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Prosecutors: Man Disliked His Son-in-Law, by Stephanie Gehring in The Chicago Sun-Times

An Oak Forest grandfather accused of setting a fire that killed his pregnant daughter, her husband and their 3-year-old son was held without bail Tuesday, charged with three counts of first-degree murder, arson and one count of intentional homicide of an unborn child.

Subhash Chander, 57, set the fatal blaze because he didn't like his son-in-law, prosecutors said.

"He married his daughter without his consent," said Cook County first assistant state's attorney Robert Milan, adding that Chander was upset "by what he believed to be a cultural slight."

Chander's daughter, Monika Rani, his son-in-law, Rajesh Arora, 30, and their 3-year-old son, Vansh, who lived in an apartment across the street from Chander at 15859 S. Le Claire Ave., died in the Saturday night fire at the Le Claire Station apartment complex in Oak Forest.

The blaze left as many as 70 people homeless.

Chander, of 5049 W. 159th St., Apt. 25, Oak Forest, is of Indian descent and considered his son-in-law unacceptable, Milan said. He considered Arora to be from a lower social caste than his daughter and himself, Milan said. There had been trouble between the families for about three years, Milan said.

But Chander's sister, Kamla Devi, told WBBM-AM her brother is innocent.

She said relatives approved of the marriage and that the caste system was not a consideration for her family in India nor is it a consideration now in the United States.

"There was no family problem. There was nothing going on. Absolutely nothing," Devi said.

Devi told the radio station the family is from Chandigarh in northern India.

Sandeep Kaur, who was good friends with Rani and her husband, said Tuesday prosecutor's claims didn't make sense to her either.

Before Rani got married in 2002 at a Hindu temple in the Chicago area, Chander called the prospective groom's parents in India to offer his approval for the union, Kaur said. She also thought Rani and her husband came from the same elite Indian caste. In Indian culture, it's common for families to seek to match a son or daughter with someone of the same caste, experts say.

Kaur also said Chander had attended his daughter's wedding. And Chander had helped raise little Vansh, Kaur said.

Autopsy results showed that Rani and Arora died of carbon monoxide poisoning and their bodies were severely burned, authorities said. Rani was about five months pregnant, authorities said. The cause of death for the little boy, Vansh, 3, was undeterminmed, but his body also was severely burned, authorities said.

Their bodies were found in the building's rubble.

Witnesses identified Chander as a man who bought gasoline from a local gas station about two hours before Saturday's fire and then poured it in the hallway on the second floor outside Rani and Arora's apartment, Milan said.

Chander told authorities that he had bought the gas for his son but decided to give it to his daughter. He went to their apartment and his son-in-law told him to leave because it was late, Milan said. The son-in-law then pushed him and some of the gas spilled inside the door. Chander became upset, took a lighter from his pocket and set the gas soaked material on fire. He then left the building and returned home, Milan said.

But Milan said evidence shows that the fire was more deliberate than that. Milan said Chander ignited the fire while the family slept.

Chander, who was unemployed, never called 911 or his daughter to see if she and her family were safe, Milan said.

"This crime is shocking," Milan said.

Devastation Could Have Been Worse

He said the devastation could have been much worse.

"This was a fast-moving, rapid, very dangerous fire," Milan said. "It could have been one of the largest homicides in American history but for the grace of God."

Police found a plastic pharmaceutical container, measuring almost a gallon, labeled with Chander's name in a trash bin outside his apartment building, Milan said.

No family members appeared in court Tuesday on Chander's behalf. But he is married and has a son, public defender Bernard Okitipi said. No one answered the door at Chander's apartment.

Okitipi said Chander has a liver problem that he is being treated for.

"When I was talking to him he was distraught about the whole incident," Okitipi said.

Prosecutors said there is no evidence anyone else is involved

A woman who would only identify herself as Bobby said she knew Rani and was shocked by the news of the family deaths.

"I don't believe this happened," she said.

The woman's children and Vansh would play together sometimes.

"They were very nice," she said. "The little boy was very innocent."

Vansh had been in India with his grandmother for an extended period of time before his grandmother brought him to the couple this summer, Bobby said.

Friends said the couple worked at McDonald's. Arora, who had worked at a Citgo gas station, was interested in owning his own gas station.

A woman who answered the phone at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago said she knew Rani from when she visited the temple in Lemont.

"She was a nice kid," the woman said. "It's very sorry."

Despite what the prosecution said in court, Bobby down played the idea that Chander set the building on fire as an act of revenge or an "honor killing."

Such crimes are an act of violence by a male family member against females in the family believed to have brought dishonor to the family name.

She indicated that Chander would often argue with family members.

"Her father drinks too much," the woman said.

Ellen Sheeley, author of "Reclaiming Honor in Jordan," has studied honor killings in the Middle East.

"I can't say with certainty, but it looks, quacks and smells like one," Sheeley told the SouthtownStar. "This one shows a lot of the signs."

She said the only thing that was unusual was that Chander put innocent lives in jeopardy with the fire.

"I'm 80 to 90 percent sure it's an honor killing," she said. "It's alarming to me. We don't see very many of them in the States."

Contributing: Chicago Sun-Times reporters Stefano Esposito and Rummana Hussein; AP reports

Stephanie Gehring may be reached at (708) 633-5971 or gehring@southtownstar.com.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.