A year ago, before the hotel deal with President Donald Trump’s sons fell apart, Dinesh Chawla had become a Delta celebrity, courted by wealth managers, other potential business partners and the nation’s leading newspaper.

Dinesh Chawla

Chawla

“I’m the same person, but people look at me in a different way,” Chawla told The New York Times for a 2,500-word profile it published in July 2018.

The same may be true today but for different reasons, following Chawla’s Aug. 22 arrest on two felony counts for allegedly stealing luggage from the Memphis airport’s baggage claim.

Released following his arrest on a $5,000 bond, Chawla will have to return to Memphis Sept. 30 for a hearing in General Sessions Court.

Contacted by email Thursday, Chawla declined to comment.

The report of the arrest of the 56-year-old CEO of Greenwood-based Chawla Hotels was originally aired by a Memphis television station on Aug. 23, but in subsequent days more details have been provided.

The New York Times reported earlier this week that, according to police records, airport security cameras on Aug. 18 captured Chawla removing another passenger’s suitcase from a baggage claim carousel and putting it in his car before taking a flight.

While he was away, police found that suitcase in a search of Chawla’s car and a second piece of luggage that had been taken from the airport a month earlier.

The luggage and their contents are valued at about $4,000.

Quoting from the police records, the Times said that Chawla, who was arrested after flying back into Memphis, admitted to stealing the two bags as well as other luggage “over a long period of time.”

Chawla allegedly told an officer “that he knows stealing luggage is wrong, but he does it for thrill and excitement,” the Times said the arrest report states.

The crime has left people who know Chawla and his younger brother, Suresh, scratching their heads in disbelief that a highly educated executive in Mississippi’s largest hotel company would allegedly commit such a low — and seemingly easily detected — crime.

“I’m just hoping that there is something we don’t know, and it will all turn out to be something that blows away,” said Larry Griggs, a former fire chief in Greenwood.

Griggs said he first got to know the Chawla brothers in 1981, four years after their Indian immigrant family had moved to Greenwood. Dinesh, then a student at Greenwood High School, and his brother would help out at the convenience store their parents, Dr. V.K. and Chander Chawla, operated on U.S. 82, about a block from the high school.

Griggs, at that time a night manager at a catfish-processing facility, and his girlfriend and later wife, Gail, would frequent Jackie’s Food Center to play its Pac-Man arcade game.

Griggs said he was shocked when he first heard about Dinesh Chawla’s arrest.

“It doesn’t seem like the character of Dinesh,” Griggs said, recalling that as a teenager Dinesh seemed like the more studious and reserved of the two brothers.

Dinesh went to Tulane University and Suresh to Millsaps College, and then both earned master’s degrees in business from Millsaps. Six years apart in age, the brothers returned to the Delta after finishing their schooling. Dinesh settled in Cleveland and Suresh in Greenwood, helping their father, now deceased, expand a hotel business that began in 1989 with a Comfort Inn in Greenwood.

The brothers today either solely or jointly own 17 hotels in the Delta, with another under construction in Cleveland, The Lyric.

They made national news in 2017 when it was announced that they were partnering with Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. on four hotels in Mississippi, including converting The Lyric to the flagship property of a new four-star Scion brand.

The Trumps and Chawlas amicably parted company earlier this year when the business arrangement fell through, a collapse that Eric Trump blamed on the political climate.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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