Kochi: A heap of bones, a malleolar screw and its washer, a small ball of hair, a piece of cloth, three currency notes, a rope, a blue-coloured plastic barrel, some concrete pieces, a silver girdle and a few bricks. This is no crossword puzzle but a murder case's material evidence given to Kochi's Sherlock Holmes, also known as Siby Tom. Who is the dead? Man or woman? No clue.
After a look at the barrel and the other items, Ernakulam south station circle inspector Siby did not say “Elementary” in true Sir Arthur Conan Doyle style. Because, there was nothing simple about this murder and even Holmes would have found it difficult to crack.
In an exclusive interview to Onmanorama, Siby revealed the multi-layered murder plot and the investigation into the now infamous 'Barrel Case' of Kerala.
THE BARREL MYSTERY
Malayala Manorama newspaper on January 8, 2018 reported that a concrete-filled barrel with a foul smell was spotted at Panangad lake near Maradu in Kerala's Ernakulam district. Local people had noticed it after the stink became unbearable. Panangad police broke the barrel and retrieved bones and parts of a body from the concrete. The investigation was immediately handed over to Ernakulam south circle inspector's office and a murder case under Section 302 was registered. Siby formed a team of four cops — ASI Sivankutty, civil policeman Anil Kumar and senior civil police officer Anil Kumar — on January 10 to probe the case.
The body was sent to Kalamassery Medical College for autopsy where forensic surgeon Dr N K Unmesh examined the barrel with concrete and bones.
Several pieces of bones, a cloth piece, three Rs 500 and one Rs 100 currency notes, an undergarment, a silver girdle and long, thick, black locks of hair measuring 50cm in length were found in the barrel. The investigation team first accepted the surgeon's suggestion that the body would be that of either a teenaged girl or a young man who grew his hair. However, the short built of the skeleton and narrow jawbone later helped them come to the conclusion that the body was of a young woman aged between 15 and 25. Also, the Rs 500 notes indicated that murder was committed before Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared demonetization on November 8, 2016.
SCREW NAILS THE MURDERER
The autopsy took three days as the forensic team had to recreate the skeleton and examine each bone. On January 11, Dr Unmesh rang up Siby to tell him about a malleolar screw and a washer on the body's left ankle. These screws are used for fixing ankle fractures. The surgeon also noticed that something is written on the head of the screw but not legible. He sought a police photographer's help and a high resolution camera decoded the mysterious scribbling. The 6.5 X 2.5 cm screw's manufacturer is 'PITKAR', a Pune-based company, and the batch number is 11.9.081. The medical devices manufacturing company has only one dealer in Kerala — Esquire Surgicals in Elamkulam, Kochi.
Soon five teams were set up and they were asked to collect details about patients who underwent ankle surgery for fractures in Kochi. The teams visited Vaikom, Fort Kochi, Aluva, Alappuzha and Kodungallur.
“We sought the details of malleolar screw implant surgeries conducted in 2016 only. After the barrel was spotted on January 8, 2018, some local fishermen had told police that they saw the barrel drowned in the lake back in September, 2016. So we concluded that the murder was committed in 2016 itself," said Siby.
When police tracked down the batch number of the screw, it was detected that Pitkar manufactured 161 such screws in the same batch number. “It was also found that 155 of them were sold in Maharashtra and Gujarat. So there was a chance that the victim was a migrant labourer or the murder was committed somewhere in the western part of India,” the cop added.
The probe teams finally zeroed in on the six persons who underwent the surgery in Kerala and came up with three women's names — Shakunthala, 60, Surya, 26 and Sony, 43 — who were treated at Vijaya Kumara Menon Hospital at Thrippunithura, near Kochi.
The team learned from the hospital records that the batch number and dimensions of the screw matched perfectly with the one implanted on Shakunthala, a native of Udayamperoor, near Thrippunithura, in Ernakulam district.
Using the method of reasoning, the Kochi Holmes contacted Aswathy, the name given in the contact person's column in hospital records. Aswathy turned out to be Shakunthala's daughter but both of them were not on good terms. When asked why she didn't file a complaint when her mother went missing, Aswathy revealed that she was not in touch with her mother for several years after she eloped with Sudhi, a youth from Udayamperoor in Ernakulam district.
Aswathy returned to her mother after she divorced Sudhi in 2016 and started living with T M Sajith from Thrippunithura, an employee of Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, posted in Ernakulam. Her two children from the first marriage also came along.
To the cops' surprise, she said Sajith had also died of cardiac arrest on January 9, the very next day after the barrel story appeared in the newspaper.
Aswathy was soon subjected to a DNA test, which matched with the bones collected from the barrel. Police also sought blood samples of Damodaran, Shakunthala's former husband and Aswathy's father. After months of investigation, finally, police came to the conclusion that it was Shakunthala who was murdered.
HIDDEN SECRETS OF SHAKUNTHALA
Right from birth Shakunthala was a woman of mystery. Nobody knows who were her parents. One Saraswathy Amma, mother of three girls, found her as a six-month-old baby on the steps of Valiyakulam pond at Udayamperoor. Saraswathy Amma raised her as her fourth daughter and married her off to Damodaran, a local BJP worker. The couple was blessed with a son, Anoop, and daughter Aswathy. Damodaran was later convicted in a political murder case and sentenced to life imprisonment. Shakunthala raised the children on her own. Anoop committed suicide in 2012 as he was bedridden for long following a road accident.
Aswathy eloped with Sudhi in 2008, leaving Shakunthala alone at home. She started selling lottery tickets on a scooter.
A lorry hit Shakunthala's scooter on September 1, 2016 at Thammanam, injuring her ankle. She was admitted to VKM Hospital at Thrippunithura and the screw was implanted on her ankle. She was discharged from the hospital on September 15 even though her left leg was in plaster.
On September 19, 2016, four days after Shakunthala came home from the hospital, she was diagnosed with chicken pox. Fearing infection, Aswathy along with her children moved out of the house to a nearby lodge. When they returned home on September 26, Shakunthala was missing. Sajith told Aswathy that her mother was handed over to safe hands.
Aswathy couldn't question Sajith as their relationship was her need. So she kept mum, thinking that her mother must have gone to New Delhi to live with some missionary nurses of her acquaintance.
Aswathy continued to live with Sajith and did not bother about her mother's mysterious disappearance.
Police believe that Sajith killed Shakunthala during the week of September 19-26 and dumped the body upside down in the plastic barrel after tying it with a rope and filled it with concrete and bricks. Later, he disposed of the barrel in the lake with the help of some friends. However, police are still in the dark about the exact time of the murder, weapon used or the way she was killed. Only Sajith knew that.
By the time Aswathy returned to Shakunthala's home after separating from Sudhi, she had an affair with Sajith, who occasionally visited Shakunthala's house.
Their neighbours were not aware that Sajith and Aswathy had not legally tied the knot. The biggest surprise was Sajith had a wife, Sariga, at his home in Thrippunithura. Apparently, Shakunthala had found out that Sajith was having an extramarital affair with Aswathy and he had another wife at home. She even threatened Sajith that she would inform Sariga about his relationship with Aswathy.
BARREL OF DEATH
Police had kept a close watch on Sajith's friends after Shakunthala's identity was established. The team finally zeroed in on Suresh, an autorickshaw driver who gave Sajith the plastic barrel. Suresh told cops that Sajith had asked for the barrel to store water at his mother-in-law's home. He said it was during the Onam season of 2016. This coincided with the time Aswathy and children moved out of Shakunthala's house.
Police also detained four of Sajith's friends who admitted to have helped him dispose of a barrel full of animal waste in the lake. Mahesh, owner of a pick-up van, told police that Sajith had sought his help to dispose of a barrel in September 2016. Sajith had told Mahesh the animal waste was stored to make iridium from the bones.
“Four of us went to the house at Udayamperoor and found this barrel. Sajith said it was illegal to make iridium at home and the barrel should be disposed of in the night without inviting any attention. We scolded him for getting into such trouble and dumped the barrel in the lake from a cliff. Sajith also withdrew some money from a nearby ATM,” Mahesh told police.
Police tracked the ATM transaction date from Sajith's bank account and found that it was on September 24, 2016.
“No arrests have been recorded so far in this case. Sajith is dead and Aswathy claims that she didn't know about the murder. Mahesh and the three others helped Sajith to dispose of the dead body without knowing about it. Now, Aswathy will have to undergo a polygraph test. We have given an application for that,” said Siby Tom of Poonjar.
Sajith's wife Sariga's life is also typical Bollywood style story. Her mother Vasanthi (name changed) had eloped with her lover 30 years ago. She was abandoned by her family and her husband left her when she was eight months pregnant. She decided to jump off a bridge. But destiny had something else in store. An autorickshaw driver, Ayyappan (name changed), spotted the pregnant woman near a bridge on a rainy night and stopped her. He took Vasanthi to his home and later married her. He raised Vasanthi's first daughter and married her off. Sariga was born later. Sariga fell in love with Sajith when she was 15 years old. Ayyappan arranged Sariga-Sajith wedding as soon as she turned 18. The couple had been childless for eight years.
Sajith had once taken Sariga and his mother to Aswathy's house when Shakunthala had threatened him to reveal his extramarital affair. Sajith convinced Sariga that Aswathy was a destitute woman struggling to raise her children. Sariga thought he had some special affection for the children and he wanted to support their studies.
However, after a series of fertility treatments, Sariga got pregnant in June 2017. Two months after Sajith's death, Sariga gave birth to a baby girl in March, 2018.
Sariga came to know about her husband's love affair and his role in the murder when she was admitted in a private hospital for delivery. Families of Sariga and Sajith had no clue about his involvement in the murder when they read about the barrel murder in newspapers.
Sajith's sudden death has also raised several eyebrows in the probe team. Commenting on it, Siby Tom says though the autopsy has stated the reason of death as cardiac arrest, chances are high that he committed suicide with the help of some chemicals.
He also said Surgeon Dr Unmesh's contribution in cracking the case was immense. He is the person who spotted the malleolar screw and helped the cops track down the victim. Unmesh is the same surgeon who was suspended for not supporting the prosecution theory in the infamous Soumya rape and murder case in 2011. (Eventually, the Supreme Court had commuted accused Govindachamy's death sentence to life term.)
Speculations about Shakunthala winning a lottery and Sajith killing her for the money were not substantiated by any evidence, the officer added.
Siby says that it is the first time that he handled such a complicated case. "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," says the 21st century Sherlock Holmes.
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