The night Bimal Patel was engulfed in flames, he was likely lying on his back in the bathtub when his wife swiftly opened the door, splashed him with gasoline from a disposable cup and shut him inside, an arson investigator with the Austin Fire Department testified Thursday.
But under cross-examination, Shriya Patel’s defense lawyers disputed the findings of Capt. Andrew Reardon, pointing to cellphone records and other evidence they said showed Bimal Patel had been depressed and planning to set himself ablaze. In the months before the April 2012 incident, they said, he had searched the words “smoke inhalation” on his cellphone and downloaded photos of a burning man and a resuscitation machine.
“I feel like I am going to snap. … I feel weighted down like a branch on a tree being pulled down,” attorney Joe James Sawyer read from a text message sent to someone from Bimal Patel’s phone near Valentine’s Day.
Defense lawyers will begin making their case Friday in the capital murder trial of Shriya Patel, who faces life in prison without parole if convicted in the death of her 29-year-old husband, a telemarketer and aspiring screenwriter raised just outside Amarillo.
In Travis County court this week, state prosecutors have argued that Shriya Patel had been unhappy in her arranged marriage to Bimal Patel, and ignited an explosion at their North Austin apartment that left him so severely injured, he died nearly four months later.
Defense lawyers contend he committed suicide and forced Shriya Patel to help.
Police officers and emergency responders have said they were called about 9:15 p.m. on April 17, 2012, to the Camden Huntingdon apartments at 12349 Metric Blvd. Some witnesses said they saw his body still smoldering and that he had been screaming, “Why would she do this?”
On the stand Thursday, Reardon said that based on Bimal Patel’s injuries and the soot and burn patterns found at the scene, he concluded it was unlikely he had set himself on fire.
Instead, Reardon told jurors, the physical evidence indicated he had been lying in a bathtub partially filled with water when his wife doused him with gasoline and quickly closed the door. There had been two candlesticks burning inside, and when the ignition source mixed with the heat and vapors, it sparked a flash fire that consumed Bimal Patel, Reardon said.
The disposable cup she used was found standing upright inside a 10-gallon white bucket that had a small pool of gasoline in the hallway outside the bathroom, Reardon testified. Marks on a cracked door showed he had tried to push or kick his way out, the investigator said.
Emergency responders and physicians have testified that about 77 percent of his body was burned and that he was found with cotton balls jammed up his nose.
In probing that at times turned tense, Sawyer asked Reardon whether he interviewed any of the man’s former co-workers to determine if he had been despondent. Reardon responded he had not, and that the information on Bimal Patel’s phone would not have affected his investigation.
Sawyer pressed on, calling into question why Patel would have cotton balls stuffed up his nostrils when other investigators had previously testified that he was about to receive a “sensuous massage.”
The defense lawyer suggested Patel had put the cotton up his nose himself so as not smell the gasoline.