It was sometime late last year that some fishermen came upon a big, blue barrel bobbing up and down in the backwaters near Kumbalam in Kochi. When they discovered that it was filled with concrete, they abandoned it on a barren piece of land near the national highway bypass cutting through the area. On January 8 this year, locals, suspecting a foul smell emanating from the barrel, cut through the concrete to be horrified by the sight of a human skeleton inside. Police personnel were immediately dispatched to the spot and an investigation initiated.
On Thursday, more than two months after the discovery of the skeletal remains and the gruesome murder that it pointed to, the Kochi city police have claimed to have cracked the case. With several twists and turns, the investigation at one point had looked clearly lost due to lack of any potential clues. But doctors and police officials say it was the chance discovery of a 6.5 cm long malleolar screw in the ankle joint of the skeleton that helped solve the case.
“This was a skeleton that had clearly decomposed but had soft tissues attached to the bones. Our initial findings confirmed that it was a woman. We were able to estimate the height and other features,” said Dr Unmesh KA, forensic surgeon at the Medical College in Kalamassery, who performed the autopsy.
“After we brushed and cleaned the bones, I noticed the ankle joint on the left leg appeared fragmented. On closer examination, we came upon a 6.5 cm-long malleolar screw, made of stainless steel, which is used in orthopaedics in case of fractures. In this case, it was inserted into the bone to unite the fracture at the joint,” the surgeon added.
The team of police officials, led by circle inspector Siby Tom, was immediately alerted when the screw was identified. It had the markings of its manufacturer, Pitkar, a supplier of orthopaedic implants based in Pune, and a unique batch number. Since the company distributors were available in Kochi, the police were able to track down the origin of the screw and the number of surgeries it was used in. Close to 300 surgeries were reportedly done using the screw of the same batch number, six of which were conducted in Kochi. Police, that had so far been unable to identify the victim, was suddenly flooded with potential leads. While five of the patients who had undergone the surgeries were successfully tracked, the sixth one was found missing, a 52-year-old homemaker called Shakuntala, a resident of Udayamperoor near Kochi.
“That’s how the murder victim was identified as Shakuntala who had undergone the surgery at VKN Hospital in Thripunithura in September 2016. She had the surgery done post a fracture from a scooter accident,” the surgeon said.
“By God’s grace, we were able to find the screw. Otherwise, police would have to go through a big list of women who have undergone surgeries in the state. That would have taken a long time,” he added.
The identification of the victim led the police to Shakuntala’s troubled family background. According to the police, her husband, Damodaran, had spent a lot of time in jail for his involvement in a political killing. Due to frequent fights with him, Shakuntala moved to a rented home with her son, Pramod, and daughter Aswathy. Pramod, after being involved in a motor accident, reportedly committed suicide and Aswathy got married, which left Shakuntala alone. But a few years later, Aswathy, after leaving her husband, reportedly entered an affair with Sajith, an inspector with Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). However, Shakuntala was opposed to the union after she came to know that Sajith, in fact, had another wife and kids.
“We believe that Sajith killed Shakuntala when she threatened to tell his other family. We spoke to the people from whom the barrel was bought and also those who helped him dispose it of in the water. All of them have connected us to Sajith,” said circle inspector Siby Tom.
However, in a more dramatic and tragic turn of events, the police cannot corroborate the claim from the accused himself. Because Sajith is no more. The day after the skeleton was fished out from the barrel, Sajith was found dead. Police believe that Sajith took the drastic step fearing that the investigation would eventually lead to his doorstep.
Police say they are now on course to question Aswathy and possibly even subject her to a polygraph test to find out the truth. “We think she doesn’t know that Sajith killed her mother. But we will question her definitely,” assured Tom.
In a case that has bewildered the investigators like no other, police are now hinging on Aswathy’s testimony to make a final conclusion.
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Vishnu VarmaVishnu Varma is a correspondent for the Indian Express in Kerala.... read more