beside him, I was a big shot.”
That relationship changed in 1991 when Jimmy Dosanjh was arrested for the murder of a Colombian cocaine trafficker named Teodoro Salcedo. With Dosanjh awaiting trial, Johal and Dean decided to go out on their own. They began buying cocaine in bulk and selling it on the streets in direct competition with Ron Dosanjh and Los Diablos. It was a ballsy move but Johal knew that Ron was vulnerable so long as his brother Jimmy was behind bars. The plan worked so well that some of Los Diablos defected to the new organization run by Dean and Johal.
There was a tenuous peace between the rival gangs for a short period of time, and then a series of dramatic events unfolded that would thrust Bindy Johal into the public consciousness. First, Faizal Dean was arrested for the murder of Parminder Chana. On the night of October 12, Dean phoned Chana to set up a meeting, claiming that police had uncovered a credit card scam they were operating. Chana was on his way to work a night shift at an ICBC salvage yard in New Westminster so he suggested Dean meet him there. When Dean arrived accompanied by Rajinder Benji, Chana knew that the meeting wasn’t about credit cards. Chana was dating Benji’s 17-year-old sister and Benji didn’t like it one bit. According to court testimony, Dean held Chana down while Benji stabbed him 53 times.
Two days later, Chana’s girlfriend, Jaswinder Benji, committed suicide, leaping to her death from Surrey’s Pattullo Bridge. She left a note behind which read, “When Parminder died. I died.” Local media weaved the combination of forbidden love, murder, heartbreak, and suicide into a modern day telling of Romeo and Juliet set in New Westminster. The public ate it up.
The only witness to the Chana murder (other than the two co-accused) was Sanjay Narain. Narain was a liability as he was known to freebase cocaine and yap to women about his criminal exploits. Johal decided to silence him. Writing for The Province, Neal Hall described an encounter:
“On a December night in 1991, two cars pulled up to a road leading to the top of Cleveland Dam in North Vancouver. Young men in their early 20s got out and walked along the top of the dam on the Capilano River. They were expecting a drug deal to go down.
But in the distance, a shadowy figure appeared. He wore a long trench coat. As he approached, he drew a gun, pointing it at the head of one man in the group—Sanjay Narain.
Although police have heard various versions of what happened that night, investigators believe the man in the trench coat was notorious Vancouver gangster Bindy Johal.”
Narain’s body was found in the Capilano River. He had been thrown to his death off of the Cleveland Dam. Anytime a murder witness gets killed there is a chilling effect on the public’s willingness to testify in court. If a key witness to a crime described as a Romeo and Juliet-style murder-suicide gets thrown to his death off a 300-foot tall municipal landmark, the public will probably take notice.
Of course, Bindy Johal was the prime suspect. Given the circumstances of the crimes and the heat surrounding him, one might have expected the perpetrator to go into hiding. Not Johal. He enjoyed the infamy, and became a regular at nightclubs on Richards, Granville, and in Gastown. The fact that police followed him everywhere he went only added to his mystique. Johal had become the notorious gangster that he aspired to be when he learned the game under Jimmy Dosanjh.
And then, right on cue, he was released from prison. Witnesses at the preliminary hearing for the murder of Teodoro Salcedo refused to identify Jimmy Dosanjh in court. As a result the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence and Jimmy was a free man. As one might expect, Dosanjh didn’t take too kindly to the idea that one of his former lieutenants was now operating a narcotics ring that was a parallel power to his own. Dosanjh wanted to return to the old order of things in East Van so he took out a contract on Bindy Johal’s life.
It’s not clear how he caught wind of the assassination plot but once he did, Johal decided to spend some cash. Using backchannel communication he offered to pay the hit man twice the price to double-cross Jimmy Dosanjh. Shortly thereafter the hitman told Dosanjh that he had a shipment of stolen electronics that he wanted to offload. They set up a meeting in an alley at 33rd and Fraser and when Dosanjh arrived to view the stolen goods a pair of cars blocked off the ends of the alley, boxing him in. Then, gunmen started shooting. Death likely came as a surprise because a lit cigarette was found still smouldering on the ground beside Dosanjh’s body when the police arrived.
The public was convinced that Johal was responsible for the murder of Jimmy Dosanjh. This opinion was so pervasive that Johal was invited on the evening news to opine on what the murder meant going forward with respect to the gang war in East Van. A credulous TV anchor sat across a desk from an unabashed gangster and asked for his opinion about a murdered foe. Next, reporters went to Ron Dosanjh’s house in search of truth, meaning, and a criminal’s opinions.
Tit-for-tat gang violence escalated by the week. There were nightclub shootings, drive-by shootings, and shootings in the street. When Ron Dosanjh was gunned down in broad daylight at the corner of Fraser and Kingsway it seemed like the violence had reached its apex.
Then, five days later, Glen Olson took Bindy’s dog for a walk. Olson was a neighbour and Johal had asked him to dog-sit for a few weeks while he went into hiding. Olson took the dog out to the park for a little exercise and a hit squad opened fire on him with assault rifles. Twenty-four shell casings from an AK-47 were found at the crime scene.
Muckrakers at the CBC managed to track down Bindy the following week. They asked if he thought his life was in danger. Bindy looked straight in the camera and said, “I just want these guys to know, you’ve got another thing comin’, bitch. I’m still around.”
When dog-walkers are getting gunned down and broadcasters are interviewing murderers on the evening news, your city might have a problem. Mayor Philip Owen put together a 150-man special unit to investigate the killings and over a million dollars were spent solving the crime. Bindy Johal was arrested.
Bindy and five co-defendants were charged with the murders of Jimmy and Ron Dosanjh. The judge cited concerns for public safety when refusing bail for Johal, but three of the other co-defendants were released on $100,000 bond. The case would turn out to be one of the longest and most expensive in Canadian history. Crown prosecutors spent five months laying out their case, which included over 100 witnesses and mountains of wiretap evidence. But, in the end, the verdict would hinge on something completely unrelated to the arguments being presented before the court.
When the trial began one of Johal’s co-accused, Peter Gill, noticed an attractive woman in the jury box staring at him. Gillian Guess, a twice-divorced 40-year-old mother of two, initially mistook Gill for a lawyer because of his excellent grooming and bespoke suit. She was attracted to Gill and didn’t even seem to hide it. “Miss Guess would flip her hair, look over at him and kind of smile. There was more happening than her assessing the accused. She’d smile almost coyly. It was very unusual,” said court clerk Emma Hyde.
Peter Gill was one of the co-accused out on bail. Three months into the trial, he and Guess met socially, outside the courtroom, for the first time. They went for a romantic stroll in Stanley Park and Gill explained that he was an innocent victim of police racism. Guess believed him. She would later state that he aroused a maternal instinct (Gill was eight years her junior), while simultaneously promoting a sense of fear and excitement in her. On that first date they found a spot under an oak tree and kissed passionately. She claims to have trembled in his arms.
“At the time, I thought I felt love for him. But in retrospect it wasn’t love. It was an obsession,” said Guess. “It was really stupid of me, but I really did think that if we had sex, it would get it out of our systems.” It was the first known time in Canadian history that a juror had a sexual relationship with an accused murderer while the trial was before the court.
In late October, 1995, Guess and her fellow jurors returned a verdict of not guilty on both counts of murder. Less than a month later Guess and Gill were spotted by police dancing together at a nightclub. Police began following the pair and it wasn’t long before it became abundantly clear they were dating. After enough evidence was compiled they were arrested and charged with obstruction of justice. Thanks to a quirk in the criminal code it was determined that her relationship with the accused was not technically illegal at the time that it took place. Although Guess would later be found guilty, the Crown had no grounds to retry Johal for the murders of the Dosanjh brothers.
With the trial over, Johal was back on the street for the first time in two years. Within three months of his release there was a stabbing at a strip club, three drive-by shootings, and a pair of nightclub shootings all tied to him. It’s even alleged that Johal would go to nightclubs and discharge his firearm into the ceiling for no reason other than intimidation. He was sending a signal to his rivals that the boss was back in charge. But it wouldn’t last long.
In early 1996 a criminal associate of Johal’s bought two kilograms of cocaine from a teenager named Randy Chan. The cocaine had been diluted and Johal took it as a personal affront so he stuffed Chan into the trunk of his car. This was a dangerous move because Chan was the younger brother of a high-ranking member of the Lotus gang. For the next 56 hours Bindy drove around the city negotiating the terms of Chan’s release. When police learned about the kidnapping they immediately deployed 70 officers to recover the missing teenager, fearing this dispute could set off a full-scale gang war. Eventually, Chan was released in exchange for five kilograms of cocaine and Johal was arrested on a charge of unlawful confinement. “I’ll beat this one for sure,” he told TV cameras as he was loaded into a van for a court appearance.
While awaiting trial Johal shared a cell with a man named Bal Buttar. They took a liking to one another. After Buttar earned his friendship and trust, Johalbegan grooming him for a position in “the Elite”, a crew of murderers whose sole job was to assassinate Johal’s enemies. Buttar described this stint to Kim Bolan for the Vancouver Sun, “When I was in jail with Bindy, Bindy told me, ‘You are going to be the one underneath me. You listen to me. If you take care of things at your end, I’ll be happy with you, brother. If you f— me over, I’ll kill you. Right.’ ”
When a date was set for the kidnapping trial Johal was released on bail and the Elite was unleashed on the Vancouver underworld. In total, Buttar speculates they murdered between 25 and 30 people over the next handful of years. At first it seemed like the murders fit into a strategic framework that strengthened the budding criminal empire’s position in the city. However, over time, Buttar noticed Johal using the death squad to settle personal beefs. In one such case Buttar alleges that Johal made up a story about a criminal associate holding out cash from the organization when in fact the murder was ordered because Johal was jealous about a girl.
The turning point came in the summer of 1998 when Buttar and some friends were out at a nightclub. A young criminal associate named Derek Shankar decided to phone Johal and ask him to join them. Johal said he was too tired to attend the party so Shankar called him a baby.
At the end of the night Buttar and the crew piled into his truck and drove home. When they arrived Johal was waiting for them. After identifying Shankar in the back seat, Johal hopped into the truck and told Buttar that he wanted to go for a ride. They drove to a secluded spot in New Westminster where Johaltold Buttar to stop so he could get out of the car and take a piss. As he left the vehicle he dragged Shankar out with him. Buttar described what happened next to Bolan in the Vancouver Sun:
“All of a sudden I hear a big noise and I turn around and there is Derek Shankar going down . . . Bindy shot him. Bindy looks at me. I had my piece. I’m thinking hey, should I pull my piece on him and I thought, no that’s too quick. I was about to jump in the truck and he says no, help me dump him in the water. So I chucked him in the water. Derek Shankar — you’ve got to understand — I have known that guy for a long time. He was from Richmond. He was one of the Richmond boys. So I saw [Bindy] kill him. We chucked him in the water. We chucked the gun off the Queensborough Bridge.
“When Derek Shankar went down, Bindy’s whole brigade went down. You know what I mean? He took down one of the best kids. He was a guy who was a party animal with us. But he was a legit kid. He never f—ed around.”
Buttar never fully trusted Johal again after that night. If Shankar could be murdered over an insult then everyone was vulnerable, including Buttar himself. One evening in early December these fears were confirmed. They were driving to a nightclub in Surrey when Johal made an illegal turn on Scott Road. The police noticed the traffic infraction and pulled the car over. Johal began to panic. He produced a gun and pleaded with Buttar to tell the cops that the firearm was his. Possession of the weapon would have breached Johal’s probation and he would have faced eight or nine months on remand. It struck Buttar as strange because Johal had always been very careful not to carry firearms unless he planned on using them. In that moment Buttar realized that Johal was planning to murder him that night.
Buttar took the gun and agreed to plead guilty. He didn’t sacrifice his freedom out of loyalty. He did it because the incarceration would provide a perfect alibi for the murder that was about to take place.
“When Bindy was getting reckless, I took over the Elite,” Buttar said. “I told them to get him. I gave them $20,000 and they got Bindy in a nightclub.”
At 1:30 a.m. on December 20, 1998, Bindy Johal was shot behind the right ear at close range on the dance floor at Palladium nightclub in downtown Vancouver. He was 27 years old. Over 300 witnesses were on hand when the murder took place. No one came forward to identify the shooter.
In 2015, acclaimed Canadian film director Deepa Mehta released a movie called Beeba Boys. It told the story of Jeet Johar, a flashy Indo-Canadian gangster whose crew of young criminals upset the pecking order of organized crime in Vancouver. During the press tour leading up to the film’s release, Mehta was asked one question, repeatedly. Her response, “By the way, once and for all, Beeba Boys is not based on Bindy Johal’s life. You heard it from the horse’s mouth. It’s inspired by events, headlines, characters, but finally it’s an original script. And Randeep Hooda is not playing Bindy Johal… good to get that off my chest!”
This came as a surprise to Staff Sgt. Lindsey Houghton of the Vancouver gang squad. Houghton was concerned that the “South Asian Scarface” would set a bad example for young people by glorifying the lifestyle associated with organized crime. “They have heard stories about Bindy Johal, they really think he’s a great guy, even though they weren’t even born when he was around and involved in his very violent lifestyle, and they want to see this movie because they want to become like Bindy, and that’s very upsetting to us,” he said.
There’s only one measure by which Bindy Johal could be considered the most successful gangster in Vancouver’s history: infamy. The dramatic nature of his crimes and the bizarre relationship he fostered with the media elevated him to the dubious status of celebrity gangster. Even in death, Bindy Johal is still around.