Vancouver gangster Ranj Cheema had survived assassination attempts and hard time in a California prison.
But just three months after returning to B.C. from serving his U.S. sentence for international drug smuggling, he died in a hail of bullets on the streets of south Vancouver that he once controlled.
Cheema, 43, was born in the tiny Punjab village of Cheema Khurd in 1968.
His dad Malkit moved the family to England for a better life, and then to Canada when Cheema was just 10.
Ranjit worked in Fraser Valley fields picking berries with his mom until he was about 15, he said in a letter to the California court in August 2008.
“I worked at janitorial jobs at night for a few hours while going to high school,” he said in his letter. “My father was an alcoholic throughout my growing up life…..When he drank on weekends, he was violent and abusive toward the family.”
He said he learned to value money and worked hard as a bouncer and a trucker while studying criminal justice at college. He wanted to be a cop, he said.
His life changed, he claimed in his letter, when he was shot randomly in August 1995.
“Following my release from the hospital, I fell into a deep depression,
suffering from post – traumatic stress syndrome. I started self-medicating by drinking and using cocaine. I started hanging around the wrong kind of people,” he said.
Police, on the other hand, say Cheema was already well-entrenched in gang life when he was shot in at Zodiac Karaoke club in Richmond. He was with Robbie Kandola – a gangster later gunned down in a hit believed to have been ordered by Cheema.
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He had been already convicted of shooting off a gun outside a southwest Marine Drive nightclub. And he was described in May 1995 at the trial of his late associate Bindy Johal as a major drug distributor, involved in cocaine trafficking with Johal.
In 1998, he was charged in the U.S. with being the head of an international drug smuggling operation plotting to ship heroin from Pakistan to California to exchange for cocaine through his Colombian connection. He fought extradition for years, but lost all his appeals and was sent to the U.S. in 2008.
He eventually admitted his guilt but pleaded for leniency through his letter and a series of others supporting him. Even former Surrey MP Sukh Dhaliwal wrote to the judge on behalf of the admitted drug smuggler, raising eyebrows when he sent the letter on official government stationary.
Cheema was also at a May 2000 wedding on Vancouver’s westside attended by then premier Ujjal Dosanjh. The wedding was marred when Cheema’s bodyguard Mike Brar was gunned down outside. The killer was never found.
Vancouver South MLA and former Solicitor General Kash Heed, a Vancouver Police officer for 31 years, knew Cheema well for his criminal ties.
“I have known Ranj Cheema for over 20 years. I first knew him when I was a constable in the Vancouver gang crime unit when we were trying to put a lid on some of the Asian based gangs and Los Diablos,” Heed said Wednesday. ” He was pumped up on steroids back then. He was very aggressive and you knew at that time that like many gangsters he was going to end up in jail… an addict or you end up dead. And unfortunately, 20 years later he is dead.”
He said Cheema went from a “street thug to more of a mature organized crime figure.”
Heed said Cheema survived longer than most in the life. He seemed to want to change after he got married and had his daughter in 2004.
But others said that since coming back to Vancouver, Cheema was making moves to get back into the drug trade. He knew no other way.
“Once you get involved in that activity and you realize it is that lucrative, it is hard to get out of it,” Heed said. “And he is out of it now because he is dead. It is the end of one era,but I can tell you it is the beginning of another era. You don’t get into this business and not have enemies… I am sure he has crossed paths with many of the people that are now dead.”