A suspicious husband, an interstate labourer and a blameless victim | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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A suspicious husband, an interstate labourer and a blameless victim

Sep 28, 2023 05:42 PM IST

How a police team cracked a 17-year-old murder that rocked a small Kerala village, despite shoddy investigation by earlier teams and the murderer's red herrings

PULLAD: The day was May 26, 2006, and Unnikrishnan Nair P, then a 24-year-old, remembers it like yesterday. That year, the southwest monsoon had not made its official onset over the state, but its imminent arrival brought dark rain clouds over the small village of Pullad in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district.

The house in the small village of Pullad in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district where the murder took place(Courtesy: The Author) PREMIUM
The house in the small village of Pullad in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district where the murder took place(Courtesy: The Author)

“It was just pouring that day. I was chatting with my friends at a shop that I ran when someone came running and frantically told us that Remadevi (50), the mother of one of my classmates, had been found murdered at her home. I knew the family and so I immediately ran to their house to find Remadevi lying face down near the dining table with a pool of blood around her,” said Unnikrishnan, currently a ward member of the local Koyipuram panchayat where Pullad is located.

“There was a deep wound around her neck as if someone sliced it with a sharp object. Her relatives tried to take her to a hospital, but she was almost decapitated so they put her down near the home’s entrance. It was clear she had died by then. I went to the police and informed them about the murder,” he said.

Even as her family members wailed and expressed grief, Remadevi’s husband Janardhanan Nair, who claimed to be the first to see his wife’s body, stood emotionless. “He wasn’t crying. But that’s how he has always been. He doesn’t talk to people a lot and he doesn’t smile much. People knew his character so there was nothing to suspect,” Unnikrishnan said.

Police officers soon came to the spot, completed inquest proceedings and signed off on the autopsy. A gold necklace belonging to Remadevi had gone missing and so it was initially construed that a theft had resulted in the murder. And then, within a couple of days of the incident, a labourer named Chudalamuthu, who worked on an under-construction building next to Remadevi’s home, went missing along with a woman he was staying with. The locals’ suspicions squarely fell on Chudalamuthu who reportedly also had past complaints against him in other areas with respect to his dealings with women.

The police, duly alerted by locals and pressured by political higher-ups, focused their investigation on finding Chudalamuthu who became their main suspect. Successive officers probing the case searched multiple locations across Kerala and Tamil Nadu to find clues of Chudalamuthu, but he was never found. In 2007, the crime branch took over the case spurred by Janardhanan Nair’s appeal in the high court, but nothing substantial came of it.

On July 11, 2023, the crime branch team led by Inspector Sunil Raj made a startling announcement: they arrested Janardhanan Nair, now 75 and retired from the postal department, for his wife Remadevi’s murder. The evidence: clumps of hair retrieved from the hands of the dead homemaker and testimony from Chudalamuthu’s partner. A combination of neglect on the part of successive probe teams, long-standing prejudice about interstate workers and the devious tactics of Janardhanan Nair led to the murder case staying unsolved for 17 years.

Remadevi, the victim
Remadevi, the victim

Cracking the case

On a drizzly morning earlier this month, Inspector Raj was busy attending phone calls at the crime branch office in Thiruvalla. The chargesheet in the Remadevi murder case was being prepared and he had to make sure there were no loopholes before it was sent to his superior’s office before being submitted in court. After attending to a few matters, Raj sat down at his small table to talk about the most challenging case of his career.

“I took up the investigation in July 2022 and it was tough, this is perhaps one of the most convoluted cases in the state’s history,” he said.

According to the police, Chudalamuthu, a migrant worker from a village in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu, had started working at an under-construction house next to Remadevi’s home a few days before her murder.

“He was a known womaniser and had relationships with several women. After he started working in Pullad, locals had seen him interacting with Remadevi several times. He was using an abandoned bathroom in her compound to store his tools. When he went missing following the murder, the locals presumed he was a suspect because he had a not-so-good history with women too,” said Raj.

“The investigations thus for the next decade were centred on finding Chudalamuthu as he was considered the main and only suspect. He has not been found yet, and frankly, we are not sure if he is dead or alive. We went to his hometown in Tamil Nadu and his family said he has not come home even once in the past 17 years. We found Arputhamani, the woman he was staying with, who claimed that Chudalamuthu didn’t kill Remadevi. She told us she left with Chudalamuthu the day after the murder,” the inspector added.

“If someone commits a murder, he/she would not wait till the next day to escape.”

With no leads on Chudalamuthu and amid signs of the probe going cold, an action council, comprising locals including Unnikrishnan, was formed to exert pressure on the police to catch the culprits. From the locals’ perspective, the shocking killing of an innocuous homemaker had spread fear within the community and a speedy police investigation was necessary to instil confidence among the public. In 2007, persuaded by the locals, Nair filed a petition in the Kerala high court (HC) demanding that the case be handed over to the crime branch division. But even before HC ruled, the then-state government directed the crime branch to take over the probe.

The most important scientific piece of evidence, retrieved from the body that successive police units either deliberately or unintentionally chose to ignore, was clumps of hair found within the fists of both hands of the victim. In one fist, there were 36 hair follicles and in the other, four hair follicles.

Inspector Raj said, "For some reason, there was no proper investigation done on the hairs. The hair samples had been collected by the scientific assistant and submitted in court which was then sent to the forensic laboratory. When we revisited the May 2010 forensic report, it had clearly said that the hair follicles found in Remadevi’s hands were similar to the sample scalp hairs of her husband. Naturally, that means there was a scuffle between them and she yanked the hairs off his head when he attacked her with a knife.”

After the murder, her hands experienced cadaveric spasm, a condition where muscles stiffen and become rigid, leading to her fists remaining closed and possibly preventing Nair from spotting the hair follicles.

The forensic tests proved that the hair follicles retrieved from the victim’s fists were actually grey hair that had been dyed black. “We found that Nair used to dye his hair at the time. The Tamil man on the other hand was just 26 and couldn’t have dyed hair. That was another reason to strike out Chudalamuthu’s involvement,” said Raj.

Janardhanan Nair, the accused
Janardhanan Nair, the accused

Shifting the needle of suspicion

 

The police also said that there were striking contradictions in the testimony given by Nair. The officer declined to divulge them stating that it would affect the trial in the case. But one of them, HT learnt, was how he had claimed to have opened the front door of the house when he got back from work the day of the murder. Being an old traditional tile-roofed house, there are grills on top of the main door. While Nair said that he opened the latch by slipping his hand through the grill, in reality, before the police officers back in 2006, he could not do it as he claimed. This, police argued, effectively disproved the theory that all doors of the house were locked from inside.

Nair also tried to pin the blame for the murder on Chudalamuthu by dumping his plastic cap, a broken watch and a towel near the crime spot. “He deliberately planted these items near the crime spot to bring the focus of the probe onto the Tamil worker. There was a lot of confusion for the police officers who initially probed the case,” said Raj.

The motive for the murder, the crime branch officer claimed, was Nair’s deep suspicions over Remadevi’s fidelity. During his time in the postal services, Nair would often undertake long journeys to different states to impart training to officers. During these periods, Remadevi was alone at home and often attended bhajans in the neighbourhood without asking for his consent.

“Arguments began to prop up between them over his suspicions about her. But no one knew on the outside. He had set up a caller ID on the landline phone as there were unknown calls coming in. She had also suffered a tubular pregnancy which was treated far away at a government hospital in Kottayam. These issues led to marital discord between them and were the cause of his enmity towards her,” said the officer.

Police said they have evidence of Nair cleaning the murder weapon and throwing it in a well in the compound as well as washing the blood off his clothes.

After several rounds of questioning, during which Nair could not reportedly provide proper answers to back his claims, his arrest was recorded on July 11. Currently housed in the sub-jail in Kottarakkara, his petition for bail was rejected for the third time by a local court on September 18. He has been charged under sections 302 (murder) and 201 (destruction of evidence) of the IPC.

Like it happened yesterday

 

In Pullad, a village 13 kilometres from the nearest major town of Thiruvalla, the murder of Remadevi may have occurred 17 years ago but almost everyone can give directions to where it happened. Such is the popularity of the case and the recent arrest of Nair has heightened interest in the village.

“Just walk on this road for around 500 metres and you will reach a small junction where you need to turn left, walk for around 50 metres and then take another left. Ask anyone there,” an autorickshaw driver said, helpfully.

But today, the sole marker of the spot where the horrific murder took place is an old, abandoned well overrun by weeds and other wild growth. Within two years of his wife’s murder, Nair had demolished the house and sold off the 1.5-acre property to a real estate firm which is currently building independent homes on the plot. He initially bought a home near his son’s residence in Thrissur and subsequently a few years later, bought another house near his daughter’s residence in Aranmula from where he was arrested. Both his children were unavailable for comment.

A man who ran a spare parts shop just a few metres away from Nair’s home said, “Janardhanan Nair was a reserved person who hardly spoke to anyone. They were a financially-strong family and their relatives owned a lot of land here. At the time of the incident, all suspicions were on the Tamil worker who escaped. But now they are saying he killed his wife. We don’t know what to believe.”

Similarly, a woman, who operated a small restaurant in Pullad, remarked, “He belongs to our community and I knew their family. But in this day and age, can anyone guess what a person is thinking in his/her mind? Police say that he killed her and the circumstantial evidence is against him. We’ll see what happens in court.”

In court, Janardhanan Nair is likely to plead not guilty. But Inspector Raj is quietly confident that the stack of evidence against him will demolish the accused’s claims.

“We could have pinned the blame on the Tamil worker and dropped out of the case. But I have been taught that an investigative officer should be the eyes, ears, and tongue of the murder victim. She is long dead and now we have to serve her justice,” he said.

 

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Vishnu Varma is Assistant Editor and reports from Kerala for the Hindustan Times. He has 10 years of experience writing for print and digital platforms and has worked at The New York Times, NDTV and The Indian Express in the past. He specialises in longform reportage at the intersections of politics, crime, social commentary and environment.

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