Fourteen years, six deaths, one family suspect, and a trace of cyanide
Around 9 pm on September 9, 2011, Roy Thomas, 40, was locked in his bathroom and throwing up his last meal. The only other person present in the house, his then 39-year-old wife Jolly Joseph, stood outside listening to him retch. Then she phoned a family friend, Mohammad Bawa, who lives across the street from their two-storey bungalow in Koodathayi village in coastal Kerala’s Kozhikode district. “He was still inside at that point. We got a carpenter, who lives nearby, to come and break open the door. When we carried him out and laid him down in the living room, he was foaming at the mouth. We took him to Santhi hospital in nearby Omassery. He was almost drained by the time. They referred him to MIMS hospital in Kozhikode city. He died on the way,” said Bawa, a businessman whose family has had close relations with Roy’s for decades. An autopsy was carried out at Medical College, Kozhikode, and its results handed over to his wife. Jolly let the close relatives know that Roy had committed suicide. When some pressed her for a police investigation, she brought up the disruptive effect it will have on the family’s reputation and her two sons, then aged 13 and 7. The relatives were aware of his financial troubles, love of drinking, and the couple’s deteriorating relationship. “We believed her,” said Renji Thomas, Roy’s younger sister who lives with her husband and children in Kochi. The others in the village were told Roy died of a heart attack. “She made everyone believe that the cause of his death was heart failure. We knew neither that a post-mortem was done nor what it revealed,” said Shahul Hameed, 29, whose family has lived right behind the Thomas family’s Panamattom House for 45 years. Everyone moved on.
On 5 October 2019, Kozhikode (Rural) police arrested Jolly Joseph, now 47, from Panamattom House on the charge of killing Roy Thomas eight years earlier by poisoning his food with potassium cyanide. On 11 October, she was also charged with killing five other members of the immediate and extended family between 2002 and 2016 with cyanide. KG Simon, head of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) looking into the case, said Jolly confessed to five of the six murder charges. The SIT has also arrested two men, MS Mathew and P Prajikumar, who worked at a jewellery shop, for allegedly helping her to plan the murders and procure cyanide. As the police try to establish her motive, from family property to personal pursuits, life in Koodathayi vhas turned upside down, as more people allege her role in mysterious deaths, her church tries to paint her as a bad Christian, and her relatives and acquaintances express shock. Across Kerala, people are lapping up news and rumours about Jolly Joseph: affairs, lifestyle, connections, intentions…
Deaths in the family
The first person to die was Jolly’s mother-in-law, 57-year-old Annamma Thomas, in 2002. In the evening of August 22, she collapsed in her bedroom in Ponnamattom House after taking a few sips from a bowl of mutton soup brought to her by Jolly. Froth collected at the corners of her mouth as she went from dropping to the ground to dying within minutes. “Fifteen days prior to her death, Annamma had an ayurvedic medicine. She had some uneasiness after that and we took her to MIMS hospital in Calicut. Nothing came out of the tests so we came back. On August 22, she was feeling tired and made herself mutton soup to recover from the fatigue. Jolly served her the soup. She began to feel uneasy again, complaining of the same discomfort that she had felt after taking the medicine,” said Bawa who was present at the spot. “She felt sickness in her leg and was unable to get up on her feet,” said Renji Thomas, who was home at that time. “We took her to the Santhi hospital, but she was declared brought dead,” said Bawa.
Retired at the time of her death, Annamma was a popular figure in the village from having taught at a local primary school for her whole working life. She played an active role in Koodathayi’s social life, from hosting big Christmas parties to mentoring the neighbours ’children. “We were more like a single family rather than neighbours,” said Shahul Hameed. “ When the mother and father were alive, everyone in the neighbourhood visited them at Christmas. They also came to our Iftar parties,” said Hameed. In 1997, Annamma and her husband Tom’s son Roy fell in love with and married Jolly Joseph, a distant relative from Kattapana town in Idukki district. Initially, Jolly was perceived in the village as the ideal daughter-in-law. “My mother was very fond of her. When I got my first job as a teacher, she insisted that I buy Jolly a gift, a salwar-kameez, from my first salary instead of me buying something for her, which is the traditional practice,” said Renji. At some point between 1997 and 2002, some of the neighbours sensed tension over the control of the family’s affairs.“ Jolly did not have a good relationship with the lady when she died,” Hameed’s mother recalled.
Things changed at Ponnamattom House after the matriarch’s death. The family partially withdrew from the village’s social life. The Christmas parties grew smaller. Hameed said the last time he attended one was a “long time ago.” Renji, who was in and out of Koodathayi during those years while attending college, sensed “a change in Jolly’s character.”
She said Jolly took control of the family’s finances. “One week after my mother’s death, she told me that I have no right over the family property,” Renji said. The family property consists of the spacious bungalow on a highly-valued piece of real estate and a few hectares of farmland nearby. Annamma and Tom, who worked as a clerk in the state education department, also had a sizable amount saved from their decades of holding government jobs. Bawa, the next-door neighbor who grew up alongside Tom and Annamma’s three children, said Renji and Rojo, Roy’s brother, grew increasingly distant from the family after their mother’s death. While Renji got a teaching job, got married, and then moved to Sri Lanka with her husband, Rojo become an accountant and migrated to the United States. Only three adults remained in Ponnamattom House, and Bawa said that Roy began to have arguments with his father, who was known in the village as a jovial man. Roy also took to drinking. Property and money remained issues of contention in the household. “Tom sold some land and made a fixed deposit of Rs 15 lakh in Jolly’s name. He also named her as nominee in a life insurance policy,” said KG Simon of the SIT.
In 2008, Tom Thomas died suddenly and mysteriously. He just finished eating a plate of mashed Tapioca.“ Fifteen minutes prior to Tom’s death we heard the sound of him vomiting. We thought it might be Roy since he used to drink. Then Roy and Jolly phoned us and we went to their house. When we reached there, Tom was lying on the floor near the bathroom. Foam was coming out of his mouth. We took him to Santhi hospital but by the time we reached there he was dead,” said Bawa.
Things changed once again in Ponnamattom House. Shortly after Tom’s death, Jolly published a will from him in which he had passed on the family property to Roy. “It had no witness signatures and no official stamp,” claimed Renji Thomas. This caused many people in the village to doubt the couple’s intentions.” Right after the fake bequest was published, they suddenly started behaving as if they owned the whole property,” said Hameed. Roy, who used to dabble in one business after another -- oil, textile, real estate-- gave up after suffering losses in his last venture, an insurance firm. The family further isolated itself but every time Jolly did appear publicly, she left a positive impression. She went to weddings and funerals, visited the church on Sundays, and attended parent-teacher meetings at the church-run school where her two sons studied. Those in Koodathayi who socially interacted with her described her as “extrovert”, “charismatic” and “very good with people.” Even those who didn’t like her respected her because of what they knew to be her professional status. For over a decade, she had been leaving her house every weekday morning to teach at the prestigious National Institute of Technology (NIT-C) in Kozhikode. The ambassador car that drove her back and forth bore the NIT logo and so did the ID badge that she wore not just to work but also to social gatherings.
“We used to meet her at family functions. She was well-behaved and generous,” said Viji Kurien, wife of PJ Kurien who is the son of one of Tom’s three brothers. The four brothers came to Kozhikode from the town of Pala in Kottayam district together in the 1950s. During those years, when India was facing acute food shortage, the Kerala government encouraged Christians to move from central Kerala to the Malabar region, which lies between Western Ghats and Arabian Sea, where they were given land to grow rubber under the ‘Grow More Food ’campaign. Thousands made this journey.
Some of the biggest bungalows in Koodathayi belong to the Syrian Christians who came to the region during those years. Apart from owning highly valued property, many of them own businesses, plantations, and work in public schools and government offices.After his parents’ deaths, Roy was left with only the property. Neighbours said this led to quarrels between him and Jolly, who found her husband to be neither emotionally nor financially stable.
In September 2011, after Roy died under circumstances similar to the deaths of his mother and father, his autopsy report clearly indicated cyanide poisoning, a fact Jolly only revealed to the close relatives while offering them her theory about his suicide. Some of them believed it until the appearance of a new will signed by the late Tom Thomas. “In this he had transferred the family property to Jolly. This one was signed by witnesses and carried the stamp of the state revenue department,” said Renji. This led to a legal feud between Jolly and Roy’s two siblings that continues to this day. Renji said she and her brother suspected Jolly of manipulating them out of their entitlement but nothing more. But someone in the extended family did.
Mathew Manjadiyil, a brother of Annamma and a regular visitor at Ponnamattom House kept insisting on a police investigation of Roy Thomas ’death. He first brought it up while Roy’s siblings were still in Koodathayi. “When he said an investigation is necessary to find from where Roy got the cyanide, Jolly fainted. Rojo told her, ‘it’s your husband who is lost, you take the decision. ’She said she isn’t interested . Rojo flew back (to the US),” said Bawa. Renji went back to Sri Lanka. But Mathew, who remained in Koodathayi and lived next to the family house, kept up the pressure. In the afternoon of February 24, 2014, Mathew collapsed in his house where he was supposed to be alone at that time. The neighbours were alerted by Jolly who said she had dropped in to see him lying on the floor and coughing out blood. He died on the way to the hospital.
The next one to die in Jolly’s family circle was a two-year-old girl. Alphine Shaju was the daughter of Shaju Zacharias, the son of one of Tom’s brothers, and his wife, Cily. On May 3, 2014, she choked on a piece of bread fed her by Cily at her older brother’s holy communion at the village church and lost consciousness. She was taken by her parents to three hospitals in three days, but she didn’t survive. Jolly seemed to have no connection with the child’s death, other than being present in the church for the occasion, but one emerged two years later when Alphine’s mother, Cily, died of no obvious cause.
On January 11, 2016, Cily fainted in the waiting room of a dental clinic while Shaju was being examined in the dentist’s cabin and Jolly sat next to her. Also at the spot were Jolly’s younger son and Shaju and Cily’s older son, who happen to be classmates at the village school. Cily died while being driven to a relatively distant hospital by Shaju and Jolly. In February 2017, Jolly and Shaju married each other at his church in Kodenchery.
“This is when I first became suspicious. My brother also felt the same after her second marriage,” said Renji. Others in the village had been suspicious for a longer time. Shaju had been regularly visiting Jolly at her house, as many of them later pointed out to the investigators. Some of them brought up a particular incident at the funeral service for Cily. “At the moment of the Last Kiss, when Shaju bent over the dead body of his wife, Jolly, who was standing on the other side of the coffin, also lowered herself to kiss Cily. It was supposed to be an intimate moment for Cily’s family so this came as a shock to many people present,” said KG Simon.
In 2018, Rojo Thomas came down to Koodathai and filed a series of RTI applications. From the government hospital, he received a copy of the autopsy report of his brother’s body.“ When he read the report, he found out that what Jolly told us was wrong. Jolly told us he had food at 3.30 pm and hadn’t had food after that. But it was clear in the post-mortem report that he had rice and chickpeas curry at 8.30 pm,” said Bawa. “Acute cyanide poisoning can result in death in a matter of seconds. Cyanide does not accumulate in the body and so it is rare to encounter it in slow death cases,” explained Dr V V Pillay, head of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences in Kochi.
From the revenue department, Rojo found the details of the documents Jolly had provided to authorize the transfer of property in her name. “We figured out she had produced fake documents at every level -- village, taluk, panchayat-- to have the ownership changed. She proved to them that there was no one else in the family to contest her claim, but it’s a local office and everyone knew that my father had three children. This was a clear case of corruption,” said Renji. Simon said the police is looking at the role of revenue officers in enabling the fraud. In 2019, Rojo filed an application to Kozhikode (Rural) police asking for an investigation into his brother Roy’s death. Last month, officers of the crime branch filed requests at the Lourde Matha Church in Koodathai and St Mary’s Forane Church in Kodenchery to dig up the mortal remains of the six people whose deaths came in the course of their investigation. “Many of the symptoms were the same -- vomiting, frothing at the mouth, eyelids dilated, spreading of redness from chest upwards to throat,” said KG Simon. The investigations also revealed that Jolly Joseph had faked her position at the NIT-C all along. “Fourteen years she cheated everyone, without any graduate degree in engineering, any post graduate degree in engineering,” said Simon. She told the police she used to spend her days at a beauty parlour run by a woman friend of hers in nearby town of Mukkam. The woman, Sulekha, has denied any association with Jolly and shut down the parlour, but she and her husband continue to be questioned by the SIT. “She even left the house on the third day of Roy’s death saying she has a training programme at NIT. We bid goodbye to her on that day with a heavy heart,” said Bawa. “We have checked our employees ’list since 2000 and found she [Jolly] was not even employed as a temporary worker. We have started an internal inquiry to find out if some employees helped her. It seems she was simply faking the identity of our institute,” said Registrar at NIT-C, K Pankakakshan. He said the institute will file a complaint after obtaining legal advice.
On 11 October, when Jolly Joseph was produced at the Kozhikode district court where the SIT appealed for the custody of her and the two alleged accomplices, hundreds gathered for a sight of Kerala’s suspected cyanide killer. Many of them booed and heckled her and some even rushed towards her. They are not alone in judging her before the trial even begins. In Kattappana town, where she was born, her aged father, K Joseph, said, “She brought enough shame to the family and others. We will not give any help to her. If she is innocent let her come out of it on her own. We have disowned her.” Joseph, a farmer, said if his daughter had committed these crimes she should get exemplary punishment. He said she always sought money from him; when she came home last time, about two months ago, she asked him for Rs 25,000. “We know she had some financial constraints. We helped her on several occasions including when her eldest son was enrolled in a catering college in north India. She told us she had a running property dispute with her brother in- law Rojo Thomas,” he said. At Koodathayi’s Lourde Matha Church, which caters to the local Syrian Christian community, authorities question Jolly’s faith. “She is not a spiritual lady. She was not a regular practitioner of the religion,” said Father Vipin, who teaches at the parish school. “She came to prayer meetings perhaps once a month. She attended Mass only on some Sundays,” he said. He did interact with her at the parent-teacher meetings at the school. “I used to address her as NIT professor. What she has done is unimaginable,” he said. “I feel the whole story like watching a horror film. I wish if media wouldn’t use our surname (Ponnamattom). Ponnamattom is a big family with many branches,” said PJ Kurien, Tom’s cousin. Jolly’s two sons are currently living with Renji Thomas ’family in Kochi. “They feel cheated,” she said. For days after her arrest, no local lawyer agreed to represent Jolly in the case, but on 10 October a Mumbai-based senior criminal lawyer, B A Aloor, signed up to defend her. He has said the proceedings in the case are bordering on a media trial. “Police are leaking information to media and they are spinning stories. I am sure most of these charges will not stand before a court of law.”
Fresh allegations and questions
Since Jolly Joseph’s arrest on October 5, a series of allegations have sprung up in and around Koodathayi of her involvement in other mysterious deaths in the recent and remote past, although only one of them has been registered as a police complaint. On 7 October, Rohith M filed an FIR alleging Jolly’s hand in the death of his father, a local Congress worker, Ramakrishnan, who died one day in 2016 shortly after coming home and eating lunch. In his complaint, Rohith mentioned that his father sold property to a close friend of Jolly’s. Similar suspicions have been raised by a wide range of people, from immediate family to distant acquaintances. Renji has spoken about Jolly’s alleged attempts to poison her and her young daughter on separate occasions. The family of a plumber who lived near Ponnamattom House has also brought up his death a few years ago. For now, the SIT is focussed on the forensic examination of the six exhumed bodies even as it seeks to enlist experts from other states and countries. Toxicology experts say that it will be challenging to detect the use of potassium cyanide because of the long gap between the alleged crimes and their probe. “Cyanide has a short life in body and is usually difficult to detect in tissues or body fluids after a few hours. Of late, some bio-markers have been identified to indirectly detect its presence in body fluids and the remains, but it has been used rarely in practice,” said Dr V V Pillay, head of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences in Kochi.
Other questions abound, starting with one about Jolly’s motives. KG Simon argues she was mainly after the “family property and money”. “On the day we arrested her, she kept murmuring that no one can take away the house from her,” he said. That would still not explain her alleged role in the deaths of Cily and Alphine. Shaju has repeatedly mentioned that his wife had been suffering from fits for a few years and that his daughter was born with a kidney defect. The police believes Jolly would have wanted them out of her way because she wanted to marry Shaju. “She wanted an obedient husband, and he was known as one. Some of her friends told us that before she married him she had mentioned him as an ideal man,” Simon said. In his defence, Shaju, a high school English teacher, claims that he was “trapped” by her. He said he didn’t know exactly why. Simon said he doubts the explanation. “Why was he in such a hurry to pack up his belongings and leave Ponnamattom House just after her arrest?” Of her two male accomplices being questioned, one , P Prajikumar, who works at a jewellery shop where cyanide is used in processing gold, has also said he was “trapped.” “She sought a little quantity of cyanide to kill big rats in her house,” he said to reporters outside the court. Many observers of the case have pointed out that even if she did kill six people, she couldn’t have done it all alone.
At this point, everyone connected to the case believes they have figured out Jolly Joseph. Shaju Zacharias calls her a “good actor.” KG Simon calls her “a brilliant criminal.” Renji Thomas calls her a “person with two sides, good and bad.” The truth may well be more complicated than that.