The year was 2009. The coastal district of Dakshina Kannada in Karnataka, often described as the laboratory for Hindutva experiments, was tense. Just a year earlier, there had been a string of orchestrated attacks on churches in the city of Mangaluru allegedly by outfits allied to the Sangh Parivar. The fringe Hindu outfits were also locked in pitched battles on the streets with Islamic fundamentalist groups like the PFI, especially around Bantwal, a village 30 kilometres off Mangaluru.
“The situation at the time was really bad. Every cop feared to be transferred there,” said a police inspector, who didn’t want to identify himself.
On the morning of June 17, 2009, Anitha Mulya, a 22-year-old who rolled beedis for a living at her home in Barimar village in Bantwal taluk, went missing. For two days, her family and neighbours combed through the village looking for her, but with no luck. And then someone in the community raised a suspicion of ‘love jihad’, a theory that Muslim men seduced Hindu women with the aim of converting them, which seemed apt in the communally charged atmosphere of the time. Right-wing Hindu outfits, finding an opening, jumped on the bandwagon and led feverish protests through the district. They laid siege to the local police station, demanding that the ‘kidnappers’ be arrested.
Sensing that the situation could get out of hand, the Bantwal police formed a high-level probe team under the leadership of then-circle inspector Nanjunde Gowda and then-assistant superintendent Chandragupta. Unknown to Gowda and his team, who began a frenzied hunt for her, the body of Anitha, frothing at the mouth, had been discovered in a ladies’ toilet at the inter-city bus stand in Hassan, a town 160 km away, just a day after she went missing.
Around the same time her lifeless body was pulled out of the restroom, a short man with a thick moustache in his 40s quietly slipped out. Oblivious to the crowd that assembled around her body, the man scurried out of the bus stand and into the nearby lodge room where he and Anitha had spent the last night. There, he scrambled his belongings into a plastic bag and gathered Anitha’s gold ornaments in another. Vacating the room, he slipped out of the lodge and got into a waiting bus that would take him far away from Hassan.
That man was Mohan Kumar, a former primary school teacher from Dakshina Kannada whose transformation into Karnataka’s dreaded serial killer has baffled many for years. On October 21, 2009, Kumar was arrested by the police from a village on the outskirts of Mangaluru and, during interrogation, he admitted to killing Anitha and at least 19 other women between 2004 and 2009 by poisoning them with cyanide. He also confessed to befriending them with the offer of marriage and then stealing their jewellery after killing them.
On June 24 this year, Kumar was convicted and sentenced to life by a trial court in Mangaluru in the 20th murder case registered against him. In five earlier cases against him, Kumar has been handed down the death sentence by the trial court, one of which has been upheld and two others commuted to life by a bench of the Karnataka High Court. Barring five cases, he was found guilty in all.
Many names, one motive
To Anitha Mulya, he was Sudhakar Kulal. To Sunanda Poojary, he was Shashidhar Poojary. To Kaveri, he was Sudhakar Acharya.
According to detailed case files accessed by indianexpress.com and accounts of investigative officers, Kumar seldom used his real name while approaching women. He would loiter mainly around bus stands and other public places, keeping an eye out for women he could befriend.
“He targeted unmarried women who belonged to poor and destitute families, especially those who looked past the age of marriage. He would introduce himself mostly as a government officer and strike conversations with them. If he got a positive response, he would move on to exchanging phone numbers and building a relationship,” said Sanjeev Purusha, an officer who was part of the probe team that arrested Kumar in 2009.
Among the things that Kumar kept in mind while approaching his victims was their caste. During initial conversations, he would enquire about their caste and then claim to be from the same himself. If the victim was an Idiga woman, he was one too. If she belonged to the Poojary community, he was too.
If the women he wooed responded positively to his romantic overtures, Kumar would then propose eloping to get married at a temple or a registration office. He would ask them to carry their finest gold jewellery and clothes for the wedding. However, he would clarify that he didn’t want dowry of any kind. He maintained very little contact with the families of the women he befriended and forbade from informing their relatives about their marriage plans.
“Mohan Kumar was a smooth-talking man and he was able to entice women with his fake credentials of a government officer. Sometimes, he volunteered to arrange jobs for them as well,” said Jnanasekhar, a police writer, also part of the probe team.
Police accounts confirm that Kumar’s modus operandi of killing his victims was similar in all the cases. Once the date for ‘marriage’ was set, Kumar and the victim would set off on a bus from her hometown to distant cities like Mysuru, Bengaluru, Hassan and Madikeri. They would check into a lodge, always close to the main bus stand, where Kumar would enter fake names and addresses in the visitors’ register. He would then engage in sexual intercourse with the victim at night. He was so meticulous that he would even outline their fertility cycles to ensure she was ovulating at the time.
Before leaving for the temple the next day, Kumar would tell his victims to leave the gold jewellery in the lodge room. En route to the temple, officials said Kumar would stop by the ladies’ toilet at the bus stand and offer the victims a cyanide pill repackaged as a contraceptive. His justification for taking the pill inside the toilet was that the woman would feel the need to urinate immediately after consuming it. Once they collapsed inside the toilet after consuming the cyanide, Kumar would bolt for the lodge room, pick up the jewellery and leave the town immediately.
On some occasions, a few days after the murder, Kumar would phone the victims’ families and assure them that they had gotten married. They were living a comfortable life and they needn’t worry about their daughters, he would say.
Purusha said Kumar got the idea of using cyanide as poison from a goldsmith he met during his days as a school teacher. A goldsmith he befriended told him that they used cyanide powder to polish gold jewellery. Posing as a jeweller, Kumar used to buy powdered cyanide in batches from the goldsmith.
Kumar’s overtures to women from socially and financially disempowered communities also pointed to their standing in rural Karnataka’s vicious caste realities, an officer concurred. When a man with a stable government job proposes marriage to them and declines to take dowry, that is an offer difficult to say no to.
“Most of these victims come from families of daily-wage earners and marrying them off in any case is a costly affair. It’s quite hard for a woman to get a suitor if she crosses a particular age,” the officer said.
“The family may file a complaint when she goes missing, but once they realise that she has run away and is safe, they don’t bother proceeding with the complaint. They forget about it and move on.”
Police officials said Kumar got bolder and arrogant after each killing when he noticed that the investigations into the murders reached nowhere. When each of his victims were found in bus-stand toilets, the local police invariably would file a case of unidentified death (UDR), wait for identification by the families and then perform an autopsy. In almost all cases, they were not identified initially and the bodies promptly cremated. Similarly, photographs of the victims were always published in local dailies but not largely circulated outside district limits. Since the victims were always found far away from their hometowns, the families failed to notice such ads.
A police document, detailing their mishandling of some of the cases, noted, “Because there is a delay in conducting the postmortem examination, the real cause of the death may not come out. In many cases, because of the delay…poisonous substances were not detected by the forensic science laboratory in the viscera.”
Even when multiple victims were found in public restrooms at places like Mysuru within a span of days, the local police failed to probe the UDR cases extensively, dismissing them as suicide. The presence of poisonous substances in their bodies didn’t arouse suspicion either. This worked to the advantage of Kumar who continued his murderous spree. The number of victims grew each year: one in 2004, three in 2005, four in 2006, three in 2007, two in 2008 and nine in 2009.
After each killing, Kumar, said Jnanasekhar, would spend time between his second wife Manjula and third wife Sridevi who stayed in Kasaragod and Deralakatte, respectively. From both wives, he has two children each. He would pawn the jewellery of his victims in gold finance companies in Mangaluru and use the money to take care of his families. Until his arrest in 2009, neither wife knew about the other’s existence, or their husband’s exploits.
“There was never any reason for us to suspect that he was doing something wrong. He was like any normal person, having casual conversations over dinner. He used to come home regularly, stay for a few days and then leave saying that he had to travel for work,” said Putta, the brother of his third wife, Sridevi, who is now divorced.
“Initially, after his arrest, we had visited him a few times in jail. But for many years now, we have not met him. He has caused us a great deal of anguish and mental torture and I’m tired of explaining all of that to the media. We’re trying to forget all of that now.”
Sridevi, who refused to comment, works in a finance firm near Mangaluru to raise her two children.
Right-wing pressure put cops on right track
The circumstances that led to Kumar’s arrest in October 2009 began with the police’s spirited probe into the missing of Anitha Mulya a few months earlier. Under pressure from right-wing mobs who were all, but ready, to stamp her disappearance as a case of ‘love jihad’, the Bantwal police, under Gowda, got to the task by examining the call records of the cellphone used by Anitha and the landline at her home.
In the records, one cellphone number, that of a Madikeri resident named Sridhar, stood out. When police landed at Sridhar’s home, they were informed that the number was used by his sister Kaveri who also went missing on March 17. When Kaveri’s call details were traced, it took the police to the homes of two more missing women – Vinutha in Puttur and Pushpa in the border district of Kasaragod in Kerala.
A thread had begun to form. The suspect was making calls from one missing woman’s SIM card to the next, the police decoded.
By then, the police had realised that they were no longer dealing with a missing woman’s complaint. It was something much bigger. Their first suspicion was on a trafficking racket that targeted unmarried women. But then those doubts were dismissed when they couldn’t find any clues about the operation of such a racket.
“Along with call records, what proved to be more helpful was basic intelligence inputs,” said Gowda, now retired from the police force.
The probe team connected with neighbouring police stations to scour for more complaints of missing women and then build up a timeline based on the dates of their disappearances. The breakthrough eventually came when the police intensified their search on the common IMEI numbers of the phones that used the SIM cards of the missing girls. Among them, a phone with one of the IMEI numbers was found to be used continuously for almost 20 minutes with the location tracked to Deralakatte, a village on the outskirts of Mangaluru.
“The owner of the cell phone admitted that it was his hand-set, but added that he had given it to his nephew by the name of Mohan Kumar, a teacher,” said Purusha.
And for the first time, the idea of Kumar as a potential suspect presented itself before the police. Before they zeroed in on him, they sought the help of Sumithra, a woman tailor from Deralakatte, who testified to seeing him and Anitha at the bus stand leaving for Hassan and therefore would be able to identify him. Sumithra also told the police that it could be the same man who had approached her in 2005 posing as a plantation supervisor with the offer of marriage.
“We placed a call from Sumithra’s SIM card to him and laid a trap for him at the local bus stand. When he arrived, we arrested him,” added Purusha, who now works with the police intelligence security wing in Mangaluru.
During a raid at his third wife Sridevi’s home, the police came across incriminating evidence including large quantities of cyanide powder, counterfeit government seals, visiting cards and receipts from gold financing firms where the victims’ jewellery was pledged. Post-arrest, when his exploits reached the front-pages of newspapers in India, Kumar had earned a new moniker: Cyanide Mohan.
On October 12, 2017, the Karnataka High Court bench of Justices Ravi Malimath and John Michael Cunha, while commuting the death sentence given by a trial court to life in the murder of Anitha Mulya, noted, “The documents seized from the possession of the accused viz the visiting cards printed in various names by which the accused was impersonating himself go to show that using fictitious names, the accused was found enticing gullible womenfolk and unmarried girls with the false promises of securing job or getting married with them and later administering deadly poison and robbing their valuables. Concealing his identity and disguising himself by different names as evidenced in the various identity cards printed with his photographs and the fake letterheads is a clear proof of guilty intention and the motive.”
In court, Kumar represented himself, routinely cross-examining police officials and other witnesses in the case, taking detailed notes and poring through law books to find loopholes. In jail too, he had a stack of textbooks that he used to make himself acquainted with the nitty-gritties of law.
Jayaram Shetty, the public prosecutor who faced off against Kumar in the last two cases, said, “He’s very thorough and he presents the case very well. He’s quite intelligent that way. But, during cross-examination, he still makes mistakes because he’s not a certified lawyer.”
A school teacher who spoke less
The road to Kanyana, Kumar’s native village, is a dusty thoroughfare that cuts away from the Mangaluru-Kasaragod highway just before Ullal. It winds up and down along the Kalanjimale reserved forest past a smattering of thatched homes, whose occupants are largely daily-wage farmers engaged in farming of coconut and arecanut, the chief crops in the area. At one point, the road enters a portion of Kerala, where signboards in Malayalam prop up, before crossing over into Karnataka again and finally reaching the Kanyana panchayat limits.
It was here that Kumar was born to Maielappa Mogera and Tukru in a Scheduled Caste (SC) family on April 6, 1963. He has three siblings – two brothers and a sister. His parents were daily-wage labourers who worked on agricultural lands belonging to affluent farmers. In the 70s, courtesy the state government’s rural housing scheme for backward sections, the family got a concrete tile-roofed, single-storey house where Kumar’s brother Ramesh continues to reside.
“In those days, there was not a lot of academic interest among the children here. Many of them were lazy and dropped out of school. But these four children (Kumar and his siblings) were bright and studied well,” said Rama, a relative of Kumar. While one of Kumar’s brothers is a conductor with the state transport bus corporation, his sister works in the postal department.
After completing high school, Kumar enrolled for a BA degree course at the Uppinangadi First Grade College in Dakshina Kannada.
Abdurrahman, a school-friend of Kumar and now the panchayat vice-president, said he remembered him as an athletic boy who played kabaddi and cricket. “His parents worked on our family farm for years so I knew him quite well. In school, I used to talk to him often and he was a clean guy. He was average in studies, but he used to work hard on his physical fitness. He would play kabaddi and cricket in school,” remembered Abdurrahman.
Kumar’s elder brother Ramesh, who retired from odd daily-wage jobs due to heart ailments, said he couldn’t remember anything unusual from their childhood that would point to his brother’s future psychopathic leanings. “Soumya swabhavakkaran aayirunnu (He was mild-mannered),” he said, in broken Malayalam. “But he was reserved and spoke less.”
A critical point in their lives was when their father abandoned the family leaving them to fend for themselves. “I was 14 when my father left. We were small kids and we didn’t ask our mother why he left. But Mohan was deeply attached to his mother,” said Ramesh.
Kumar entered government service as a primary school teacher on a contractual basis right after his graduation, even though he didn’t have a teaching diploma. In those days, reservation for the Dalits ensured a direct entry into teaching service without a diploma (D.Ed). According to police records, Kumar began his career from the Shiradi Primary School in November 1984 and has since worked in different schools across the district. However, he was under long spells of suspension owing to irregular attendance and misdeeds.
Kumar’s first marriage was with Mary which ended in divorce purportedly because he refused to convert to Christianity. His second marriage was to Manjula, a woman of the same community as him, which his family had arranged in 1992. Through Manjula, he has two sons, both of whom are in college now.
“He was always nice to me. In the initial few years, he didn’t talk a lot. He would come home from school, eat and go to sleep. After we shifted from my mother’s home to another place, he started talking a bit more. But like other couples, we have never gone on an outing or for shopping. I accompanied him just once when he was taking his students for a school trip,” said Manjula, over the phone.
Although Kumar would frequently advise her to take care of the kids’ studies, he never did anything himself. “He has never even bought chocolates for the kids. I single-handedly brought them up, with hardly any involvement from him.”
“He would often tell me that he’s been transferred and that he doesn’t have the money to travel back home so he stays there itself. He would come once a week and I believed him thinking that he is working so hard for us. Later in papers, I realised he was out there hunting women,” added Manjula.
The news of Kumar’s arrest and the subsequent blanket coverage by the local Kannada TV channels was followed by police officials and journalists streaming into Kanyana to collect tidbits about the serial killer. In no time, the tiny village was propelled into the spotlight.
“We were stunned. We couldn’t believe it,” said Abdurrahman.
Kumar’s family felt the same way. “I think if he had good friends, he wouldn’t have turned out this way. When you sit alone, you can get all sorts of terrible ideas in your head,” said Ramesh, underlining that he has never maintained communication with his brother after his arrest.
At Kumar’s home, the walls covered in dirt and soot are filled with framed photographs of everyone except him. When Ramesh was asked why that was so, he shot back, “There’s no need. I burned them and threw them away.”
(with inputs from Iram Siddiqui)
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