It was the worst day in Gary Singh’s life.
The 23-year-old was being led out of his family business in handcuffs — as was his father Sucha “Sam” — both surrounded by 10 federal agents and other law enforcement officers with handguns on display at their waists.
A Bulletin photographer snapped their photo that would appear on the front page of this newspaper the next day.
All Singh could think of was how his father would lose everything he worked for to build a better life for his family and that their cherished American citizenship could be stripped and the family deported back to India.
It made no sense to Singh who a year before earned a double major at the University of Pacific. Federal agents were arresting his father and him for selling cold medicine under the Patriot Act that he had no working knowledge of.
Earlier he had taken a frantic call from his mother Jaswan “Jessica” who was at home and hysterically asking in Punjabi why the police said they were taking her. Authorities also arrested Arjinder Singh, a 37-year-old employee at Manteca Mart Liquors that was not related to Gary and his family.
Hours later in the federal courthouse in Sacramento they would hear what they were being charged with — a felony for selling more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine to the same individual.
When federal prosecutors demanded high bail and presented the complaint to the court, Singh recalls Federal District Kimberly Mueller asking out loud “why are these people even in my court” based on the accusation and their clean backgrounds. She ordered them released without having to post bail.
That was on June 15, 2006. And it was just the start of a nightmare for a family that by all accounts epitomizes the American Dream. Some 3½ years later unable to even make any resemblance of a case built just on decoy sales that eight stores owned and operated by Indian Sikhs independent of each other were conspiring to sell cold medicine to those making meth, prosecutors offered a deal.
If they copped to misdemeanors, served no time in jail, and each paid $1,000 fines they would be left alone.
If they did not take the deal prosecutors said they would take the case to trial in a bid to seek felony convictions. If the prosecutors ended up being successful, it would have opened the door for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to strip the family of their American citizenship and deport them.
That was on Oct. 13, 2009, 40 months after their arrest. It took another four months for a court appearance on Feb. 8, 2010 before the deal to be executed before a federal judge.
Singh never has tried to run away from the events that started 14 years ago when the 10 agents came into the store that is now next door to the Grocery Outlet, demanded keys to lock the front door, hand cuffed Singh “for his protection” and proceeded to grill him to the point he was reduced to tears.
But now the incident is being brought back up by those on social media who repeatedly reference a Stockton Record story that transposed information that made it a much more ominous read than stories that appeared the same day in the Modesto Bee, the Bulletin, and the now-defunct Tri-Valley Herald.
The postings have insinuated that Singh was everything from a drug dealer to a manufacturer of meth.
What really happened was a tad more sinister. It was a DEA sting operation that ended up being way off the mark as the conduct of his family before and after the 2006 incident verifies.
War on meth launched
with confusing rules
not communicated well
The Singhs were caught up with DEA efforts to implement the Patriot Act that was adopted in 2002 in a bid to tackle the nation’s growing meth problem.
Drug dealer were buying large quantities of cold medicines such as Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine that can be used to make meth.
Today federal law dictates cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine be sold only behind pharmacy or service counters. The buyer also must show photo identification and sign a logbook as well.
Back in 2002 the only published federal regulations regarding products with pseudoephedrine was that retailers could not sell more than 3.6 grams of the chemical that was found in any cold product. Given packets had different numbers of capsules and different companies as well as different concentrations it would require a chemist to determine when that threshold was met because there were no published information on packaging about exact weights of ingredients and distributed materials serving as a guideline or even a warning small retailers of the law were non-existent.
Ironically that changed several months after the DEA swooped in and made their high-profile arrests in the Northern San Joaquin Valley of family-owned convenience stores. That is when published rules were distributed that alerted retailers to the Patriot Act requirements and mandated those selling products with pseudoephedrine must maintain log book that they write the driver’s license and name of every one that purchases Sudafed and similar projects along with the date if they bought three or more packets.
Those packets, as provided to independent convenience stores by wholesalers who supplied everything from candy and medicine to canned goods to fill shop owners’ shelves after salesmen made weekly checks to scan the status of inventory, typically contained between 6 and 12 capsules as opposed to those at drug store chains such as Walgreens that can have 24 or more capsules.
Also the DEA in its press releases surrounding the 2006 arrests involving the eight independent family owned stores repeatedly referenced the packets as “boxes” conjuring up an image of numerous packages shipped in a large cardboard box. It is an image that social media positing regarding the incident keeps referencing.
How the sting went down
at Manteca Mart in 2006
The DEA used a decoy — much like the Alcohol, Beverage Control Board (ABC) uses for shoulder tap operations to catch stores that sell alcohol to minors — for the Sudafed buy.
The decoy had a pony-tail and wore a cap.
Over the period he was buying, he always knew to come on the day right after weekly shipments of inventory arrived at Manteca Mart from wholesalers.
He would always clear out all Sudafed on the store’s shelf that was typical three packets. That would become the magical number of Sudafed packet purchases to activate the requirement of putting a customer’s name in a log book several months later when the DEA implemented the program.
Thee undercover decoy bought from all four — Gary, his mother, his father, and their only employee — over the course of several months in a store that averages 300 to 425 customers a day. Each worked at different times.
Ironically in the court filing that formalized the plea deal that was light years from the felony that the DEA thought they had a case for that would have required a minimum of a year in prison it stated that the prosecution was for the “regulated sale of more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine in violation of 21USL842a12A;1 the defendant knowingly selling more than 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine on any one day” to one person.
In other words the court filing implies the statutes the DEA was enforcing at the time allowed a person to buy just under 3.6 grams of pseudoephedrine a day, each and every day without impunity.
Singh and his family wanted to avoid a trial knowing what was at risk — their American citizenship and potential deportation.
Singh said he has never not accepted responsibility for what he was accused of doing even if he didn’t know at the time it was against the law.
Underscoring the non-sinister nature of the transactions was the fact Singh’s father was able to produce a paper trail that proved he did not try to benefit from selling the Sudafed beyond the regular markup to anyone including the decoy. The DEA offered no evidence of that either nor could they make a case that additional Sudafed packets besides the three or so that the distributor’s salesman had the store restocked every week with were ever ordered to profit from someone making meth.
Singh said his father to this day can’t make sense of how anyone would believe he would risk all that his family had worked hard to attain simply to sell the same number of Sudafed each week as determined by the wholesale distributor without increasing the price even a penny beyond the regular markup.
How Singh ended up
working for his father
at Manteca Mart
How Singh ended up working that day on June 15, 2006 at Manteca Mart underscores why he accepted the deal even and didn’t want to risk that a jury would not rule in his family’s failure.
It started when Gary, whose first name given at birth is Gurminder hence his American nickname Gary, was a toddler in a village of 500 people in northern India.
His grandfather wanted his son and his young family to have a better life. They were living in a mud hut with no running water. If they needed to go to the bathroom they went out into an adjoining field on their farm where they grew sugar cane and wheat.
The family mortgaged the farm to pay for their son — Singh’s father — to travel to the United States.
At age 28 he started working as a farm laborer in the lettuce fields of Salinas in the early 1980s. Because he was an agricultural worker and because President Ronald Reagan has implemented the green card program he was able to stay in the United States.
Sam moved from the fields to a restaurant in San Jose. It was there that baking skills he learned while working for a period in Germany allowed him to get promoted to being a cook and allowing him to pay to bring his wife and then 3-year-old Gary to California.
Sam started working in various doughnut shops. He saved enough money that he was able to buy a shop with partners in Tracy aptly called the Tracy Doughnut Shop. The family rented a two bedroom apartment where altogether 12 people lived.
Sam labored from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. baking doughnuts and then worked until 2 p.m. selling them. After clean-up he had 5 hours to spend with his young family.
They bought a house in Lathrop for $90,000 that was a struggle for them to make payments. Gary went to Lathrop Elementary School while his dad worked and his mom worked at a Stockton cannery. It is a home they still own today.
Sam sold his share in the Tracy Doughnut Shop and bought the liquor store on East Yosemite Avenue in Manteca just west of Austin Road in 1989. Several years later he sold that store and bought Manteca Mart from Bob Miner who also owned the store on West Yosemite Avenue in the Lincoln Center that is anchored by Hafer’s. Miner eventually sold that store to Mike Morowit who up until two years ago served with Singh on the Manteca City Council.
Sam worked in Manteca Mart seven days a week while also working the weekend shift at the Pak-n-Sav bakery that was the forerunner of today’s Manteca Safeway store adjacent to Walmart. Sam would end up working nearly 24 hours non-stop on Saturdays and Sundays.
That allowed Sam to not only keep his business but to eventually acquire two smaller Manteca shopping centers.
Gary learned work ethic
from his father firsthand
Gary started working in the store as a third grader. He would drop by after school when his mom would bring food to his father.
“It was really the only way I could see my dad because of how hard he had to work,” Singh said.
Singh started out dusting and then stocking shelves. He remembers being so short that when he and his sister would stock the walk-in cooler they had to stand on overturned milk crates to reach the top shelves.
After Gary graduated from Sierra High in 2000 he was able to earn merit-based scholarships that covered half of the annual $15,000 tuition at the University of Pacific. Because of his family’s assets Gary did not qualify for state financial aid. He — along with his father — paid for the balance.
Gary would complete his classes and labs required for his double major and then do a shift at the store where for four years he could be seen reading textbooks at the counter between customers.
Sixth grade was turning
point for Gary Singh
The sixth grade was a turning point for Singh.
When his family moved from their shared Tracy apartment to the home they bought in Lathrop Singh transferred from McKinley School in Tracy to Lathrop Elementary School.
There his troubles accelerated. Not only was he struggling with English but the move to Lathrop came as the Gulf War broke out.
Because some other students assumed he was Middle Eastern and not Indian, he was the spit on, challenged to fights, called Saddam Hussein, and taunted as a “sand n------ (the N-word).”
He was often sent to the office where he was unable to explain his side of incidents to then principal — Mr. Souza — due to his limited English.
He was suspended several times, his attendance was spotty, and he was piling up failing grades in many of his classes.
The sixth grade was when things finally clicked for Singh who had managed to zero in on math — a subject he was able to understand and excel in.
It started a turnaround. From the sixth grade forward through graduating from Sierra High he never missed a day of school. Singh started pulling down “A”s and maintaining a 4.0 grade point average and Lobo Gold status all the way through Sierra High.
His scholastic achievements were good enough to secure merit-based scholarships that covered half of his college education.
“I don’t mind sharing my story (about grade school) because I believe it may be able to help kids who are struggling today,” Singh said.
Singh passes repeated
scrutiny after 2006 incident
Singh since 2006 has had no trouble passing extensive background checks by federal and state agencies needed to sell alcohol, to sell cigarettes, to sell lottery tickets and to sell real estate that he does on top of running the store and managing his family’s properties.
The only blemish on the family members’ records is the 2006 misdemeanor incident. They have numerous letters from the Alcoholic Beverage Control board congratulating them on passing various decoy efforts that failed to get them to sell alcohol to minors.
“We have never been cited for illegal sales of alcohol before (2006) or since then,” Singh noted.
When Singh decided to run for the Manteca City Council in 2016 after serving on the Manteca Planning Commission he secured the endorsement of the Manteca Police Officers Association whose members were aware of the DEA incident. He also was backed by the Manteca Professional Firefighters Association.
When he was elected in 2016 he became the youngest member on the council at age 33. If he is re-elected on Nov. 3, he would still be the youngest council member.
Singh believes the incident with the cold medicine strengthened him and made him more determined to serve the community to help other small businesses and people dealing with regulations and government issues.
Being able to stand on their own two feet and also help others at same time is a family strength.
Singh noted whenever his dad was struggling with the loss of a job he refused to file for unemployment or seek welfare assistance. Instead he hit the proverbial bricks and found whatever job he could get to support his family.
When Gary’s wife was laid off by Ross Stores in March due to the pandemic, she declined to file for unemployment benefits.
If he is asked why she hadn’t applied for unemployment, Singh tells people simply “we don’t need it.”
Singh serves on the HOPE Family Shelters advisory board, the Manteca Community Foundation, as well as Sikhs for Humanity and Sikhs for Manteca that are responsible for numerous outreach efforts suchness distributing thousands of free masks and bottles of hand sanitizer and helping feed wildfire victims and other efforts.
Singh stresses that he admits to selling cold medicine while noting he wasn’t aware of the law. Since then the federal government has stepped up its efforts to make it clear to retailers what is expected when it comes to selling items containing pseudoephedrine.
His family has opted not to carry any products with pseudoephedrine since 2006.
Singh said the entire ordeal took a toll on his family but they have chosen to deal with it and keep moving on.
As far of those that are slamming him on social media, Singh said he has no qualms to answer questions anyone asks him about the incident face-to-face.
“I’m not ashamed of my past,” Singh said. “I’m willing to answer any questions about it.”
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com