Kerala Police faces uphill task in proving one of the most gruesome serial murders in state’s history
If it were the Tamil Tigers who had previously romanticised potassium cyanide as the one of the most deadly killing agents of the last century, a 47 year old woman in Kerala is now doing just that.
What she had achieved with the same chemical over a period of 14 years has sent shock waves across the state.
As per her own confession before the investigating team of the Crime Branch (CB-CID) of the state police, Jolly Amma Joseph hailing from Kattapana in Idukki had used potassium cyanide to kill six persons in her husband’s family. The murders starting in 2002 and spanning more than a decade.
Jolly had almost pulled off the perfect crime till a special branch team of the state police decided to keep an eye on her. This, after Rojo Thomas, the brother of Jolly’s former husband Roy Thomas who was killed in 2011, lodged a police complaint suspecting foul play into the death of six members of his family including his brother, parents and cousin’s child and wife.
The state police now say that Jolly who is under arrest has confessed to the crimes she had committed and that she comes under the perfect definition of a ‘serial killer’. Her accomplice, one Mathew, who supplied cyanide to her and a goldsmith from whom Mathew procured the chemical are also under arrest.
Jolly’s first victim was Annamma Thomas, her mother-in-law in 2002 followed by father-in-law Tom Thomas in 2008. In 2011 she killed her husband Roy Thomas and to hide the crime murdered Annamma’s brother Mathew who raised alarm bells in 2014 after Roy’s autopsy report showed presence of potassium cyanide.
In the same year she poisoned and killed Alphine the one-year-old child of Shaju, Roy’s cousin whom she married subsequently after murdering his wife Sili in 2016. Police believe that all the victims have been poisoned with cyanide although scientific evidence is still awaited.
“All the deaths have shown the imprints of cyanide poisoning. There is no doubt about that. The symptoms they all depicted just before death also show that poisoning is the likely cause of death. But we are awaiting scientific evidence to conclusively prove it in all cases,” KG Simon, Thamaraserry Superintendent of Police told the media.
Though much clarity is still required to conclusively ascertain the motives that turned an otherwise discreet housewife, married into the Ponnamattam family in the little known hilly village of Koodathayi in Kozhikode, into a full blown serial killer, prime facie police say that a mixture of greed for the ancestral property and an attempt to protect extra marital affairs might have been the big influences.
“The motive was different for each murder. Annamma was killed because the entire money power in the family ran through her. The father-in-law had refused to give any further share in the ancestral property. So she bumped him off. Roy was killed because Jolly’s relationship with him had become completely strained by that time. Mathew, the fourth one to be killed was adamant that a postmortem be conducted on Roy. He may have had some hints of foul play. So she killed him. Jolly was certain that Alphine being a girl would become a liability in her relationship with Shaju, the girl’s father. Sili was killed so that Jolly could marry Sili’s husband Shaju,” reiterated Simon.
Kerala police over the last few months seem to have meticulously connected the dots in the case and when confronted with their findings Jolly had no option but to confess.
But the job at hand for the investigation team has only got tougher because to ensure Jolly gets convicted or atleast to make a water tight case against her, the cops need scientific evidence in place, something that is still hard to come by.
Last week the bodies of all the victims were exhumed but the investigators could not deduce much out of them due to years of decomposition. Tracing back presence of cyanide on these bodies will be crucial for the case.
“The biggest challenge before the investigation team is to recover the traces of cyanide from the exhumed bodies. We might have to send samples to more sophisticated labs outside India like the one in Sussex in England or in the US.
I can only tell you that the best minds in Kerala police are working on the case right now and we are confident of getting the scientific evidence needed to crack it. Also it is crucial to trace the cyanide trail, how did this woman procure it so easily,’’ Kerala DGP Lokanath Behera told The Lede.
For the residents of Koodathayi, who knew Jolly Amma Joseph as the next door housewife her arrest has come as a rude shock. The stories that emerged following the arrest were much more shocking, simply because Jolly had never ever openly shown any traits of a killer even when she was committing one murder after another.
Not just that, she had even put on an act every time someone died. When 57 years old Annamma died on August 22, 2002, after consuming cyanide laced mutton soup, a wailing Jolly herself took her mother-in-law to hospital. Similar circumstances took place in 2008 when she fed cyanide to the father-in-law Tom Thomas in his favourite tapioca dish.
In 2011 when Roy died of poisoning, Jolly went around spreading the word that it was a cardiac arrest from the very first day in spite of the autopsy report detecting cyanide poisoning. That she could remain cool for years together and pull off murders at will around her spoke volumes of the woman’s mental state.
Subash Babu a retired Superintendent of Police had been a well-known face in the investigation circles in Kerala police. Though he says the murder comes under ‘rarest of rare’ category, people like Jolly are not rare.
“I will not say that such people are uncommon. At least in two to three cases which I have personally investigated I have come across murderers behaving in such similar circumstances. These are people with split personalities. Before the society and even at home they will seldom reveal the criminal side of their mind.
They will behave just like a normal human being, but they will always be scheming and finding ways to get to their desired goals. For such people the means do not matter at all. At any cost they will reach their ultimate goal, how much ever time it takes,’’ Suresh Babu told The Lede.
Veteran psychiatrists however say that split personality is just a misnomer and that people like Jolly actually have a much bigger problem called Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD) where the emotion of empathy is absolutely absent. In other words, Jolly classifies as a clear sociopath.
“We always say split personalities. But scientifically it is inaccurate. These are people with ASPD for whom the mirror neurons in the brain may either be absent or relatively deficient. Such people do not feel any empathy and they will never have any fear of law or the society. They will do anything to reach their desired goals. Jolly is one such classic case and such people always wear a mask and whatever we see from outside is just the mask till one day the mask falls off, just like her case,’’ noted psychiatrist Dr Mohan Roy told The Lede.
Roy’s words clearly explain why Jolly was able to lead a normal life in spite of doing some of the most heinous crimes. She even held a fake identity as a teacher at National Institute of Technology (NIT) that her family and neighbours believed for years till the cops blew her cover. It was a perfect double life.
But the doctor also throws a word of caution. “She might certainly have a psychiatric problem. But that does not make her in anyway a lesser criminal. Media should be cautious what you label someone like her because she is very well aware of the consequences of her actions and not the other way round when your insanity pushes you to do something impulsively,’’ added Roy.
Investigators say that Jolly’s aim was supreme control over the property of the Ponnamattam family and that she was ready to go to any lengths for the same. Police even warn that had she not been arrested the family might have seen more murders.
For instance Roy’s bother Rojo and sister Renji feel they survived only because they had been abroad in the US all the while when Jolly was carrying out the well planned murders back home. Renji had also deposed before that police that an attempt to poison her also had happened which at that time she thought was only food poisoning.
After Jolly’s arrest, a former maid at the family house has also told the police that she had also thrown up after eating food and had to be hospitalised with similar symptoms of poisoning. Police are now not ruling out the chances of Jolly conducting many trial runs with small doses of poison to ascertain how much could be lethal.
On Tuesday the investigating team picked up Shaju, the present husband of Jolly, for questioning. It was Shaju’s one year old daughter and wife that Jolly had allegedly poisoned and killed in order to marry him. Police feel Shaju was more than a silent accomplice in the murder, although they are still awaiting evidence to nail him.
Not just Shaju, a number of others are also under the scanner. Knowingly or unknowingly a few individuals in the area had helped Jolly carry out her nefarious designs, easy influenced by her sweet talk and charms, another quality that ASPD persons possess.
Under the scanner is a Deputy Land Tahsildar Jayasree Warrier who helped her make a fake will that puts all the property in the name of Jolly. The will was made after the death of Tom Thomas.
Also on Wednesday the police had questioned a BSNL employee Jhonson who seemed to have received a number of phone calls from Jolly.
“We have got clear information that Jolly was helped by a number of people at various levels of her conspiracy. So all those people will also come under the ambit of the investigation. More people are likely to be arrested in coming days,’’ an officer in the investigation team told The Lede in anonymity.
Although she managed to pull off the murders, nailing Jolly was not a tough task because she did leave her imprints in almost all of them. For starters, police had found that she was present at every scene of crime. She was the one common noticeable factor.
Apart from the death of Annamma when others were also present in the house, Jolly was the only person near the victim when Tom, Roy, Mathew, Alphine and Sili died.
Secondly there were a number of disparities in her version of events that made the police doubt her right at the outset.
For instance she claimed she was in the kitchen cooking while Roy threw up in the toilet and died on the spot. She also claimed that Roy had not eaten since morning but autopsy report claimed traces of immediate consumption of food.
Following Roy’s death she spread the word around as if on purpose that he had died of a cardiac arrest while the autopsy report claimed poisoning by potassium cyanide. How could potassium cyanide get into his food without his wife’s knowledge, she being the only person present at home at that time, was a pertinent question that the cops kept asking her.
Moments before Mathew, Roy’s uncle and neighbour died, Jolly had been the only person who visited him.
One year old Alphine was fed with bread and chicken by Jolly before she had to be rushed to the hospital and Sili died on Jolly’s lap while waiting to meet a dental consultant in the town. The last thing she had was water that Jolly carried in her bag.
Jolly’s imprints at the murder spots were too much for the investigators to ignore and hours of grilling finally made her confess.
“There were more than 50 counts of disparities in Jolly’s statements. She clearly was lying and that was evident when we questioned her. We kept a close watch on her for a few months. That’s when we discovered that she was leading a double life. She had a fake identity card as a teacher at the NIT while she had nothing to do with the institute,’’ added SP Simon.
While the complaint to reopen investigation into Roy’s death by his brother still failed to cut ice with the local police, it was a special branch sub inspector’s decision to go on Jolly’s trail in complete secrecy to ascertain if the case had any merit, that finally blew off the lid in the case.
He then filed a report with his preliminary findings following which the Kerala High Court asked the police to reopen investigation into Roy’s death. That led to the rest of the cases and then to exhuming the bodies for examination.
Police now say that atleast in Roy’s case they have clinching evidence and seasoned investigators too feel the same.
“At least in Roy’s murder the police does have enough evidence to nail her. There is a clear autopsy report and statements from her accomplices that they had supplied potassium cyanide to Jolly days before Joy’s death. So for that case she is likely to get convicted. The challenge will be in the rest of the cases,’’ added Subash Babu.
Although the Crime Branch have so far done a tremendous job in netting what could be one of Kerala’s deadliest serial killers ever, the local police is still taking a lot of flak because had proper investigations been done after the death of Roy, Jolly would not have managed to kill three more victims.
The local inspector who investigated the case overlooked the autopsy report of the presence of cyanide in Roy’s body. While the inspector claims that he did not investigate further since then there was no complaint from the family, many believe that Jolly had used her influences to hush up the matter.
“No doubt there was complacency on the part of the local police then. Otherwise the moment you see poisoning by cyanide in autopsy you are suo-motu responsible to file a case and trace the origin of the cyanide. Even if Roy had committed suicide you have to trace how he got such a deadly substance like cyanide. Had that been done, Jolly’s connections would have come out in the open and three more lives could have been saved,’’ former SP George Joseph told The Lede.
As we file this report, investigation is still in progress and with almost every passing day new skeletons are falling out of the cupboard.
On Wednesday unconfirmed news had surfaced that Jolly had attempted to kill five more people in an extended family at behest of another individual, again over a property dispute. Police are looking into it now.
Police are also investigating the death of Ramakrishnan, a local Congress leader with whom Jolly had money dealings. His son has now expressed his doubts about Jolly’s involvement in his father’s unnatural death.
Police may have successfully nailed Jolly and made her confess to her crimes. But proving her guilty in a court of law will be an entirely different ball game. For that the prosecution will need to provide irrefutable scientific evidence for which the cops will have to really dig deep.