Gauri Lankesh killing: 4 murders, 2 suspected firearms and a forensic effort to join the dots

As Karnataka police investigate if Gauri Lankesh murder has any connection to three previous murders, The Indian Express explains the science behind the study of bullets fired, cartridges left behind, and wounds

Written by Smita Nair | Updated: September 21, 2017 8:11:06 am
gauri lankesh, lankesh murder case, gauri lankesh murder case, kalburgi, mm kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, india news Four cartridges were recovered from the scene of Lankesh’s murder, including one from a bullet that missed.

In the murder of Karnataka journalist Gauri Lankesh, the bullets took 8 seconds to hit the target. Those 8 seconds are among the vital statistics being probed, along with the make of the firearm, the range from which it was fired, and its calibre: 7.65 mm. As reported in The Indian Express, a preliminary forensics probe has suggested that the firearm used to kill Lankesh this month was the same one used to murder of Kannada scholar M M Kalburgi two years ago. In reaching any such conclusion, a forensics probe factors in all those statistics as well as the scratches a bullet acquires as it exits the barrel.

Looking for a match

The first identifier of a firearm is its calibre — the diameter of the barrel, and therefore the bullet — but it is not conclusive in itself. The 7.65-mm bullets that killed Lankesh could have come from any firearm of that calibre — a pistol, a revolver, or an indigenous country-made gun with a barrel to fit a bullet that size.

In this case, forensics showed that the bullet was shot from a country-made pistol. From the flight path, they ruled out a revolver. A bullet from a pistol takes a clumsier path than one from a revolver. “It was a pistol with a smooth bore,” an officer said.

Four cartridges were recovered from the scene of Lankesh’s murder, including one from a bullet that missed. The source of these, according to investigators, matches the source of the cartridges found on the scenes of three other killings — those of Kalburgi, rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and scholar Govind Pansare, the latter two in Maharashtra. All these cartridges have the head stamp of Indian Ordnance Factory, Khadki, Pune. Head stamps, however, give away little; it’s only on the box of cartridges that a serial number and code are mentioned.

For a precise match, investigators study the scratches — linear blemishes, vertical scars — left on a bullet by friction with the surface barrel, just before it exits and picks up velocity. In addition, they study the the marks left by the firing pin — unique to each weapon — as well as the breech marks, both on the cartridge.

The forensic probes following the four murders have shown two bullet signatures — indicating the same killers remain at loose. Of two firearms, one or both were used each time, investigators say. Two firearms were used in Pansare’s murder. Some bullets had markings that matched those of the bullets used to killed Dabholkar, while the other bullets had markings that matched those used to kill Kalburgi, which in turn match the markings on the bullets recovered after Lankesh’s murder. In the cases of Pansare, Kalburgi and Lankesh, the marks on the cartridges too matched, police say.

The jammed bullet

One of the firearms presented an intriguing feature. When Kalburgi was shot, the first bullet had got stuck inside the barrel. The trigger was pulled a second time, and the impact of the second bullet ended up firing the first. “Such was the impact that there is one entry wound on the forehead and one exit wound on the back of the skull, but two bullets. The entry and exit wounds are of the first bullet, while the second bullet got stuck inside the skull as its energy dissipated,” said an officer privy to the Kalburgi murder file.

This is called tandem firing — one bullet behind the other — unlike in Gauri’s murder where multiple shots were fired. The finding that the same gun was used, experts say, shows that “the gun is of very, very good make” and that the killers “either corrected the hiccups of the earlier trigger” or ensured more reliable cartridges. “Now we are moving to the Dabholkar file. The barrel of the weapon in that murder was not clogged,” said a forensic expert, citing evidence. “We now have to match the time spans of the firing too. How many seconds did each killing take?”

Time & energy

Guns of calibre 7.65 mm are a preferred choice for “close range killing”, experts say, although it fires low-velocity bullets (less than the speed of sound). For certainty of killing, shots need to be fired from 10 feet or closer — “which doesn’t require a sharpshooter”. “Four bullets at short range by a shooter in a hurry, hiding his cowardice behind a helmet…,” says an inspector general from Mumbai who has been studying TV grabs of the Gauri Lankesh murder probe. “It shows the weapon was serviced. Eight seconds of firing had serious fatality.”

While one bullet missed, two pierced the body’s lower half and one created a back wound and pierced the heart. “The only bullet that proved fatal was the one that pierced her heart,” said the expert. Unlike firing from a military weapon, in which the bullets are thinner, longer and sharper, 7.65 mm bullets lose their energy at longer distances. When fired from the right distance, they get embedded in the body and are fatal. “That only shows they knew they had to come as close to Lankesh as possible, which means that the recce had to be that sharp,” says a senior IPS officer in Karnataka.

From the nature of the wound, scientists also try to predict how much energy was needed to create it at that range, and at what velocity the bullet struck, another step towards possibly identifying the firearm.

Strides in new field

Ballistics is still new to India but at least three forensics laboratories — Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Gujarat — are equipped to study signatures through an integrated bullet identification system. Officials at the Gujarat state laboratory, considered pioneers of ballistics in India, claim to have mapped signatures of 4,000 bullets and cartridges from across the country and to have “answers from mere lines on bullets”.

From their database, an official described a case similar to the Lankesh murder, a killing last year in Bhavnagar. The weapon, again of calibre 7.65 mm, was recovered from Mehsana six months later. “We test-fired a fresh bullet and the signature on it matched the signature on the bullet fired in the Bhavnagar killing. The police had no other evidence in either case, and it took a dispatch from our end to their offices to join the dots,” says the expert. Officials say Gujarat has solved 16 cases so far working solely from finding such matches.

What the Bhavnagar/Mehsana probe shows that in the Karnataka murders, in spite of what can be figured out from the markings, the investigators will still require the weapon.

Missing feature

In the Lankesh murder, as with the previous three, there are no rifling marks on the bullet, reconfirming the indigenous make. Rifling — a 16th-century ballistics process believed to have been developed further by Germans, is essentially the introduction of grooves to unclog barrels of excess ammunition powder and give the bullet extra flying strength. Across the world, rifling marks help investigators identify, to an extent, the features characteristic of individual gunsmiths.

“Or, in our case, the traditional market,” says a ballistics expert in the Chandigarh state laboratory. “Some of the best gunsmiths in India are in the underground market.” Most country-made weapons that come under their scanner lack these grooves. “It means they are not company-made and could have come from any of the cottage industries spread across the country. In fact, in the ones that have shown grooves, the guns have only backfired. It is a very sophisticated art to be introduced outside a company infrastructure.”

Hard to find

In all such killings, it is the underground market that usually makes the weapon, using prototypes, while the cartridges are sourced from ordnance factories using licensed firearms. This makes detection more difficult, says a detective in Kolkata. How many guns floating around would have chambers matching those in the gun that killed Lankesh? “Infinite,” said U Ramamohan, who has worked as a ballistics expert and is currently SP (Cyber Crime) with the CID in Hyderabad. “Weapons using bullets of that calibre are easiest to get.”

Just 15 days before the murder, Hyderabad police, in a different case, seized a country-made firearm of calibre 7.65 mm. “The accused confessed he bought it from Indore for Rs 15,000. That is how easy it is to procure it.” The 7.65 mm has a wide clientele — the underworld used it in the 1980s, criminals in the northern belts used it for decades, and Bihar officers call it a gangster’s favourite for close-range rivalry. In any Arms Act case across the country, the 7.65 mm has become a common seizure. “Saying only Naxals use it would be incorrect,” said an official from Gadchiroli, who notes the weapon fell out of favour with Naxals from 2000.

“There was a period when they arrived in bulk from Russia and the Bombay underworld used them. It was very difficult to find a ballistic answer during that period. It was a hard weapon and available,” says D Sivanandhan, who seized several 7.65 mm guns during his tenure as Mumbai commissioner. Experts say a pistol or revolver could be of either Indore make or UP make, but it’s gun makers based in Bihar who cause police their biggest concern.

Bihar gun factory

Former Bihar DGP Abhayanand recalls raids in Nalanda as an SP, arresting gun makers, seizing weapons, parts, and even prototypes. “Picking up those weapons — and there were many 7.65 mm makes — was a thrill. It was only over the years that I realised that all the raids were drops in the ocean. There was a time when we raided 21 mini gun factories in a month,” he recalls.

Guns from Munger’s makers are notorious. They are smooth, have no markings, and come with a target pick of over 25 feet. Then there are factories in Bardah and Nalanda. Abhayanand speaks of a period when barrels were made for the Mughals; the Nawab of Bengal’s shift to Munger made it the “ammunition capital”. “The barrels even today are made in the same Mughal heritage factory, now taken over by the state of Bihar,” he says. “They are then sent to the ordnance factories for further weaponry.”

Some retired gunsmiths from these factories are lured by the illegal gun cartel. “It’s like a copycat factory. You give them a model, a time and money. The gun will be yours. No details asked,” says Abhayanand, who retired in 2014. Because gunsmiths easily got bail under the Arms Act, he said, he had sent a proposal to the finance ministry in 2013, seeking legislation to control the illegal industry by “allowing a cap of Rs 5 crore and by bringing in some provision of money laundering for the state police”. Much has changed since he retired, he says: the factories have now become consignment-oriented.

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