Nithari convict Surendra Koli. Photo: HT
Nithari convict Surendra Koli. Photo: HT

Serial killings: India’s untold story

In recent serial murder cases, the modus operandi has been different, but there's a pattern to how the victims were chosen, and the killers left their signature

New Delhi: A lone fig tree guarded a 10-year-old grave in the backyard of Santosh Pol’s home in Dhom, a village near Wai town at the base of the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani hill stations in Maharashtra. Recently, the tree was uprooted and the body of Vanita Gaikwad, who was buried there after being murdered on 12 August 2006, recovered.

Gaikwad, 40 at the time of her death, is one of the six people Pol, or Dr Death as he is known, has confessed to murdering between 2003 and 2016.

Ten years after the Nithari murders, in which 17 young women and children from a slum on the outskirts of New Delhi were alleged to have been kidnapped and murdered, India woke up to another serial killing spree with the arrest of Pol in August.

Moninder Singh Pandher was acquitted in the Nithari case. Photo: HT
Moninder Singh Pandher was acquitted in the Nithari case. Photo: HT

A 41-year-old medical practitioner in Maharashtra’s Satara district, Pol was arrested on 11 August for the murder of an Anganwadi (childcare centre) worker who had gone missing in June. During the investigation, police found the remains of five more victims including Gaikwad, who used to visit Pol as a patient, on the grounds of Pol’s poultry farmhouse.

Pol taunted the police for not catching him for 13 years after he murdered his first victim. In the Nithari case too, the killings blamed on a businessman and his domestic help, took place over several years. It points to how lack of communication between law enforcement agencies and inefficient records management systems impede the linking of cases to a common offender.

“It’s only when they confess that the fact that they are serial killers comes out. It indicates that these people make sure no one comes to know of their actions. They closely watch media, make sure their social circle doesn’t get even a hint of what they have done," says S.L. Vaya, a forensic psychologist from Gujarat and director (research and development) at the Raksha Shakti University in Gandhinagar, who examined the accused in the Nithari case.

Lack of communication between law enforcement agencies and inefficient records management systems impede the linking of cases to a common offender

To be sure, the number of serial killers who have been caught is small. They include Raman Raghav, who terrorized Mumbai slum dwellers in the 1960s; M. Jaishankar, known as Psycho Shankar, who murdered 15 women with a machete was caught in 2009; sisters Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit, who killed at least six toddlers from 1990 to 1996; and Cyanide Mohan, a former primary school teacher arrested in Indonesia last year for the murder of several young women in India.

“Just because only a few are caught doesn’t mean there aren’t many roaming out there in the open," says Piyush Jha, who has authored a book on serial killers. “In India, we seem to be in denial that serial killers exist. The idea of serial killers that we have is mostly based on the fiction coming out of the West."

In 2009, nine women were killed for the jewellery and the money they had. All of them died in public toilets at bus stations in Mysore, Bangalore, Madikere and Hassan in Karnataka. They all had froth on their mouth—a sign of possible poisoning—but the deaths were classified as suicides. Eventually, it turned out that they had all been murdered by Mohan Kumar alias Cyanide Mohan, who used cyanide-laced pills that he passed off as birth control pills to women.

It’s only when they confess that the fact that they are serial killers comes out. It indicates that these people make sure no one comes to know of their actions. They closely watch media, make sure their social circle doesn’t get even a hint of what they have done- S.L. Vaya, forensic psychologist from Gujarat and director, Raksha Shakti University, Gandhinagar.

“For investigating serial killers, you need accurate crime records, which we don’t have. In several countries, the police see a pattern in a crime and chase it. Until we have a rule of law system where police records crimes and keep a track of it, where there is meticulous investigation, we will not be able to track the problem. These are not one-time murderers, they are serial killers. They know what and how to manipulate," says criminal psychologist Dr Rajat Mitra.

From 1999 to 2007, six murders were reported from five districts of Karnataka: Bangalore city, Bangalore Rural, Tumkur, Kolar, Mysore and Mandya. No link was established. Three were registered as mysterious murders and three as unnatural deaths. The first person to see a pattern in these killings was inspector S.K. Umesh at the Kalasipalyam police station in Bengaluru.

Cyanide Mohan Kumar was convicted for the murder of 20 women. Photo: HT
Cyanide Mohan Kumar was convicted for the murder of 20 women. Photo: HT

“First we analysed the murders. All were happening in temples. We found out the days of the week when the murders happened, the profile of those visiting the temple, the rooms taken for rent, the neighbours," says additional commissioner of police (crime), Bangalore City, K.V.Sharath Chandra, who was a deputy commissioner then.

“We contacted the families of all the victims to find out who did the women befriend in the period they had come to the temple...who accompanied the women to the temple," says Chandra.

These are not one-time murderers, they are serial killers. They know what and how to manipulate- Criminial psychologist Dr Rajat Mitra

Mallika, alias Cyanide Mallika alias K.D. Kempamma, was arrested in connection with the murders. She was in her mid-40s. Her modus operandi was to lure women who were facing domestic problems and advise them to conduct a special pooja to get rid of their problems. Under the pretext of conducting the pooja, she took them to a temple on the city’s outskirts, hired a room and administered cyanide to them before escaping with their cash and jewellery. It took the police team around 25 days and multiple failed attempts to trap her.

“It is very difficult—more so because the murders don’t happen in one particular area. The murders happen in multiple districts. It takes time and intelligence and curiosity to crack such cases. Such cases require a centralized point to draw a pattern. In cases like these, special squads should be formed by a unit head," says Chandra.

In 1985, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy. The team looks at cases that a police investigator doesn’t see every day: a child abduction, a serial murder, a serial rape case. The behavioural expertise of the agents helps in looking at the crime from the behavioural aspect, focusing on the motivations of the offenders, the meaning behind the activities at a crime scene, and why a particular person was victimized.

Kolhapur Killer Sisters—Seema Gavit (left) and Renuka Shinde—convicted for brutally murdering five kids. Photo: HT
Kolhapur Killer Sisters—Seema Gavit (left) and Renuka Shinde—convicted for brutally murdering five kids. Photo: HT

In the case of Cyanide Mohan, it was only when one of the murders was handed over to the Corps of Detectives, a premier investigating agency of Karnataka, that police investigators joined the dots. Looking up the missing persons’ files, detectives examined the details of bodies found in bus stand toilets, and put all the clues together to crack the cases of 20 missing women.

In all serial murder cases in India’s recent history, the modus operandi was different, but almost always there was a pattern to the victims they chose and most, if not all, serial killers left their signature in every murder they committed.

“Serial killers collect souvenirs from each crime to live the experience of the act later as well. There is always a pattern, a unique way in which a serial killer commits a murder. If this signature is identified and then compared, it will be much easier to narrow down on a serial killer," says criminal psychologist Mitra.

There is no generic template for a serial killer. Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behaviour at the crime scene. However, there are certain traits common to some serial murderers, including a lack of remorse, impulsiveness, lack of control, and predatory behaviour.

Mohan Patil, medical superintendent of Rural Hospital in Satara , whose team conducted the autopsy on the Anganwadi worker, said he was taken aback by the “cool and composed" manner in which Pol presented himself. “No fluctuation in blood pressure and no chest pain", were the findings after a medical examination of Pol, according to an 18 August report.

Serial killers collect souvenirs from each crime to live the experience of the act later as well. There is always a pattern, a unique way in which a serial killer commits a murder. If this signature is identified and then compared, it will be much easier to narrow down on a serial killer- Criminal psychologist Rajat Mitra

From Nithari to Satara, the reasons why people turned into serial killers were different. Being good manipulators, as psychologists call them, they convince themselves and others that they had good-enough reasons to do what they did. It could be a traumatic childhood experience or poverty, or inexplicably intense rage.

“When a person becomes a serial killer, it is due to a variety of reasons. They have the appropriate biological predisposition, which is molded by their psychological makeup, their social development, their childhood experiences," says Minakshi Sinha, associate professor at Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science.

“While there are many reasons, doing these crimes gives them a feeling of being powerful. They are hungry for power but haven’t been able to get it in a socially acceptable way. The lacuna in the law and the police system that fails to find him in the first murder, gives him a sense of power," says Sinha.

Being good manipulators, as psychologists call them, serial killers convince themselves and others that they had good-enough reasons to do what they did

In Pol’s case, the reasons haven’t been established yet. In one of the murders, it was a property dispute, in another it was a reaction to a threat of being exposed. So far, the police have registered five different cases against him which pertain to murder, abduction, conspiracy and destruction of evidence.

As the details of these murders unravel, so will the discourse on serial killings, the final word on which hasn’t been heard yet.

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