Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014

The hunt for a serial sexual assaulter

Ayyaz ansari turned out tobe a habitual offender who stole mobile phones. On April 17, 2014, Ansari got off an auto at Andheri, where constables Yogesh Kadam and Manoj Desai overpowered and arrested him. Ayyaz ansari turned out tobe a habitual offender who stole mobile phones. On April 17, 2014, Ansari got off an auto at Andheri, where constables Yogesh Kadam and Manoj Desai overpowered and arrested him.
Written by Megha Sood | Mumbai | Posted: June 16, 2014 12:49 am | Updated: June 16, 2014 9:23 am

Head constable Suresh Annapa Mahapure’s lasting, and embarrassing, memory is how, in frustration, he just grabbed a mango off a cart and bit into it, unmindful of the pulp dripping down his shirt. Assistant inspector Rajinder Bhonsle says the daily parades for 17 days will be what he will always remember of his years in service, when he retires seven months from now. The four months they spent sitting across minor victims, trying to get every detail they could, will be an experience women officers will take a long time to forget. Nor will the officials who pored over three hours of CCTV footage in all and old files, joining the dots.

They were among 26 officials who, between January 18, 2013, and April 17, 2014, were involved in one of the biggest manhunts the Mumbai police have seen in recent years. Since then, the man they caught, Ayyaz Mohammed Ali Ansari, 32, has been booked in 25 sexual assault cases, including two of rape under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012.

Capture

On the morning of January 18, 2013, an angry woman walked into the Dadabhai Naoroji Nagar police station in Andheri West, complaining that her 10-year-old granddaughter had been molested.

Inspector Ajay Kshirsagar dispatched two policewomen to the child’s house. The girl said she had been lured through a small lane behind a mosque. She recalled seeing a water tank, a stone path, a car parking lot, and the outside of a building, as she followed that stranger. She had gone with him after he had told her he was her father’s friend and wanted her to give her father his mobile number.

“We asked her everything possible. It was difficult,” recalls Kshirsagar.

The girl revealed that her assaulter had been of dark complexion, his hair thick and bunched together when brushed back from his face, that he had a broad but flat forehead, a thick moustache and long eyebrows. The top two buttons of his shirt were open.

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In the evening, the women officers who had met the 10-year-old sat with an artist to draw a sketch. However, when it was taken back to the girl, she felt crucial details were missing though the features appeared accurate. Now she added that the shirt the molester wore was loose and not tucked into his trousers, he had slippers on, and he had a paunch. The child also recalled struggling against a pair of “hairy arms”.

While these details were included in the sketch, what the police had was still a description that could have matched any number of people. Meanwhile, calls from the grandmother kept getting more frantic.

Taking a chance, the Dadabhai Naoroji Nagar police decided to contact their counterparts elsewhere. They were in luck. At the Santacruz police station, a sub-inspector recalled a video feed in their crime archives of a girl child being molested behind a building compound. The grainy video feed had reached them months ago through a long channel. The victim and the accused had never been identified, but the police station had kept the evidence in the hope it would prove useful.

“The video didn’t show the face well; the camera was positioned at an angle and away from the scene. But the back profile of the accused showed him wearing slippers and wearing his shirt not tucked in,” recalls Balasaheb Awhad of D N Nagar police station. The child was following her alleged molester. He could be their suspect, and “this could be a habit” with him, the police thought.

A police team spent hours developing the footage at the detection room of the police station, and juxtaposing the new details into their sketch of the suspect. The 10-year-old confirmed the new image was closer to her assaulter.

Now the police pasted posters with the sketch across the city. “No public space was spared. When the city woke up, I wanted everyone to look for this man,” says Awhad.

***

The next breakthrough, something totally unexpected, came at the monthly crime meeting in February 2014. At such meetings, held at the Mumbai Police headquarters in Crawford Market, undetected cases are brought to the commissioner’s table. When the D N Nagar police station brought up the alleged molester, as many as 12 more police stations reported unsolved sexual assault cases of a similar nature, with each victim a girl child returning home alone, accosted by a man introducing himself as “a friend of her father” —though no one in their extended families matched the assaulter’s description.

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(SKETCH 1: Prepared after case lodged with D N Nagar police in January 2013, from victim’s description and a video already with Santacruz police — dark complexion, hair brushed back, broad forehead, thick moustache, long eyebrows.)

Each police station was asked to revisit their respective cases, including the victims involved. For almost a fortnight, women officers talked to the minor victims, while other officials revisited the crime scenes to look for any camera that may have picked up the assault from any angle.

Each victim talked of “some stench” from the accused, which the police officers assume was of liquor. A few recalled he had a beard, one victim spoke of his thick bushy eyebrows, yet another of his “dense earlobes”, while the hairstyle varied. All remembered his paunch.

Kshirsagar says they again revised their sketch. “The new man looked younger. He had a beard. His face was long… We went back looking for our suspect. We changed our gaze,” he recalls.

***

Men from 93 police stations and 12 Crime Branch detection units were now on the prowl. “Every police station wanted to crack the case. This was a rare case of a serial molester at large. This was a rare case as usually one is caught sooner. Here we had 13 victims so far,” says Dinesh Kalgutkar, police naik at D N Nagar. Kalgutkar recalls scanning public feeds from surveillance cameras across the suburban city limits looking for a possible match.

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(SKETCH 2: Prepared last February after compiling details from varied descriptions — “bushy eyebrows”, “dense earlobes” — given by child victims across the city. The new face had a beard and looked younger, the police observed)

On April 8, they had the second breakthrough. The Sion police station had picked up video footage of a child following a man, who would later molest her. They had a front profile of the man.

“The child was seen following the stranger, just like in the feed from the Santacruz police station. It bothered us. Why walk behind him? The body language of the accused also showed his confidence. We even pondered if there was an element of hypnotism,” said Kshirsagar.

Though badly disturbed, the victim gave details that matched the available information.

There were two crucial new revelations, though: the CCTV footage showed the man walking with a limp, while the victim recalled that one of his eyes appeared damaged. The police started calling the man they were looking for “kaala langda (dark man with a limp)”.

***

A video clip was now made, editing out the victim and adding together all available footage of the accused — from Santacruz, a few other feeds and Sion. Soon, after every morning disciplinary parade, it was made mandatory for officers to watch the video repeatedly so that they knew every small detail.

“I thought it was torture. It was drilled into our heads, with words like ‘imagine that the man has molested one of your daughters’. We were angry men whose egos had been punctured,” says assistant inspector Rajinder Bhonsle.

Separately, the night patrol officials deployed in slums between Khar and Andheri carried the video clip with them. “Every night, in a corner, we showed the video to select groups of informers or community leaders,” recalls Kalgutkar.

This was during the election season, and the extra work put the officers and constables on edge. “The EVM store room was behind the police station, with half the force engaged in its security,” says Kshirsagar.

***

One day, Malad police inspector Manohar Harpude saw the footage, and thought he noticed something familiar. He asked for the clip to be played back; he wanted to see the man’s walk. A few minutes later, Harpude dug out a 2010 file from the police archives of a habitual offender, who stole mobile phones. “It made the plot thicker,” says police naik Ajay More, 42.

When police went looking for this offender, Ayyaz Mohammed Ali Ansari, in the narrow lane of a Juhu slum, his family and neighbours weren’t surprised. Years ago, Ansari had been mobbed in the very lanes for allegedly molesting a minor.

A final sketch and poster were prepared, with an informant giving more inputs. Seventy-two hours later, on the morning of April 17, Ansari was held as he got off an autorickshaw at a busy Andheri signal intersection.

***

Constables Yogesh Kadam and Manoj Desai recall he did not give in easily. “My hands still have marks. He scratched like mad,” says Kadam.

An hour later, Ansari was produced before Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria at the Carter Road police station. “I still remember Ansari’s face when he looked at the commissioner and said, ‘I used to see couples kissing inside locked cars at Chowpatty beach. I wanted the same but didn’t want to pay for the sex’,” recalls Mahapure, who once spent 50 hours at a stretch on a shift in the hunt for Ansari.

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(SKETCH 3: Prepared after another video (from Sion) showed suspect with an apparently damaged eye. Police connected a limp with a known mobile thief, whose facial details as described by an informant were incorporated.)

Ansari has been interrogated by several police stations since then. Police officials say it is shocking the details he remembers — down to the colour of the frills of dresses some of the victims wore. He would allegedly target them even as he robbed people of mobile phones, sometimes as many as 17 phones a day, slept in abandoned autorickshaws at night, and used any spare money to snort drugs.

It was easy, Ansari reportedly told his interrogators. “Imagine, all he did was ask the girls to share his number with their father,” says Kshirsagar. “They followed him. He says he only picked on girls who followed him. He played on blind trust.”

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