Sonali Desai

Mean streets

Chetana Belagere

Pages from a crime reporter’s diary

[Chetana has reported on crime for several media organisations. She narrates some of the unforgettable experiences in her career.]

It’s the unlucky ones you remember
You take the wrong turn; you walk down the wrong street; you bump into the wrong person; you get into the wrong car. Through no fault of your own, you are just unlucky. Afterwards, if you survive, you try to rationalise things, ask yourself why what happened to you happened. Was it your fault? Did you look at that person the wrong way? Did you not see the warning signs? Did you not listen to your instinct? But the reality is occasionally there is no explanation bar the obvious one: you were just unlucky.

Sometimes crime is just horrifically random.

It would be comforting in a way if there was a logical explanation for every major crime committed in this country. I remember a few years ago talking to a senior police officer who told me something very interesting over a coffee. We were chatting about the murder rate and he told me that there had been a certain number of killings in Bangalore the previous year. I can’t be more precise at the moment as some of the cases are still sub judice, but let’s say there were 90 murders that year. He asked me in how many of them did I think there was no link, of any sort, between the victim and the aggressor. By link he meant mother, husband, friend, neighbour, or even the fact that the victim was in one rowdy gang and the killer was linked to another. I guessed, not unreasonably in my opinion, about 40.

The answer was actually six.

In only six cases that year had the officer been unable to find a link of any kind between the victim and the aggressor. So, in other words, there were only six murders by linked people in Bengaluru that year. Of which four were women and two were men.

So all the rest were unlucky. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time when the killer took them. They’d never met their killer before, never even laid eyes on him. They were all random murders. The killers could have chosen any woman in each case: their victims were just unlucky.

The whole idea of the randomness was brought home to me, again, while reading this truly horrible case. The poor victim was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She bid good bye to her husband got into a taxi, was on her way to office for the night shift.  It was just her horrendous, truly horrendous, luck that a beast was waiting for a woman in the cab. The ordeal he subjected the woman to is simply unimaginable.

I know people sometimes read about rapes like this, or a murder, and search for a rational explanation. Understandably, they try to attach meaning to the meaningless because they don’t want to believe that it could happen to them or their loved ones.

I’ve covered too many random murders and rapes to even think of rationalising them. The suffering of the victim in these cases is, of course, not any more valid than the suffering of people who knew their killer or know their rapist. But, for some reason, it is these random attacks that stay with me. I know they’ll stay with me forever. It must be the whole idea that, but for a bit of fate, the victims’ lives would have been so completely different.

And it’s particularly bad when it comes to young people. Young kids who had so much hope in their eyes, cruelly snuffed out because of bad luck.

I think of Pratibha Srikantamurthy a lot. Even now, years after her murder, I can still see her face as I type. Look at the photographs of her, you can see the bright light of hope in her eyes. She literally has her whole life ahead of her as she smiles, innocently, at the camera. If she had lived, she’d be a happy mother by now. But no. Her life was snuffed out just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A

December 13, 2005. On that night, Prathibha, who was on the 3 a.m. shift, was picked up by Shiva Kumar, who called her on her mobile phone, saying that he, and not the regular driver, was assigned to pick her up; took her address; and arrived at her gate around 2 a.m. Once inside the car, she called her husband of 11 months, Pavan Shetty, to tell him that she was on her way to work. The car sped in a direction away from her work spot, and Shiva Kumar explained that he had to pick up another employee.

Meanwhile, the `regular’ driver Jagadish telephoned to say that he would be outside her house in a few minutes. On being informed that she had already been picked up, Jagadish offered to speak to the driver (on Prathibha’s cellular phone). Shiva Kumar informed Jagadish that he was the driver of route “405” and that he had been assigned to pick up HP employees from the areas in the vicinity of Prathibha’s house.

Shiva Kumar then allegedly took Prathibha to an isolated place, threatened her at knife-point and tried to molest her. When she resisted, he dragged her into a ditch, raped her and slit her throat. He gave her a brutal death, stripping her of all dignity, before throwing her in the bush.

In yet another case, Suhas S T, a young engineer had a great future ahead of him. He came from a decent family in Rajasthan and wanted to be an architect. He was on the airport road with his girlfriend and had just said good night to her when another youngster—younger than him—offerred a lift to drop him back home. He agreed and stepped into the car and just few minutes later was robbed of his mobile. He died after being stabbed in the struggle.

Two vibrant, optimistic, people gone. No explanation. No reason.

They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The case of Bengaluru’s own ‘Shah Jahan’
Interesting and funny! I laughed my guts out when I learned how this story had turned out three years after I wrote it. It had only been about 10 days since I had stepped into Vijay Times as a reporter. I was in that phase when I would jump off my seat even for a story that sounded mildly curious. So here comes a source who said, ‘Madam, I know a man in Bengaluru who has built a Taj Mahal for his wife.’ A Shah Jahan in Bengaluru – needless to say, I was thrilled! As I set out to report on it, I was sure in my mind that it would make it to the front page, my first.

And so it was that I met Muniyappa, a 51 year old ITI employee who showed me a beautiful looking white stone clad monument which more or less looked like the Taj. He showed me the picture of his wife Gowramma whom he claimed had loved truly and whom  he referred to as “the goddess who transformed me from a wayward alcoholic to a responsible family man. A person who gave new meaning to our married life. I swore by her love.”

I was impressed. Here was a Shah Jahan right here in Bengaluru, was what I thought. Muniyappa went on. Gowramma had once jokingly asked him, he said, “How will you show your love for me after I am dead?” “I’ll build a Taj Mahal in your memory,” he had said fiercely to her then.

It seemed someone up there seemed to like the idea. Because only months later, 27-year-old Gowramma died tragically in a motorbike accident. Life lost all its meaning for Muniyappa. ‘Afflicted’ by the loss of his beloved, he stopped going to work altogether. But when memories of their time together rushed in to drown him, he recalled his promise to build a Taj for her. It became his only mission in life.

He then immediately applied for a voluntary retirement. Armed with gratuity, provident fund and other benefits which came to about Rs 2 lakh, he set out to prove his dedication to his promise. Muniyappa decided to build the Taj Mahal on a 40×40 plot in the graveyard near his house in Ramamurthy Nagar on the outskirts of Bengaluru. He took six months to build the ‘monument’ of his dreams.

But very soon, Muniyappa realised that Rs 2 lakh was nowhere near enough to complete the task. Unfazed, he turned to the real estate business, where he thought he could make some quick money without making any investment. Through sheer grit and determination, he succeeded in selling houses and earned enough to complete the task. After six years of unrelenting pursuit, his dream became a reality on January 14, 1998.

There was more. So that he would not lose sight of his goal, Muniyappa had not shaved in all those years. “The beard reminded me of the promise I had to keep to my beloved,” he told me. Only when the ‘Taj’ was finally unveiled on Vijayanapura grounds did he shave off his beard. “One day, I will be re-united with her,” he told me with a wistful expression.

Naturally, the story created a sensation and I was appreciated by most people in the office, while others envied my getting a byline on page 1 barely weeks after I joined work.

Little did I know what lay ahead in the saga of Bengaluru’s own Shah Jahan. Three years after the report appeared, I had to visit Rammurthy Nagar for a crime story and I remembered the Taj Mahal and Muniyappa’s love for his wife. I immediately called his residence to find out if he could meet me.

A few ring later, a lady answered the call. This is Muniyappa’s wife and he has gone out. Any Message?” she asked. I was taken aback. Later inquiries revealed a very different story than the one I had imagined. Just a few months after completing his ‘Taj’ in memory of his dear departed wife, Muniyappa had married her sister, who also happened to be his childhood sweetheart! Not really a Shah Jahan, is he?

“Please. No. Please. Just go away!”
Your heart is beating so ferociously it feels like it is about to leap through your ribcage. Your mouth is dry. Your knees are weak. As you walk up to the door, you are silently praying for two things to happen. First, you are hoping the person on the other side of the door will talk to you. Next, you’re hoping they will pass on the chance to give you a damn good kicking.

Welcome to ‘the doorstep’ – the worst point in any journalist’s job.

Some reporters can’t do it. They simply cannot walk up to a house and ask to speak to whoever is inside, particularly if it is a story about someone who has just been murdered and you are hoping to persuade their family to speak to you. Who can blame them? It’s a tough gig.

I did my first one, almost nine years ago for the daily Vijay Times. It was my first day at work and my chief reporter Roja Kandath asked:”So why do you want to cover crime? Just because your father has good contacts?” I didn’t know what to say. I just said, “I think I can manage to get better contacts than him.” She immediately sent me to a story.

I had to approach the family of a man who was stabbed by some local goons. I was terrified. Naturally, the family said no to my timid approach. I must have done hundreds of doorsteps since then. It doesn’t get any easier. I still get terrified every time I knock on the door.

It could be approaching a family whose child was killed in an accident a day earlier. It could be confronting a rapist, back in the community after serving his time for committing horrendous crimes against women. It could be approaching the family of a high school girl who killed herself for the fear of failing in her exams.

Approaching a house where people are coming to terms with a tragedy – or who really, really don’t want to talk to a reporter – is as scary as it gets. It is scary because you are worried you might just get beaten to a pulp. It is also scary because, when you are approaching good people to whom something bad has just happened, you are terrified they will look at you with nothing but contempt, before asking you how you can do your job and sleep at night.

Sometimes, as you approach the door you hope no-one is there, that your knock will go unanswered. That you can go back to the office and say you tried.

You arrive at the door. You take a deep breath. You knock. After a few seconds, the door opens. Now it is all about who is on the other side of the door, or rather, about how they will react. You can usually tell before they even say a word. You know by their body language whether they are going to talk to you or not. Sometimes they politely decline. Sometimes they chase you away, spit at you, threaten you or even try to hit you. Sometimes you wish they had hit you, rather than say what they said to you. A punch would have been less painful.

A day after four persons including a 18-year-old were massacred in their homes in a village near Channarayapatna, I was sent there for ETV’s Crime Diary. I had to doorstep each family to see if they would talk.

The man who answered the door, who I can only assume was the young boy’s father, said something that has stayed with me – haunted me – to this day. I told him I was a journalist, that I was sorry for his loss and asked if I could speak to him. He looked at me, shocked and appalled, and appealed to me to go away. “Please. No. Please. Just go away. Please. Dont you realise I have lost the man of my house. He was my only son. How would you feel if it was your brother who was killed?” I apologised and walked away.

This taught me one thing: if people want to talk, they will. If they don’t, nothing you can do can persuade them. I have a rule; if someone says no, I don’t go back and ask a second time. It is pointless and just causes the family more anguish.

But sometimes people do talk.

Sometimes they bring you, a complete stranger, into their house, sit you down and talk to you about the loved one they have just lost. I used to wonder why they did. I would tell whatever photographer I was with that if a reporter ever called to my door, I would chase them away. The photographer usually agreed – but then they don’t really like reporters.

But then, after several years, I realised why so many of them opened the door, let me in and let it all out. In April 2004, my own uncle, Srinivas Murthy, Trimmy uncle we called him, committed suicide at his residence. I was at the Victoria hospital mortuary watching his body being cut and doctor explaining to me how to identify if it is a suicide etc. When it happened, all I wanted to do was talk about it. To anybody who would listen. I realised there and then why some people speak to me and other reporters when death knocks: they just like to get it out. Sometimes it helps to talk to a complete stranger.

And sometimes seeing the face of your loved one on the front page of any newspaper gives validation to the victim. That they counted. That they were important. That they were necessary.

It is the worst part of being a crime reporter. Sitting there as a mother tells you how much she will miss her son. Trying awkwardly to comfort her when she breaks down in tears. Hoping the ground will swallow you up when a father reacts angrily to your request for an interview.

This is not an appeal for pity: the feelings of a hack are nothing, less than nothing, in comparison to the suffering of those he or she writes about.

I’m just trying to show what it is like to be a crime correspondent in Bengaluru today. I want to talk about crime and what it is like to report on it. Being a crime reporter today is the most interesting, the most frightening, the most exciting, the most rewarding and most challenging of jobs. Read on and you’ll know why…

The problem with ‘sources’
He sees me just before I see him. I’m trudging to the gate of the commissioner’s office; he’s walking towards me, sandwiched between two fellow policemen. He’s chatting away with his buddies, but he’s looking in my direction. We’re only 50 feet or so away from each other. He’s laughing, but I can see his eyes nervously darting towards me, then away, then back. Then away again. And his buddies are looking at me a bit too intently for my liking. Do they know? Have they found out? Or are they just thinking “there’s that prick”?

This is not good. I haven’t told anybody. But has he? I can feel the blood rushing to my face as the space between us is eaten up. What’ll I do? Ignore him? Raise my eyebrows subtly as we pass – hoping that nobody notices? Do I just say hello? Don’t be ridiculous. God, what if he says hello to me? I could just turn tail and run…He’s only 20 feet away from me now. This is tricky. Very tricky. I make the wrong decision and we’re finished. Think, for God’s sake, think! They’re only a few feet away now. They become quiet as they near us.
Then, from somewhere, an idea: a coward’s way out.

Just a few paces before we draw level, I bend down and pretend to pick my wallet. In an instant, they are past me. Nothing is said. I get up, shake the dust off my knee and walk in to commissioner’s press conference. As I enter the packed and claustrophobic hall, my mobile phone vibrates silently. I take it out of my pocket, look at the message: “Dat ws close. Gud tinkin madam!” I smile to myself, happy. Relieved.

Welcome to the world of trying to keep your contacts secret.
Political reporters can be seen having meetings with ministers’ PAs; business journalists go for expensive lunches with their confidantes in the poshest restaurants. And don’t even start me off about entertainment reporters…

Crime reporters, on the other hand, ignore some of their best friends when they walk past them in the street.

You could be standing beside one of your best contacts, say at the back of a police station, and nobody would have a clue. Absolutely nobody. Above all, you never name your contacts in your copy. It’s all about keeping things as vague as possible to protect your people. They could be jailed, fined, and sacked if anyone found out, so you’ve got to do everything you can to keep the relationship a secret. In your copy, you’ll say “sources”, or “insiders”. You won’t even write “police” or “underworld sources” – you have to keep it as vague as possible.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to name every informant who gave you information for your story. Look at America. Cops there are happy to tell you everything you need to know about a case. They’ll even spell out their name for you, so it goes in the paper properly. In many cases, reporters actually work out of police stations and are given the same incident reports that the local chief of police receives. Anyway, you’re not looking for something that will wreck an investigation: all you want is information that will give your readers the impression you actually know what you are talking about. The name of a murder victim would be nice. Or age, even. An address would be heaven.

But this is not America. This is India. Everything is hush-hush. Everything is secret – especially the details of people who talk to us.
So we call them sources. And nobody is satisfied by that.
I got thinking about the whole issue of using the word “sources” a few years ago, when I was asked to speak to a group of young students who intended to become crime reporters some day.

There were several speakers and probably 30 people in the room altogether. It was all off the record, so I can’t go into details about who said what. But I came away from the meeting on the defensive and depressed.
The impression I got from many at this seminar was that when readers see the word “sources” in a newspaper they just don’t believe it. Many people see “sources” and think it’s all made up. I can understand that. There are a few reporters I have no faith in at all. I look at their pieces and ask myself why I can’t get my police contacts to speak in such flawless, fluent, journalese like they do.

There was one sort of row when a few people said the word “sources” should be used in copy where there was no official confirmation to back up the thrust of the story. So, instead of “so-and-so will tomorrow be charged with crimes against journalism”, it should read “so-and-so will tomorrow be charged with crimes against journalism, sources have revealed”. The argument was this: if the term “sources” is appended to the article, the reader will realise it has not been officially confirmed and decide to believe or disbelieve it on that basis. One person insisted that a paper should be able to write the story without any official or unofficial sourcing.

I thought that was nonsense. People need to know that what is written in the paper is confirmed officially, or not.
I use the word “sources” every day. If I have credibility as a reporter, people will believe that what I am writing is accurate. If I don’t, they won’t. Simple as that. If I have no credibility I am toast.

In the seminar, I was aghast when I heard how one reporter in a national English daily newspaper was challenged by a superior about a quote attributed to a source. Incredibly, the reporter admitted to not having spoken to the source – and then said “that’s what they would have said if I had spoken to them”. OH GOD! If a national newspaper journalist would do that, what hope is there for the rest of us?

And then I realised something. It’s not about the paper, it’s about the reporter. I know some great reporters who happen to work in tabloids. I know how thorough they are and I believe something when they write it. On the other hand, there are some reporters I would not trust at all.

“Sources” is an entirely unsatisfactory term. They can make up what they want and put it down to sources. Everybody knows it goes on. There’s nothing we can do to stop it.

But there are people out their working their nuts off every day and promising potential and current contacts one simple thing: Nobody will know I was talking to you. So that’s why we use the word “sources”. And pretend to pick our wallets in the street.

Have you seen this girl?
Today is Friday, December 24 2010… which is a typical Christmas eve to most but not for the family of Girija and Srinivas. It’s the day their two-year-old Bhoomika disappeared from Majestic bus stand.
I was walking towards the car on Gandhi Bazaar main road when I saw Girija coming running to me. She asked, “Did you find my daughter?” I didn’t take even a second to recognise who she was. How could I forget her?

It was December 24, 2008, I was at the police commissioner’s office when a woman screaming loudly barged into the press room. She was saying, “Help, please help. I want my daughter back”. We all wondered what had happened. Her sister Susheela who looked equally scared and traumatised handed over a picture of a cute girl and said, “We were at the Majestic bus stand and we don’t know where she went. We searched and searched but couldn’t find her. Please help us.”

Bhoomika had gone with her mother and aunt to a relative’s house in Mandya. Wearing an orange frock that day she had just alighted from the train from Mandya on platform 15. After getting down from the train all three of them walked to the Majestic bus-stand
and were waiting for a bus to reach their house in Hulimavu. Girija left Bhumika with her sister and went to look for the bus. Then her sister followed her, leaving Bhoomika with her husband. When they came back, Bhoomika was not around. Her uncle, poring over the details of his new bus pass, had assumed she had gone with her mother.

After the press release with her picture was handed over to me, I decided to write and do whatever best I could to help them trace the girl. I made several trips to Girija’s house before writing a 500-word story about her disappearance and what the family was going through. The article was mercilessly chopped to 150 words and was published even without a picture of Bhoomika, under the headline ‘Girl goes missing’. That’s when I felt how senseless can editors be. How can one publish a story about missing person without her picture? Probably the news didn’t have sale value as the girl was not a techie’s daughter!

Now such a coincidence. Exactly two years after this incident, I see Girija still searching for her daughter. I shook my head to say I had no clue about the girl. She smiled, sadly, and walked away. I sat back in the car. My friend who was with me asked who she was. Once I explained the story to him, he said: “She’s way past the crying stage, isn’t she?” “Yes,” I replied quietly.
But Girija walks into the Majestic bus stand every day to search for her little girl. My friend was right. She was indeed way past the crying stage. It’s exactly two years since her daughter Bhoomika disappeared. In these 24 months Girija has campaigned tirelessly and desperately for Bhoomika; for her not to be forgotten. But there has been nothing in return. No sightings, no phone calls.

I called her husband to check if they would agree to meet me. You can never tell when you make such a call: some people won’t be interested, others will be happy to talk. As soon as I introduced myself over the phone, I knew they would talk to us. They readily agreed to meet us. She was delighted because I had promised to publish her daughter’s picture along with my column.
But she admitted it was getting increasingly more difficult to keep the campaign going. She said they have spent a fortune to ensure the police do something to trace their daughter. “How much?” I asked. “Oh easily over Rs 1 lakh,” Srinivas said.

In the middle of the conversation she suddenly woke up and said it was 3 pm time to go to the bus stand. “Can you come along today?” I didn’t feel like saying no. I went. But you can only imagine what was going through her head as she stood at the spot where her little daughter was probably taken away. As I looked at her handing out posters and pictures, a single thought kept going around in my head: how could any parent deal with things Girija is having to deal with? Every waking minute, every second, is taken up looking for Bhoomika.

Which is worse, I wondered: the thought that something horrible has happened to Bhoomika, or the fear that something horrible is still happening to her. Both must be unbearable. I asked Girija, somewhat nervously, if she had accepted the possibility that Bhoomika could be dead. “No,” she said, quickly. “I can’t face that. I can’t. I can’t even think about that.”

Instead, she is convinced that someone, perhaps someone who didn’t have a child, has taken her. She is hoping against hope that the person still has her and will let her free one day.
It was nothing more than a coincidence, but while I was talking to Girija, a colleague called to tell me that a Bescom engineer who was kidnapped was killed even after the family paid a ransom of Rs 3 lakh. Bhoomika could have been kidnapped too?

For me the parallels were stomach churning. As we drove away from meeting her, all I could think about was this: just say someone has Bhoomika in a dark dingy place somewhere? Just say that poor, defenceless, girl is going through the same hell that thousands of girls who go missing and then trafficked to different places undergo. A shiver went down my spine at even the thought of it.

Girija and Srinivas asked me to add this line in my column: “Bhoomika putti, we are still looking for you….” As I sit to write this column, I say a silent prayer for Bhoomika.

If you find Bhoomika, call her father Srinivas on 99803 06615.

Encounter with the Dandupalya gang
The huge stone clad room looked nothing less than a ladies hostel. There were all sorts of women, charged with murdering husbands, in-laws, children, dowry deaths, cheating and so on. After speaking to some of the so called notorious ones like Padmavathi Guttedar I saw a locked cell which had three women who were given separate stoves to cook.

Wondering who these women were, I went closer to the cell and the women who looked a bit scary gave me a weird stare. I just smiled at them and said, “Hi. I am Chetana Belagere.” I totally forgot the warnings of Abbai. Even before I began to say I am a journalist, one of the women put out her hand and grabbed my hair and started pinching me. I was scared. I was just a cub reporter then, and was visiting the prison for the first time in my reporting career. Wardens ran from outside the kitchen saying, “Madam, why did you go there? They are Dandupalya women.” They started yelling at the women.

The one who had grabbed me by my hair refused to let me go. Another, who I thought will come to save me, started pinching me. I was about to cry when the wardens rushed and pushed the women away. I was literally abused. Reason: I was daughter of Ravi Belagere, whom they believed was majorly responsible for getting them arrested and punished for their crimes.

The 11 members of the notorious Dandupalya gang had sent shivers down the spine of just about everyone in Karnataka. The gang began attacking its victims from 1998. I was in college then and I remembered reading in Hi Bangalore and several other English dailies about their crimes. The gang members murdered several senior citizens: Ramakrishna in Ulsoor, Manjula in Basavanagudi, Jayalakshmi in Chamrajpet and Siddaiah, a retired KAS officer in MICO Layout.

The accused hacked to death 18 women including Raksha Shetty, an MCA student of Jyothi Nivas College, who was murdered at her house in Ramamurthynagar on February 2, 2000. Some others included Savitha, Sharmishte, Kusuma Rajan, Bellamma, Susheelamma, Geetha, Doddamuniyamma, Sudhamani, Geetha and Uma Devi.

They were involved in the murder of Babu Rao and Mohan of Shimoga on January 3, 1999 and murdered Prabhakat V Joshi and his brother, Neelakanta V Joshi, at their house at Darga Bail in Hubli on March 12, 2000. After they were caught, they were charged with more than 90 murders and as many dacoities.

As far as history goes, they belonged to a small village called Dandupalya which is located five kms away from Hoskote police station in Bengaluru rural district. According to police records, the village didn’t have more than 250 houses and almost all of them lived in stark poverty. A young man by named Venkata Swamy, came into the village and had bought around seven acres in the village and set up his house there.

Swamy had about 200 sheep, two pairs of bullocks, a cart, loads of gold and money to throw around. But soon, the villagers were in shock to see police coming to their village. The Dharmapuri police had come in search of Venkata Swamy, a dacoit originally from Kamasamudram in Kolar district who was wanted for 50 dacoities in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. He was arrested but was out of jail in just three months. He expanded his operations by roping in his uncle Muniyappa and one Hanuma Bovi, who had come from Kurlapalli village in Bangarpet.

Venkata Swamy had three sons and a daughter. Son Nancharappa followed in dad’s footsteps while daughter Venkti alias Venkamma’s contribution was in giving birth to the notorious Dodda Hanuma. Hanuma and Hanuma Bovi’s sons – identified as Bodiyappa, Avalappa, Motappa, Kuntonu and Chikka Hanuma – took Venkata Swamy’s inglorious tradition forward, adding more family members to the venture as they went. They came to be called the Dandupalya gang. They looked like harmless village folk but that’s where the similarity ended.

The gang’s reach spread across Kolar, Bangalore, KGF, Mandya and Mysore in Karnataka, Hosur and Denkanikote in Tamil Nadu, Chittoor and Ananthpur in Andhra Pradesh.

The modus operandi which they followed was very unique. The gangsters would drink before committing an offence at midnight. They would stop men, asking them for a match or a cigarette and then rob them by taking them off the road. They would also use them for sex. Finally, they would slit their victim’s throats, which became a trademark of sorts. They would also behave and act like innocents to curry public sympathy.

They would select lonely houses on the outskirts of a town. One of them, Gangamma, would send her daughters-in-law to survey the area and select a house. The women would go during the day in the guise of toilet-cleaners and bangle-sellers. They would disconnect telephone and electricity lines of the target houses and bolt the doors of neighbouring houses to prevent them from coming for help. They would then enter with deadly weapons and boulders. It was Gangamma who played a vital role in disposing of the loot. She would wash the blood-stained ornaments, crush them with a hammer and dispose of the properties to receivers in Mysore, Maddur, Bangarpet, Kolar, Mandya and Holenarasipura in Hassan.

The gang members also offered chickens as a mark of sacrifice for the weapons used to commit an offence. They would then drink the blood of the chickens and donkeys so that they stayed resolute.

The gang members who are still lodged in Parappana Agrahara have been known to throw shoes at judges and lawyers. The special court conducting the trials has sentenced all of them to death. The names of gang members are: Krishan alias Dandupalya Krishna, Doddahanuma, Venkatrama, Munikrishna, Kothi Thimma, Venkatesh alias Chandra, Munikrishna, Nalla Thimma, Thikka Muniyappa, Krishnudu and Dandupalya Krishna’s wife Lakshmi.
After the incident that day I have been to Parappana Agrahara many times to interview many inmates but always have made sure I give out only my first name! However, there have been times when I have received letters from inmates asking how I have been doing and why I have not been visiting the jail as frequently as I used to earlier. This proves that not all inmates are as dangerous as the Dandupalya women!

A killer without a motive
“I punched her once on the face and she went down,” he machineguns. Simultaneously, there is a bam! He balls his right hand into a tight fist and punches his left palm. Hard. He can’t stop. It’s as if what he did to his woman three years earlier has been festering inside him. He keeps talking. “I just lost it. My mind has gone blank after that, but I have been told I beat her for around 15 minutes. My lawyer told me I used repeated blows against her and I have to accept it. I saw the photographs of what I did to her – I couldn’t even recognise her. Her face was all purple. It was really terrible.”

That was how, sitting in the jailor’s cabin of Bengaluru Central Prison, 36-year-old Nitin Kumar told me how he beat his wife, Deepika  Kumar, to a pulp. And then some more She lay alone, for up to seven hours after the attack, before death came. After he finished with her, he got a shower and went to sleep.

It would probably be more comforting to people if he had two heads: but the reality was he was depressingly normal. He didn’t look evil. He looked exactly like the young BE graduate from Hubli that he was. You could be sitting beside him on the bus in the morning. But killers are, largely, like that. Nitin’s so matter of fact about what he has just said that it takes a few seconds for what he has told me to sink in.

Holy Shit. This is huge. This is a front page story. That was the first thing that went through my head. (A decent, normal, person would probably have recoiled in horror. But we crime reporters are neither decent nor normal when it comes to getting stories. We’ll probably pay for it someday. It was only hours later, when the adrenaline wore off, that I thought, really thought, about what he said. That’s when it hits you. The reality is, however, that I’m not there as a person. I’m there to take down what he says and put it in the paper.)

But there was more to come. I ask him about his and Deepti’s two kids. They were present in the house when he slaughtered her on August 2003. None of the reporters covering this case knew what the kids saw, me included. We knew that he made the eldest child walk past her body later. But what about the time he unleashed the horrendous attack? Were they in the next room, oblivious? Or did they see the whole thing? Nitin gives me a gruesome clarity on my question. It’s the latter.

“Did children say anything when you were hitting her?” I ask. “All I can remember is the kids shouting ‘stop it daddy, please stop it,” he admits. “I think I heard her say ‘Ah’ when she was on the ground, and nothing else. I must have knocked her out with the first punch.”

Occasionally, when you’re interviewing someone, small sentences have huge import. In just 14 words, he had conveyed the full, unedited horror of what happened that night. You’re probably seeing it in your mind’s eye as you’re reading this: a eight year old boy, his four year old sister both appealing to their daddy to stop beating their mummy. But he doesn’t listen. Instead, he kicks, punches – even bites her until she is unconscious. Dying.

His brutal honesty leaves me reeling and, honestly, excited at the same time. Reeling because it’s a terrible sensation sitting across from someone who is, almost nonchalantly, describing beating a woman to death; excited because it’s a great story. He’s never spoken about it before.

Earlier, I had spoken to Deepika’s mother who had told me she had one question for him. “Why did you do it Nitin? Why? I know we’ll never get an answer, he’s not man enough to give us an answer.” I gave it a go. It was really the only question to ask him. I looked him in the eye and said: “Why did you do it?” I was expecting some bullshit answer; that they had a row and she provoked him. To me, it seemed like he was speaking the truth.
He gives me his version of events.

With a slight, nervous, smile on his face, he says: “I had not been sleeping for days and I could hear voices in my head.”Everywhere I went I could see people looking at me. Everyone was. “On the night it happened, I felt terrible and went to a bar nearby where I got a big glass of whiskey. That must have had something to do with it. I went back up to the house and Deepika was there. I started cooking and then asked her if she would do it for me. She said something like ‘Yeah, I will now.’ There was no aggression or anything from her. But I just looked at her and said ‘What did you say?’ and went up to her.”
Here he explains how he went up a matter of millimetres from her face and got two of his fingers and prised open the eyelids on her left eye. He said he could see some sign inside the eye, like an X. “I punched her once on the face and she went down. There was no reason for what I did. She didn’t do anything to provoke me. “My mind just went blank after I hit her the first time. I just lost it. I’ll never be able to explain why I did it because there was no reason for it.”
As he goes on to talk about problems in prison, he lifts up his sleeve, I see a huge tattoo: Deepika. “When did you get that done?” He looks away. “After her death. Before I was arrested.” This guy is either crazy or evil. After he beats her to death, he gets her name tattooed on his arm. “Why did you do that?” I ask, incredulous. “Because I still love her and always will. I can think of only two other times where we had a physical fight – we really loved each other.” I think he meant it. In fact, he later says it was an accident and that he’s truly sorry for what he did. Only he knows if that’s a lie.
I walked out towards the gates. He went back to his cell. Normal life resumed. This strange case has remained in my mind.

A daughter’s nightmare that lasted 15 years
The story of a 24-year-old girl left me speechless. On this day (December 3), four years ago, I met Pinky Chowdary (name changed) at an NGO in Bengaluru. Clad in a maroon salwar kameez, this beauty was trying to hide her fears and tell me what happened for 15 long years at her house in Mico Layout.

Pinky was a victim of incest. Incest refers to any sexual activity between closely related persons (often within the immediate family) that is illegal or socially taboo. She was regularly raped by her father Sandeep Chowdary and had not uttered a word about it to anyone, fearing it would bring a bad name to her family.

“I woke up that night as I felt someone pulling off my panties. I saw my father lying on top of me. I tried to scream but he put his hand against my mouth. I bled that night. It was so painful,” she told me during an hour-long interview at the NGO.

Pinky, now 24, said she was eight or nine the first time her father forced himself on her. The incest assaults were very brutal, and became more painful as she got older. “My father used cruel mind games and twisted the truth and twisted my thoughts to suit his needs. I was beaten unconscious on many occasions. On three occasions he beat me so severely I believed I was dying,” she said.

It didn’t happen every day, it didn’t happen every week, but it certainly happened many times. “If you’re me, you box it away. It’s one of those things where you tell yourself, ‘Don’t look’. There’s a video reel playing in my head, and I’ve spent 15 years trying not to look,” Pinky told me.

For the first three or four years of her life she believed it was normal. For the next eight to nine years she lived through unspeakable horror. As a pre-teen she would fight him and curse him and he would beat her mercilessly.
Pinky even ran away several times and she was returned home, once by the police, and another time, by a concerned family. She dared not speak a single word against her dad. The severity and the duration of abuse broke her inside: it pulverised her mentally to a million pieces. She cried with tears rolling down continuously as she confided in me, “During the 15 years of incest, my only goal was to survive to be an adult so I could escape and be free.”

When she was very young she would repress the memory of the assault as soon as it stopped. She would not know it had happened. She became increasingly wary and terrified of something trying to destroy her but she couldn’t tell what it was.

“I learned how to disassociate from my body completely and at times I would remember a floating sensation where I was looking down on the scene. I became a very light sleeper and the tiniest of sounds would wake me instantly,” she explained.

Gradually the full weight and burden of the memories came into her consciousness. “I began the impossible task of trying to maintain control of the chaos in my mind. My disassociation from my body during the abuse was a relief and helped me survive,” Pinky explained.

But slowly she realised that she was maintaining disassociation from her body all the time. This was a problem as someone once held her hand and she suddenly became aware that she had a hand, and it was tiny and warm.
She tried as a child to stop the abuse by telling friends, strangers, teachers. She told a police constable-uncle who lived nearby but he said it would bring disrepute to the family. Her mother didn’t want to believe her. “She beat me so badly, screaming and blaming me for everything. I was so alone,” said Pinky.

Her father died in 2006 of a heart attack. On her 24th birthday, her father finally left her in peace, a few hours after he had raped her.  Narrating this story, she held my hands tightly and said: “I am sure there are hundreds and thousands of girls going through this trauma. I beg them to talk about it. They should not keep quiet like me. Whoever the abuser – father, brother, uncle – they should make a noise about it.”

December 3 is her birthday. Pinky is still trying to come out of the pain and is working as a volunteer at this NGO, helping hundreds of girls speak out the horror. Pinky has decided not to marry as she says she cannot trust any man. I wish her a happy birthday and pray that God gives her strength to overcome her long nightmare.

Where eager-beaver crime  journalists go wrong
Ask forensic technicians to name the biggest problem they encounter and you will hear the same response–crime scene contamination by curious officers, constables, and overenthusiastic journalists!
The technicians from Foreign Science Lab who usually come much later than the media and police, while they are supposed to be the first ones to rush to the spot, find the same problems repeated by the same “offenders.” The unintentional disturbing of the crime scene appears to be a problem that will not go away easily.

Most murder cases in Bengaluru are cracked with circumstantial evidence only, and one of the reasons for investigators not finding exact finger prints or other clues is this. I discovered this when Crime Diary was being produced by Ravi Belagere. As it was our home production, I was the chief reporter and had taken the initiative of covering most murders that rocked the city.

During one such case, I went to the scene of a double murder in Indiranagar. Two men were brutally killed in their house right behind the BDA complex. My phone beeped and I knew there was a story waiting for me. It was a resident from the area who had called to inform me that someone had been killed next door.

I rushed to the spot with our cameraperson. I was shocked to find the door open and police still not on the spot! I was thrilled. Even without thinking how I would be damaging the crime scene, I barged inside with the cameraman to get those exclusive shots of blood and gore. My footsteps were all over the room. I even tried to flip through some of the papers lying on the table. It was then that the other television reporters barged in too. Much later came the police and FSL officers who shooed us away.

After many such goof-ups I have realised how important it is for us to ensure that the crime scene is not disturbed. Interestingly, very early in their careers, most law enforcement officers realise that the police work they see depicted on television and in the movies bears little resemblance to their jobs. It is something of an anomaly, therefore, that many of these same officers seem to believe that crime scene work should be performed as it is on the screen – murder scenes filled with loitering officers and police constables hovering over bodies. Officers who work under this misconception too do not seem to understand that a crime scene is no place for a crowd.

That day after my crew and I had already done the damage it was the constables’ turn. One constable coolly went into the dining hall of the house, probably looking for clues! He found a packet of biscuits on the table. As I was watching him curiously, wondering what he was looking at so seriously, he silently grabbed the packet and ate three to four biscuits from it. He then drank water from the water bottle kept there.

FSL expert Mohan once told me widespread trampling of crime scenes could prove very damaging to investigations. Often, it results in several of the more sensitive forensic techniques–such as trace analysis, blood spatter interpretation, and DNA comparison–not being used to their fullest potential.
Crime scene technicians know the futility of collecting hair or fibre samples after a roomful of officers have shed theirs all over the scene. Footwear and tyre track evidence is rarely recognised as valuable in departments where officers routinely wander unimpeded through crime scenes.

Apparently in one sensational case, the entire police force of a particular station was forced to undergo mass fingerprinting after a particularly sensational crime scene was overrun by them. Considerable time and effort went into eliminating officers’ fingerprints from the pool of legitimate prints.
The role of police officers in protecting crime scenes cannot be overstated. These individuals ultimately are responsible for an investigation.
Investigators who conscientiously limit the number of visitors to a crime scene ultimately may save themselves a great deal of legwork.

Police administrators should perhaps draft and enforce a written policy on crime scene protection and preservation. The policy not only must be clear but also must carry the same weight as any other departmental rule. Police administrators should not tolerate curiosity as an excuse for unchecked visits to the scene of a crime.  Journalists should also be trained to ensure they do not disturb the scene for the sake of exclusive footage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: