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‘Killer’ loses nerve, mystery of missing Aussie solved

Over two months after 75-year-old Sai Baba devotee went missing, Puttaparthi police say watchman strangled her for Rs 20,000.

Written by Sreenivas Janyala | Hyderabad | Published: November 9, 2014 4:17:23 am
missing Bhagwantudu (in striped T-shirt) points to the site where he said he had buried Ludgate. Her body was exhumed Saturday. (Source: Express photo)

In the end, he lost his nerve. Restless and rattled after no one came to enquire about the 75-year-old Australian woman whom he had strangled to death and buried over two weeks earlier, he walked over to the police station to complain that she was missing. And that was the beginning of the end for Sanjappagari Bhagwantudu.

The 39-year-old watchman of an apartment complex in Andhra Pradesh’s Puttaparthi is now in police custody for the murder of Toni Anne Ludgate, a grandmother and devotee of Sathya Sai Baba who had come to India nearly four months ago hoping to spend the rest of her life dedicated to social work here.

“We gave him a long rope, and he tied himself in knots,’’ said an official of Anantapur Police’s Special Branch, which questioned Bhagwantudu. “He changed his version several times during interrogation before admitting to having killed her, and identified the spot where she was buried.”

The journey of Ludgate, who had flown down from Sydney on July 23, had ended on August 29, a few feet under the ground, 20 km away from Puttaparthi, where her body was buried by Bhagwantudu and two accomplices.

More than two months after the murder, all the accused are in police custody with the arrests on Saturday of Boya Poothaliah, the watchman of a neighbouring complex, and M Nagaraju, Bhagwantudu’s brother-in-law.

Scripting the final chapter of a nationwide hunt, Puttaparthi Police have also exhumed what remained of Ludgate’s body — a few bones and hair — from near a field in a village in Kothacheruvu Mandal of Anantapur district.

On the insistence of her friends working at the Sathya Sai Baba centre in Prashanti Nilayam, and as suggested by her daughter Tracy, Ludgate’s last rites were performed according to Hindu customs at Puttaparthi on Saturday afternoon. Hours earlier, an official from the Australian High Commission had arrived at Puttaparthi to take charge of her belongings.

Reconstructing the chain of events, police said that after arriving at Puttaparti on July 23, Ludgate stayed at Prashanti Nilayam till August 14, volunteering to serve food to elderly people visiting the place where Sathya Sai Baba was based till his death three years ago.

Later that day, she went to Sai Gowri Apartments, near Nagepalli Junction, and inquired if any single room flats were available for rent. Bhagwantudu, the watchman, informed her that Flat 304 was available and sought Rs 30,000 as three months’ rent in advance, which she paid and moved in that evening.

Bhagwantudu has now admitted that he later passed on only Rs 10,000 to the house owner, telling him that Ludgate would pay the rest later. But a week after moving in, Ludgate told the watchman that she found the flat uncomfortable, and that she would move out at the end of the month. She also sought the remaining two months’ rent back.

It was then that Bhagwantudu hatched the plan to kill her. He persuaded Poothaliah, watchman of the neighbouring Satya Sai Nivas Apartments, to help him commit the murder, promising to pay Rs 5,000.

On August 29, when Ludgate called Bhagwantudu to fix a leaking tap, the two watchmen got a chance to enter her apartment – within minutes, Poothaliah overpowered her, Bhagwantudu strangled her. Poothaliah then took her cell phone and Rs 3,500 in cash while Bhagwantudu locked the apartment.

At nightfall, Bhagwantudu called his brother in law over and they took Ludgate’s body in Nagaraju’s taxi to Marvakuntapalli village in Kothacheruvu Mandal, where they buried her beside a field. They took her laptop, credit and bank cards, and identity cards and burned them at another location.

The very next morning, Bhagwantudu and Poothaliah returned to duty.

On October 4, one of Ludgate’s friends in Puttaparthi informed local authorities that she was missing. Local police initially believed Ludgate may have travelled to one of the villages nearby where mobile signals are often erratic. The next day the friend approached Puttaparthi Urban Police but was told to wait for for a few days, for the same reason.

But as the days went by, Ludgate’s family in Pyrmont, a suburb of Sydney, contacted authorities in Australia and the Indian Embassy there, and the message filtered down to the office of Anantapur SP S V Rajashekar.

“We contacted Prashanti Nilayam, took her details and asked the immigration office to find out if she was still in India. We then registered a missing complaint and formed a special team to track her down. First we tried to find out if she had gone to some of the villages in Anantapur and Kurnool, or even to Bengaluru, or if she had decided to visit other pilgrimage destinations in the country,” a police officer said.

By then, Bhagwantudu had become restless – it was more than two weeks and no one had come to inquire about his victim. On October 14, he walked into the Puttaparthi Urban Police Station.

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