Local News

Cary man to stand trial in estranged wife's death

Posted November 30, 2009 7:59 a.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2009 5:00 p.m. EST

— Jury selection began Monday in the murder trial of a Cary man accused of killing his estranged wife and setting her body on fire last January.

Firefighters in Mecklenburg County, Va., found the body of Vanlata Patel, 57, while battling a brush fire along Interstate 85 on Jan. 16, 2008.

Two days later, her son reported her missing, saying she had failed to board a flight to Canada, where she had been staying with him.

Cary police arrested her husband, Harish Purushottamdas Patel, after a nearly month-long investigation that included searches of his car and the couple's apartment.

Police have released little information about the case, including a possible motive, but civil court documents suggest the couple, going through a divorce, had been disputing how their financial assets, including $400,000 in Swiss bank accounts, should be divided.

During a pre-trial motions hearing Monday, Harish Patel's attorney asked that allegations of physical abuse between the couple not be admissible because it is hearsay. Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan, denied the motion, allowing it, as well as testimony about the defendant.

Morgan must still decide on a defense motion to dismiss because of lack of jurisdiction.

"If they cannot prove where she was murdered, then North Carolina would not have jurisdiction to charge him and try him for murder," Cutler said.

It's unclear whether Harish Patel will testify, his attorney, Jeff Cutler, said. That decision will be based on the state's case, Cutler said.

The trial is expected to last about two weeks, and the witness list consists of 69 potential witnesses. Opening statements and testimony could begin as early as Tuesday, Wake County Assistant District Attorney Doug Faucette said.

If convicted, the maximum sentence Harish Patel could receive is life in prison.

According to a search warrant affidavit in the case, Vanlata Patel had been found wrapped in a comforter and tied with a rope. The body was so badly burned that authorities haven't been able to determine a cause of death.

During interviews with WRAL News before his arrest, Harish Patel said his wife often disappeared for days and that he was shocked when she was reported missing. He has maintained his innocence in his wife's death.

Investigators searched the couple's home and vehicles after her body was found. Subsequent searches, including one following a Jan. 26, 2008, 911 call in which Patel said he was dying after drinking too much alcohol, turned up enough evidence for his arrest on Feb. 11, 2008.

While responding to that 911 call, emergency crews and police saw a knife and other documents they thought might be relevant in the case, according to court documents.

In other affidavits, investigators said Harish Patel had been photographed inside a Circle K in Cary buying gasoline and a gasoline can the same day his wife's body was found.