Assistant Sub-Inspector Rajendra Dhondu Bhosle of D N Nagar Police Station in Mumbai handled the cases of 166 girls who went missing between 2008 and 2015 – the year he retired. He and his team tracked down 165 of them. She remained Girl No. 166, whom Bhosle kept trying to find for two years as a cop, and seven years after retirement.
At 8.20 pm on Thursday, the girl, just seven when she went missing on January 22, 2013, was reunited with her family. The 16-year-old was found living 500 metres from her home in Andheri (West).
While Harry Joseph D’Souza (50) has been arrested, his wife Soni (37) is an accused. The couple reportedly kidnapped her as they were desperate for a child of their own.
A lot has changed in this time. The girl had been put to work as a babysitter at a society in Andheri (West), while her father was dead. She instantly recognised her mother and uncle when they met. And, as a police team watched from a distance, holding its breath, both sides broke down.
That day of 2013, the girl and an elder brother were headed for the municipal school they studied in when they had a tiff over pocket money. Police said D’Souza told them he spotted the girl wandering near the school, and thought she was the answer to the family’s desire for a child.
When the girl did not reach home after school, the family lodged a complaint with the D N Nagar Police Station. Bhosle took over the case.
Police said D’Souza told them he realised the implications of what he had done only after police got into the act, and the media picked up the story, followed by a campaign by locals to find her. Scared of the consequences for him, he sent the girl away to a hostel at their native place Raichur in Karnataka.
In 2016, D’Souza and Soni had a child of their own. Now, they got the girl back from Karnataka, reportedly as they could not meet the expenses of raising two children, and got her to work as a babysitter. The family also shifted homes, ironically to the same Gilbert Hill area of Andheri (West), almost next door to where the girl originally lived, says Milind Kurde, D N Nagar Station Senior Inspector.
Kurde says the couple believed no one would recognise the girl now as she was grown-up. “Her missing posters were also gone. Further, the accused ensured the girl didn’t talk to anyone in the area,” the officer says.
According to the girl’s uncle, “D’Souza’s wife would beat her up, while he would get drunk and tell her he had picked her up from somewhere in 2013. She comprehended that the couple were not her parents, but she feared them so much, she didn’t know how to escape.”
ASI Bhosle, meanwhile, kept looking. On March 8, 2015, in a report, “Girl No.166”, The Sunday Express detailed how the case had become a personal mission of sorts for him.
“Even last week he came to meet us, we all started crying. We gave up hope, but he kept telling us he will find her,” the girl’s uncle told The Indian Express.
It was the domestic help in the house where the girl was employed as a babysitter for the past seven months who came to her help. An official said that on hearing her story, the woman Googled the girl’s name, putting in 2013 like D’Souza had mentioned and ‘missing’. “She found the campaigns and write-ups that had come out after she went missing, ” her uncle said.
According to the uncle, on seeing the photographs, the girl remembered everything, including that she lived in the same neighbourhood. The two of them also found a missing poster online with five contact numbers on it. “While four of the numbers didn’t work, the fifth number, of Rafique, the family’s neighbour, did,” her uncle said.
When Rafique first got the call, he was reportedly sceptical as there had been many such calls over the years to his number. He asked for a photograph as confirmation.
On Thursday morning, the two of them made a video call to Rafique, who took a screenshot and showed the same to the girl’s mother and uncle. “We immediately burst out crying as we identified her,” the uncle said.
The family took details of the Juhu society where she worked from her and informed the D N Nagar Police Station.
As the family headed there with the police team, the girl came down on the pretext of taking the toddler she looked after for a walk. At 8.20 pm, the night setting in, the girl and her mother met, for the first time in nine years.
Speaking to The Indian Express, ASI Bhosle said, “When I first got the call, I could not believe it. I called up the Senior Inspector to confirm. I then called up V D Bhoite, who was the Senior Inspector of DN Nagar Police Station when I was searching for her. He told me you tried your best and had covered 99% of all possibilities. The remaining 1% is God’s blessing.”
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On his search, Bhosle said: “You may retire as a cop, but insaniyat (humanity) is not something that ends with retirement. It is there till you are alive. You have to understand the pain of losing a daughter. If one cannot see that, one cannot be human.”
Police have registered a case of kidnapping, concealing kidnapping, human trafficking, wrongful confinement, unlawful compulsory labour among other sections against D’Souza and his wife. Kurde said D’Souza had been remanded to police custody, but they had not arrested Soni so far as there was no one else to take care of their six-year-old daughter.
Police are getting the medical test done of the 16-year-old. She will be produced before a Child Welfare Committee, before being handed over to her family. Police have also sent teams to Karnataka to verify the sequence of events.