Days before 8-month-old Aroohi Dheri was killed, she babbled one of her first words. She was calling for her dad, Jasdeep Singh, 36, and it would turn out to be the sole time she ever got to do so.
“She said ‘pappa’ for the first time, and the only time,” Jasdeep’s cousin, Amarinder Singh, told NBC News.
Baby Aroohi, her parents Jasdeep and Jasleen Kaur, 27, and her paternal uncle Amandeep Singh, were found dead Wednesday in a rural area of Merced, California, not far from where they were taken two days earlier.
Jesus Manuel Salgado, a former employee at Jasdeep and Amandeep’s trucking company, has been arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping. His brother, Alberto Salgado, was also arrested and charged with aiding him. NBC News could not identify a lawyer for either suspect.
The days after news of the deaths have been a calvary for those left behind, Amarinder Singh said. Amandeep left a widow and two young children, and Jasdeep left his parents. Jasleen’s parents, who live in India, were never able to meet their granddaughter. A circle of tight-knit cousins in California is also reeling from the loss.
“I just felt like somebody had pulled the earth from under my feet,” Singh said about the moment he learned of the deaths. “I felt numb, I felt empty, I couldn’t think.”
The American Dream brought his cousins Jasdeep and Amandeep across an ocean when they were teenagers, according to Singh. The two grew up in a small village in Punjab; Singh still remembers spending months on end at their home in the summer before the families emigrated in 2004.
The U.S. represented a promise of security for all of them, he said.
“We wanted to be in a place where we would feel safe, where we would think our kids are safe,” he said. “And where we would know that if we worked hard, if our kids worked hard, they could make a life for themselves.”
His cousin Amandeep was the living embodiment of that, he said. He spent his first years in the country working blue-collar jobs as a cashier and a factory worker, eventually buying his first truck.
“He started his business with a single truck that he owned,” Singh said. “He drove like five days out of the week. Some weekends where he would not be home. He would be home every seven to 10 days.”
It was at the business he had worked his whole life to grow that he was eventually taken from, according to security camera footage. The once-perfect image of America, which had formed cracks over the years, is now shattered, Singh said.
“I follow the news. I’ve heard plenty of stuff that happens. School shootings and mass shootings and whatever else happens in the U.S.,” he said. “But I never thought something like that would land so close to our family.”
Singh saw the family one week before they were found dead. He said they talked of their plans for Thanksgiving, a holiday that Amandeep always treasured spending with his large family.
“As we grew up as kids together in India, he wanted our kids to grow up together so they knew each other, and they had the same kind of bond that we do,” he said.
The last time he saw baby Aroohi, she met Singh’s 3-month-old baby for the first time. The two babbled back and forth together as Singh, Jasdeep and Jasleen looked on fondly, he said.
“I think every single time I saw them around Aroohi, both of them had a sparkle in their eye,” he said. “They loved just being together as a family. They named her literally meaning ‘one who has the spirit of God.’”
Singh said he still struggles to process why someone might have hurt them.
“It’s totally unjustified,” he said. “I think everybody can at minimum agree that an 8-month-old has not done anything wrong to anybody and doesn’t deserve anything like this.”
Amandeep’s wife, Jaspreet Kaur, is left a single mother. She hasn’t been eating or talking, Singh said, and her 6- and 8-year-old kids are struggling to grasp what has happened. The younger one still asks if his father is coming home. The brothers’ elderly parents are left alone too.
“They were all devastated by what happened,” he said.
Singh and a few relatives helped the remaining immediate family members in setting up a GoFundMe, which has now raised over $340,000.
But after the chaos, Singh’s family is left with a hole, he said, and he feels their loss everywhere.
“I can still hear what I think they would have said, I can still feel how they would have given me a hug, I can still think of the things we would do,” he said. “I’m going to miss all of those things.”