VANCOUVER - Police say he was a master of deception for 12 years, until one of his most basic traits gave him away.
When Ninderjit Singh fled Vancouver just hours after his ex-girlfriend was murdered in 1999, he was a clean-shaven, slender and muscular young man.
But there were no doubts from investigators after they spotted the truck driver in Southern California last Friday, despite weighing a hefty 300 pounds and sporting a large and bushy beard.
Thumbprints gathered by a highway patrol officer — who had been dispatched as part of a sting operation to pull over the man's big rig and to issue a ticket — confirmed the 33-year-old's identity.
He was the long-sought suspect in the shooting death of 18-year-old Poonam Randhawa, whose body was found dumped in a laneway near her high school.
"When shown his original picture to his wife, she said, 'Well, that's not my husband,'" Insp. Brad Desmarais, with the Vancouver police force, told a news conference on Tuesday. "But it is, because fingerprints matched."
Singh was arrested as he was driving away from his home in Riverside County, Calif., about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, with his wife and two young children in tow.
Police said he had used several aliases over the years since they put out a warrant for his arrest in connection with Randhawa's first-degree murder. They said he used a fake identity to acquire a U.S. Social Security number.
He was featured on America's Most Wanted more than a decade ago.
Yet when they tracked him down last week, he "immediately confirmed" his real identity and stated he was aware he was wanted on the charges in Canada, Desmarais said.
Singh's capture concludes one of the longest manhunts in the force's history, he noted.
"This was a very, very targeted investigation. We weren't sitting on our hands waiting for a lucky break, we were actively hunting this guy."
Randhawa was found shot in the head two days after her 18th birthday. Police allege she had been stalked by Singh, and had even transferred schools to escape his advances.
"This has been an extraordinarily difficult decade for the family," Desmarais said, noting the woman's parents had lost a son to illness just three years earlier.
She was described as having a bright smile and bubbly spirit.
"The family is still in a state of grief and we're respecting their wish for privacy. But they are relieved."
A statement from the Randhawa family, released by police late Tuesday, said they are pleased the suspect is in custody and also asked for time and space to process the developments.
"We are forever grateful to the Vancouver Police for never giving up on us over the past twelve years," said the statement.
"Thank you also to the American authorities for all their cooperation. We hope he will be extradited in a timely manner."
Police say the man flew from Seattle to Los Angeles, where he had family connections, on the same day the woman was slain.
They were certain they had caught up to him in a San Jose apartment in 2000, but believe he realized he was being watched and fled before arrest. On several other occasions they were narrowly out-manoeuvred.
U.S. Homeland Security agents moved in again about two weeks ago, after getting information from Vancouver homicide detectives.
"I can't remember when any announcement has ever given me this much pleasure," said Deputy Chief Warren Lemcke. "We got him."
Police wouldn't describe exactly what information led them to discover Singh's hideout because the case will be going before the courts. However, they alleged the man's family — who live in both Canada and the U.S. — helped him "evade justice."
Police are still examining whether any charges are warranted against those individuals, Desmarais said.
"Right now we're kind of basking in the glow of having this guy back in Canada."
The investigation has cost the force more than $500,000.
Singh is now in custody awaiting extradition from Los Angeles.