Murder on the Mordecai ranch

May 20, 2020

For The Madera Tribune

Jion Singh Dhandah is shown here in this San Quentin Prison photo after killing a farm worker at the Mordecai ranch in 1925.

Two Hindu farm workers looked up suddenly as the Ford truck pulled up to the edge of the cotton field where they were laboring on the Mordecai Ranch. When the driver of the vehicle stepped out and started walking toward the two men, one of them grabbed his shovel. He expected trouble.

 

It only took Jion Singh Dhandah a minute to reach Bhag Singh Chodia, the one holding the shovel. While Berger Singh, the other Hindu farm worker, looked on, Dhandah and Chodia began an animated conversation. Within minutes, it grew heated. The two men were arguing, in part, over a court order in which Dhandah had been ordered to pay Chodia $500.

 

The judgement against Dhandah had come as a result of the bad blood that had risen between them over Chodia’s beautiful sister, Raja Kur. She had been in partnership with Dhandah, a one-armed vegetable peddler, in a small grocery store in Fresno.

 

The partners apparently had a falling out, and Chodia began to spread rumors in the Hindu community that Dhandah had fleeced his sister out of $700. So convincing was Chodia and so reprehensible was the deed, that Dhandah became a pariah in his own community.

 

That’s when he decided to exact the proverbial pound of flesh. On the night of February 13, he waited until he thought Chodia was asleep and then set his house on fire. The victim was able to escape, but death was only postponed.

 

When Dhandah was found innocent of arson, Chodia decided to take him to court over the money he had taken from his sister. Here, he was successful. Since he had an interest in the store, Chodia got a judgement against Dhandah for $500, and that is what brought his adversary to the Mordecai ranch that May afternoon in 1925.

 

After arguing for half an hour, Dhandah pulled out a .45 caliber automatic pistol and shot Chodia in the head killing him instantly. Then, he hopped in his truck and sped away. After driving to Madera and parking, he walked toward the jail but was arrested by Marshal A.W. Clark before he got there.

Dhandah claimed he shot Chodiah to keep him from hitting him with the shovel. He said the victim and his coworker both accused him of being a “spy” since he occasionally acted as an interpreter for the Fresno Immigration Office. Dhandah also told of an unprintable remark made by Singh of a picture of his mother, which Singh had and which Dhanda had requested.

 

After some intense debate, he said Chodia got behind him with a shovel, and the other man faced him. When Chodia jabbed him with the shovel handle, he tried to get away from the men, but could not run in the plowed field. Chodia then swung at him with the shovel, and as he did, Dhandah drew his gun and fired.

 

Authorities might have bought Dhandah’s story. He handled himself well, spoke perfect English, and was very respectful. Unfortunately, the shovel did him in. It was hard to believe that he was threatened by the shovel because when the officers arrived on the scene, Chodia was on the ground with his hands outstretched, as if he had been holding them above his head, and the shovel was stuck in the ground, the handle sticking straight up.

 

On July 7, 1925, Dhandah was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to an indeterminate term of 1 to 10 years. The next day, he was on his way to San Quentin. He remained behind bars until December 20, 1930, at which time he was released on parole. In 1950 he was pardoned by Governor Earl Warren.

 

As for Chodia’s sister, Raja Kur, her story didn’t turn out very well either. Someone turned her in for operating a business while on a student visa. With her brother dead and her former partner in prison, she was deported to Hong Kong.

 

One has to wonder what the Mordecais thought about all of this?

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