Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mourners remember G. Dave Teja,
famed for prosecuting Juan Corona

by Tom Nadeau

Memorial services for G. Dave Teja were heavily attended Wednesday with the assemblage of family and friends, prosecutors, defense attorneys and cops representing his seven decades of life and service in Sutter County.

He died Aug. 7 of declining health and complications from heart surgery. He was 71.

A former Sutter County Municipal Court, district attorney and public defender, Teja is probably best known for his role in prosecuting labor contractor Juan Corona for the 1971 murders of 25 itinerant farm workers whose bodies were found buried in shallow graves in orchards along the Feather River north of Yuba City.

The sheriff at the time, Roy D. Whiteaker, said even more bodies may have been buried in the area.

Corona was sentenced in 1973 to 25 life sentences. A second trial in 1982 failed to render an acquittal and he was returned to prison to serve out his sentence.

During his 20-year tenure in Sutter County's legal system and another 20 years in private practice, Teja earned a high reputation for his fairness, approachability and sense of humor.

He died Aug. 7 following six-way heart-bypass surgery, family members reported.

Teja remembered ...

The “remembrance” service was held at Enterprise Masonic Lodge Hall #78 of the Free and Accepted Masons located diagonally across Second Street from the Sutter County Superior Court building where Teja had spent much of his working life.

Teja was a Master Mason, speakers officiating at the service said.
Several Sutter County notables were seen in the audience, including Sutter County Superior Court Judge H. Ted Hansen and Sutter District Attorney Carl Adams. A number of local attorneys and retired cops were also present.

During the service, police sirens were heard outside, a coincidence that added a poetic touch to the event, especially in light of one recollection Whiteaker offered.

He wanted to kick in the door

It seems that while Teja was DA and Whiteaker was Yuba City police chief, Teja, who kept guns himself, liked to “ride along” on police raids.

As Whiteaker told it, Teja “always enjoyed going on raids” and harbored a secret, long-held desire to take a more active role in police actions.

“I’d like to kick in the door,” Teja shyly confess to him once, Whiteaker said.
So, eventually, when the opportunity arose, the cops let Teja go for it … and go for it … and go for it again.

After three unsuccessful attempts to kick in the door – each time more forcefully – Teja finally gave up. Then, Whiteaker recalled, one of the officers simply turned the knob and the door opened effortlessly.

A wave of friendly laughter rippled through the packed audience.

Not one to give up Teja pressed for another another opportunity to “kick in the door,” Whiteaker recalled.

This time it turned out to be a hollow core door and Teja’s foot got stuck in the door. The officers on the raid just walked around Teja (presumably with straight faces), leaving him to his own devices to extricate his trapped foot.

An even bigger wave of laughter swept through the gathering of friends and colleagues.

Childhood friend Isabel Garcia

Another significant speaker at the Teja memorial was Isabel Garcia, who has written on the history of the “Mexican-Hindu” community in Sutter County.

She grew up with Teja, their family fruit ranches neighboring each other. Among the two families she was known as “sister Isabel.”

Teja was perhaps the best known member of the “Mexican-Hindu” group and was often sought out for quotes about the “Punjabi-Mexican,” or “Mexican-Hindu” community that flourished for a time in Yuba City.

Hindoos to others, the Punjabi-Mexican considered himself/herself half-Indian. “I was also called eight annas to a rupee since I was only half-Indian,’ says G. Dave Teja, an attorney and realtor, without any rancour. He was elected the district attorney in 1963, a post he held till 1974. "Isabel and I went to grammar and high school together," reminisces Teja, sitting outside the porch of Singh Garcia's house in Yuba City. Teja's isn't a typical immigrant story: his father Bachan Singh Teja didn't rough it out in the farms; instead, he studied at the University of Arkansas where he met his bride, Delle Fuglaar, who was of Norwegian, Dutch and Irish stock. They moved to Yuba City in the 1930s.

Teja "shared a heritage'

Sacramento Bee staff writer Bill Lindel interviewed Teja in 1991.
A smaller number of Indian men married black, American Indian or white women. G. Dave Teja's mother was a white woman from Arkansas and his father came to the United States in 1921 from Jalandhar in India.

His parents were married in Arkansas, avoiding the laws at that time prohibiting marriages between whites and Indians in California. The couple's first 10 acres were in his mother's name until 1947, when his father became one of the first Indians to get a citizenship, Teja said.

His mother died in 1989, after 58 years of marriage. His father died last year at the age of 93. Teja said there are one or two old-timers of his father's generation still alive in the Yuba City area.

Teja, the former Sutter County district attorney who prosecuted mass murderer Juan Corona, said he pays dues to the Sikh temple to remain close to his heritage.

"I'm an American." he said. "But I shared a heritage with these (Indian) people. I couldn't deny it if I had wanted to."
Private inurnment of was to follow.


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