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Hit-and-run fugitive arrested in India

Four years after being convicted for a deadly horror crash in Melbourne, fugitive Puneet Puneet is arrested near his home in India and is due to face an extradition hearing.

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Puneet Puneet, the Indian fugitive hit-run driver who skipped out on justice in Australia four years ago and had eluded police ever since, was finally caught Friday, barely forty kilometres from his family home.

Puneet, now 24, fled Australia in 2009 after he was convicted, but before he was sentenced, for a horror smash on City Road in Southbank that killed 19-year-old Dean Hofstee and seriously injured his friend Clancy Cloker.

Puneet, also 19 at the time, was driving at 150kmh at 1am, and initially told police he had sore eyes and had swerved to miss a cat on the road.

Puneet Puneet after being bailed from the Magistrates Court in 2008.

Puneet Puneet after being bailed from the Magistrates Court in 2008. Photo: Angela Wylie

He later admitted he had been drinking with workmates in Nunawading, after registering a blood-alcohol reading of 0.165.

He pleaded guilty to culpable driving and was due to be sentenced but fled the country on a passport he got from a friend who was later jailed for perverting the course of justice.

Indian and Australian police have since endured four fruitless years searching for the man, who was hiding within a country of 1.2 billion people where false identity cards and papers are easily procured.

Victim... Dean Hoftsee

Victim... Dean Hoftsee

Indian police took out ads in local newspapers urging people to come forward with information and monitored his immediate family – even tapping their phones. But Puneet carefully avoided making any contact.

Victoria Police last year offered a reward of $100,000 or more than five million Indian rupees - an extraordinary amount of money in a country where the average annual salary is about $1000 – for leads that led to his arrest.

Fairfax understands no-one will be eligible for the money, and that Puneet was caught by police sharing intelligence about his possible movements.

On Friday, police in the state of Punjab, neighbouring his home state of Haryana, arrested him in the city of Rajpura, barely 40 kilometres away from his parents’ home in Panchkula, Haryana.

A senior police source in Panchkula told Fairfax: “Punjab police caught him. He was caught in Rajpura. We knew he was connected with people in Rajpura, a family living there, and we passed that information to Punjab police’’.

Puneet had apparently been living a normal life in his new city, working and going out.

Fairfax understands he had previously lived for a time in Noida, on the outskirts of the Indian capital Delhi, where he worked in a call centre.

It’s not known if he was living under an assumed name.

Inspector Bikramjeet Singh of Rajpura police confirmed Puneet’s arrest. The 24-year-old is now in Patiala prison, and will face an extradition hearing.

He is almost certain to be extradited to Australia. Indian authorities have indicated they have no opposition to Australia’s claim, and in January 2011, a treaty came into force between Australia and India allowing for the extradition of “any persons who are wanted for trial, or the imposition or enforcement of a sentence… for an extraditable offence”.

The new treaty means Australia does not have to prove Puneet’s guilt to Indian authorities, only “reasonably establish that the person sought has committed the offence”.

Dean’s mother, Fran, told Fairfax Media that Puneet’s arrest had opened up old wounds for her family.

“We’re quite shocked and shaken-up by the suddenness of it all,” she said.

“There is a feeling of relief, but for us it is happening all over again.”

She said the family was ‘‘never 100 per cent sure” Puneet would ever be captured and hearing news of his arrest was ‘‘unreal’’.

“For us to function in our everyday lives we’ve had to put it to one side.”

Ms Hofstee said she was “very grateful” to both the Australian and Indian authorities, who had fulfilled their promise to her of following Dean’s case through to its conclusion.

“None of us expected to hear anything – it’s been over five years and India is a big place,” she said.

She added the family was still deciding if they would be present in court once Puneet is extradited to Australia