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Mass suicide or mass murder? Burari family deaths still a mystery 3 weeks later

A look at how the police team gathered evidence in bits and pieces and how it managed to string together the events that led to the horrifying ‘mass suicide’ of a family in Burari, Delhi.

delhi Updated: Jul 23, 2018 11:04 IST
Shiv Sunny and Karn Pratap Singh
Shiv Sunny and Karn Pratap Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Burari deaths,Burari,Burari family suicide
Ambulances carry the bodies of 11 family members who were found hanging at their residence in Burari, New Delhi.(PTI File Photo)

Ten bodies hanging from the iron grill of a ventilation shaft, one lying on the floor, one sick dog barking furiously and an open house with no apparent signs of struggle – even to experienced investigators, the scene at the house in Burari was unlike anything they had encountered before.

Rattled by what they saw in the house, the police officers had no clue to what happened. It could have been a mass murder, a suicide pact, or a combination of both.

Equally baffled were the surviving members of the Bhatia family and the neighbours who told the police that there was absolutely nothing that betrayed the family’s plans. Till a day before, the women in the family were planning to go shopping for an upcoming wedding, the children had arranged a cricket match the following morning, the family had given clothes to be ironed and the family members were out till 11pm talking to neighbours on Saturday.

Investigators knew they were staring at an “unusual and blind” case.

The investigation

Over the next few days, a team of 100 members of the crime branch questioned over 150 people, examined hundreds of pages of recovered notes, analysed the call details of 11 mobile phones and went through 72 hours of footage from CCTV cameras.

They geared up for what they knew would be a tedious probe. They said the recovery of some hand-written notes from the house gave the investigation a clear direction. “We knew we had a strong lead, but we needed a strong set of evidence to prove our theory,” an investigator said.

Leading the team was deputy commissioner of police Joy Tirkey, a doctor who was not new to investigating mass deaths. In 2006, Tirkey cracked the murders of seven members of a family in Inderlok.

Investigators said they knew they had to play safe, so they registered a murder case. While 10 members of the family were found hanging and they looked like suicides, but the matriarch, 77-year-old Narayan Devi, was found dead on the floor.

“A murder case could be downgraded into a suicide case later. But it would have been embarrassing and unfair if a suicide case would later turn out to be a murder,” said an investigator.

Ruling out theories

The first thing the police had to do was rule out the possibility that the 10 people were murdered before hanging. One of the possibilities they were exploring was that the family was poisoned, but they found no evidence pointing to that. “If they were poisoned first, they should have vomited and the food items in the house would have indicated poisoning,” said the officer.

Another possibility that the family was killed before they were hanged, too, seemed unlikely. Some victims weighed 80-90 kgs. Hanging 11 living people with “clinical precision” would have left signs of struggle and would have required a “great preparation”, investigators said.

A look at the series of discoveries that were made at the house which led the police to form the main theory about what happened to the Bhatia family
A total of 8 cellphones and one tablet were recovered from a wooden rack in the prayer area. Since the notes asked the family to not use their phones before the ritual, family members had put the devices on silent mode, taped them and concealed them. Some of these phones are yet to be unlocked, but the police have analysed the call record details
Over 3 days, the police recovered 11 notebooks from the house. These notebooks had details on the ritual that led to the deaths. The notes were written by at least three different persons. The first note dates back to July 2007, a few months after the death of Lalit’s father
3) iron grille
10 of the 11 family members were found hanging from an iron grille installed in the centre of the house’s drawing room
The Bhatia family had taken extensive care to ensure that their ritual remained a secret. But the police were surprised that the main gate of the house was open the morning of the deaths. The living members of the family pointed to the open door as they alleged it was a murder case. The best possible explanation the police have is that the family believed that an open doorwould allow their dead patriarch’s soul to wander in
A day after the deaths, exactly 11 pipes protruding out of the Bhatia house drew curiosity. These included seven bent pipes and four straight ones, corresponding to the number of dead men and women. Rumour spread that the pipes were meant to help the souls of the dead escape. But the police questioned the contractor who built the house. He said the pipes were installed to facilitate ventilation and their number was a mere coincidence
Another discovery that created buzz was the presence of 11 rods on the ventilation shaft on the house’s main gate. Locals told the police that the rods had been installed 6 months ago. However, the welder who fixed the rods said the number was a "mere coincidence". He said the number was only determined by the width of the gate

Some of the hanging people had their feet touching the ground, which led to some investigators suggesting they had been “forcibly hanged”. But other officers saw it differently. “If their feet were touching the ground, it is most likely a suicide. Murderers often ensure that the feet don’t touch the ground,” said the officer.

As for Narayan Devi, the police awaited the autopsy report. They were confident that the other 10 autopsy reports would not throw up surprises, but were anxious about Devi’s results. Once doctors confirmed that she too died of hanging, the police were certain there was no murder.

The next step was to probe the possible presence of a 12th person in the house. The police went through CCTV footage of the last three days until the deaths.

“No one entered the house after 11.05pm. Moreover, the family members voluntarily bringing in stools and cables used in the hanging were seen in the footage,” the investigator said.

But all this did nothing to rule out the possibility that an outsider, possibly an occultist or a godman, instigated the family to kill themselves. So, they checked the call records of 11 mobile phones belonging to the dead. The call records threw up a little over 100 unique numbers. “We dialled all numbers individually to confirm they were not in touch with a godman.”

Multiple police teams were formed and they visited four states and interacted with 150 people to understand the family. As more notes emerged, three officers – DCP Tirkey, an assistant commissioner of police and an inspector – analysed their contents to know the family’s motives.

As it became clear it was a ritual gone wrong, Tirkey’s diploma in psychiatry helped cops attribute the deaths to Devi’s son Lalit Bhatia’s “delusional disorder” – a condition in which he couldn’t differentiate reality from imagination. The others suffered from “shared psychotic disorder” in which they blindly followed Lalit.

The police will now conduct a “psychological autopsy” of the dead before submitting their findings in court. “We will submit the detailed investigation report along with the autopsy reports, the CCTV footage, the recovered notes and statements.”

First Published: Jul 23, 2018 08:15 IST