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‘High IQ, driven by money’: How a tailor became national highway 44 serial killer

With 34 alleged murders in 10 years, Aadesh Khamra is one of India’s dangerous serial killers. A man with a high IQ and gift of the gab to mislead the cops, the 48-year-old “loving father” evaded suspicion, until his trusted partner betrayed him.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2018 08:53 IST
Shiv Sunny
Shiv Sunny
Hindustan Times, Bhopal
Serial killers Aadesh Khambra ( second from left) and Tukaram ( Third from left) in custody at Bhopal district court in Bhopal.
Serial killers Aadesh Khambra ( second from left) and Tukaram ( Third from left) in custody at Bhopal district court in Bhopal. (Mujeeb Faruqui/HT Photo)
         

For truck driver Iqbal Khan and cleaner Shahadat Ali, the drive between Hyderabad and Lucknow had been an uneventful one until a black Mahindra Scorpio came to a screeching halt in front of their vehicle at 4am on August 24, 2017. It was an isolated stretch of National Highway 44 passing through Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh, and Khan feared he had offended a local motorist.

The moment he opened the door to offer an apology, two men barged into the truck carrying cattle fodder. Khan and Ali were bound, and sedatives were forced down their throats as the attackers drove ahead with the truck. But, fortunately for them, the fuel tank was nearly empty and the truck stopped 40km ahead.

It was nearly dawn and the plan of killing and dumping the driver and cleaner in a forest had gone all wrong. Khan and Ali were brutally thrashed until they were believed to be dead.

But Khan lived. A year later, he may be the only survivor of Aadesh Khamra, a 48-year-old tailor turned alleged serial killer who was arrested from Bhopal on September 7 and linked to 34 murders over 10 years, making him one of India’s most prolific serial killers this century.

Unfortunately for Khamra, Khan clearly remembers the faces of the two killers. While all his alleged victims were truck drivers and cleaners— barring one contract killing —this was not Aadesh’s usual modus operandi. On most other occasions, he would simply draw truck drivers into a conversation, offer them sedative-laced tea or lassi, and then strangle them.

The victims would be stripped and their bodies dumped in gorges, forests, or under less-frequented bridges. The bodies would remain undiscovered for weeks, and were often decomposed by the time they were found. Truck owners would suspect their drivers and cleaners of stealing the vehicle and its goods, and the police would register cases of criminal breach of trust. Often, the bodies remained unidentified after their discovery, leaving the murder cases in cold storage.

Unlike many other serial killers before him, the 5’7, physically fit Aadesh is no psychopath, insists Jaydeep Prasad, inspector general (IG) of police in Bhopal. Each of his alleged murders was purely driven by money, he says. “He dropped out of school after class eight, but has a high IQ and is extremely shrewd. He has excellent communication skills and easily draws even his interrogators into conversations,” adds IG Prasad.

An accomplished tailor

Until 2007, Aadhesh was a popular tailor in Mandideep, an industrial town 15km from Bhopal. Originally from Sialkot in Pakistan, Aadesh’s ancestors had been allotted land in the town. “Masterji was a magician. He didn’t need to take measurements of his customers. He would simply cast a glance and tell their specifics,” says Anil Thakur, who was trained by Aadesh 15 years ago.

But Aadesh wrapped up his business after a souring relationship with his father Gulab Chand Khamra, a retired sergeant in the Indian Army. He had lost his mother at the age of seven and believed his father was “frustrated” because of his loneliness.

His marriage wasn’t going very well either. “My father-in-law was a very strict man. He wouldn’t hesitate from slapping Aadesh over trivial issues even after our marriage,” says Aadesh’s wife Sharda. Aadesh left Sharda and their five children, and moved to Maharashtra in 2005. He set up tailoring shops in Pune, Nagpur and Bhandara, but somehow his skills did not impress customers any more. It was in Bhandara in 2007 that Aadesh was involved in his first criminal offence.“A local goon had bullied him when asked to pay for his tailoring work. Aadesh responded by attacking him with a brick,” says Dinesh Kumar Kaushal, an additional superintendent of police (ASP) in Bhopal who has been spending at least six hours every day interrogating Aadesh.

During the few weeks that he was jailed for that assault, Aadesh allegedly ended up befriending some petty criminals who would sporadically rob truck drivers. After their release, they all formed a gang — they would rob trucks, but spare its drivers and cleaners.

The first murder

Aadesh, however, had other ideas. “He didn’t want to leave anything to chance, so he convinced his gang to kill the drivers,” says ASP Kaushal. He allegedly killed his first victim in 2008. They trapped a truck between two cars in Udaypura, 150km from Bhopal, killed its driver, and made away with the goods, which were sold for ~8 lakh. The money was divided among all eight members of the gang. The case had remained unsolved all these years, until his arrest, police said.

His second and third murders were allegedly of a driver and a cleaner in Saoner, near Pune, in 2009. “It showed his brutal and cold-blooded nature,” says Bhopal’s superintendent of police (SP), Rahul Lodha. It so happened that the leg of one of the two corpses kept in the truck was repeatedly interfering with the vehicle’s gearbox. “An angry Aadesh pulled down the two bodies, took the driver’s seat and crushed the victims under the truck’s wheels,” says Lodha.

That was an Aadesh who did not have a driving licence and could not even drive a car.

Over the next six years, Aadesh and his gang allegedly killed 10 more truck drivers and cleaners, most of them near towns in Maharashtra. Between 2010 and 2014, he was arrested four times for murders in Maharashtra and spent a total of four years and nine months in jail. “Since many other criminals would be arrested along with Aadesh, police saw him as an accomplice, not as a serial killer,” says SP Lodha.

Soon, regular court hearings and interactions with lawyers taught him the functioning of the judiciary.

“He knows about strong evidence, case diaries, charge sheets, the significance of witnesses, and how to get court hearing dates deferred and seek bail,” says Lodha. “My father did not miss a single court hearing,” says Aadesh’s 25-year-old son Shubham Khamra with a hint of pride.

Change in Modus Operandi

By 2014, Aadesh had realised that operating with a large gang meant a smaller share for each member and a higher chance of getting caught. He also didn’t like the risks associated with chasing and intercepting a truck.

So he quit the gang and began operating with just one other accomplice, who was needed to drive the robbed truck. Together, they would scout for drivers who were set to return to their hometowns in empty trucks after dropping goods off. “Since such return journeys only consumed diesel and was unrewarding for truckers, many drivers were open to transporting goods secretly. Aadesh would target such drivers,” says SP Lodha.

Aadesh would befriend the truck drivers and cleaners by promising them fruitful return journeys, offer them something to drink, laced with sedatives, and kill them by strangulation. It was a clean job — the rewards were higher and the risks minimal. The trucks were allegedly sold to gangs in north-east India, but the Bhopal Police are yet to track the chain.

From 2014 to this September, Aadesh allegedly killed 23 people, but was never caught. Barring one, they were all truck drivers and cleaners. That one was a contract killing in late 2017. By then Aadesh was such an “expert” at leaving no evidence that the Bhopal Police had assumed the contract murder to be an accident — he befriended his target, offered him a drink laced with sedatives, and once the man lost consciousness, allegedly dragged him to the railway lines, placed his body on the tracks, and watched until a train beheaded the man.

The other ‘serial killer’

This January, Aadesh befriended Jaikaran Prajapati at a dhaba in Bhopal. Prajapati, 30, was into petty crimes, but wanted to boost his earnings. Aadesh wanted a loyal partner who could also drive a truck.

A native of Chhatarpur in MP, Prajapati had left home as a 10-year-old after a quarrel with his parents. He briefly lived with his sister before moving to different parts of India, working as a daily wage labourer, a stone-breaker and a truck driver-cum-cleaner.

Prajapati first killed in 2004, according to the police “He had fallen in love with a woman, a mother of three who had lost her husband. Together, they had killed a young man who was in a relationship with the woman’s niece,” says ASP Kaushal. He lived with the woman and her children in Kalyan Nagar, a crime-infested neighbourhood 10km from Bhopal.

When Aadesh allegedly proposed his idea to Prajapati, he gladly accepted. From January to September, the duo allegedly killed 12 truck drivers and cleaners. “Prajapati was like an obedient foot soldier to Aadesh. He wasn’t the main killer, but would help Aadesh search for victims and assist him in murdering and disposing of their bodies,” says IG Prasad. After every alleged murder, Aadesh would laugh and tell Prajapati that he was giving “moksha” (salvation) to his victims, police say, but add that money was his only motivation and the murders were to erase all evidence and witnesses.

The unravelling

Prajapati, meanwhile, had his own aspirations and allegedly wanted to lead a gang. Aadesh wouldn’t know of it but Prajapati allegedly joined hands with half-a-dozen local criminals to rob an iron rod-loaded truck from Bilkhiriya, a town 20km from Bhopal, on August 13.

The truck was owned by a local news channel’s proprietor who pressured the police to investigate. Prajapati and his men had allegedly killed the truck’s driver and cleaner, but had been callous in disposing of the bodies. The bodies were discovered just three days later.

Aadesh would befriend truck drivers with his accomplice on highways including that of Bhopal (above) before allegedly killing them.
Aadesh would befriend truck drivers with his accomplice on highways including that of Bhopal (above) before allegedly killing them. ( Mujeeb Faruqui/HT Photo )

In the meantime, the Bhopal Police constituted a special investigative team (SIT) to probe the case. “Over the past few months, many bodies of truck drivers and cleaners had been popping up in Bhopal and surrounding areas. I realised it could be the work of serial killers and alerted the SIT,” says Prasad.

Clues obtained from CCTV footage helped police arrest Prajapati and his six friends on September 4. While Prajapati’s interrogation did not immediately put the police on the trail of the serial killings, he told them about Aadesh — who he was and where to find him.

ASP Kaushal led a five-member team to arrest Aadesh from outside a dhaba in Piplani near Bhopal on September 7. “He seemed briefly surprised, but unfazed. He was so confident, we initially suspected that Prajapati had misled us,” says Kaushal. When the police checked Aadesh’s past record, they discovered his role in the murders of eight drivers and cleaners. It took the police four days of intense interrogation to get him to allegedly admit to other murders.

“He was stubborn. He would oscillate between being mellow and tough. He knew exactly how we were proceeding against him. He would draw our officers into lengthy conversations. He forced us to do our homework,” says SP Lodha.

But police had learned about Aadesh’s love for his eldest son Shubham (he would visit the family for a short while every few months). “On the fourth day, I drew him into an emotional conversation. I told him that his children were bearing the fruit of his actions and that Shubham had been involved in two serious accidents in the last year only because of his sins. That worked -- he confessed to one murder,” says Lodha.

“He ended the confession by saying, ‘mann halka ho gaya ab’ (my mind is at ease now). But that was just the beginning and the only occasion he showed signs of remorse. As he kept telling us about other killings, we struggled to keep a count of his victims after that,” Lodha adds. “Once he started confessing to the murders, his behaviour changed. He wanted the junior officers to treat him with respect. He keeps telling them he is no petty criminal,” says ASP Kaushal. Aadesh’s only regret, police say, is the “betrayal” by Prajapati. During their brief confrontation with each other, Aadesh had caught Prajapati by his collar and landed a few blows on him before the police could separate them.

Back home

Unlike her son Shubham, who is grim when his father is mentioned, Aadesh’s wife Sharda frequently smiles while talking about her husband. Police said that the couple had a love marriage. Ask Sharda about it and she breaks into a laugh. “No way,” she says.

Seated on a cot in the door-less living room of a house undergoing construction on a 750-square-foot plot in Mandideep, Sharda says she hasn’t spoken to her husband in five years. “He would often beat me over petty domestic issues. He had left home to work as a tailor elsewhere, but his behaviour slowly changed. When he came back for a few days, he wouldn’t like me asking him about his work and his location. I realised he was breaking away from me,” says Sharda, who manufactures paper plates and cups at home.

As their distance grew, Aadesh’s visits to his home reduced. “Papa would visit home once every two-three months. But he wouldn’t stay here at night. He loves us and brought us things to eat during the visits, but never gave us any money,” says his 20-year-old daughter, Mansi, who makes decorative items.

Aadesh’s three daughters and two sons continued believing that he worked as a tailor, but he never brought them any clothes. Police say Aadesh stopped tailoring when he committed his first murder. “Two years ago, he wanted to sell our house and break all ties with us. I bought our own house from him for R4 lakh,” says Sharda. The longest Aadesh stayed with his family was during Shubham’s wedding in March 2016. “It felt like he was a guest at his own son’s wedding,” says the wife with some bitterness.

Sharda has continued with her life, socialising in her neighbourhood. She isn’t keen to meet her husband in a police station or jail, but has been frequently accompanying her ailing neighbour to hospital. SP Lodha wants to believe Aadesh’s bond with his family was more than they claim, but confirmed that the family was unaware of his killings, except the cases for which he was already arrested earlier.

The family learnt of Aadesh’s arrests from newspapers after the police had held a press conference in the second week of September.

“I was out for a shave when the barber read out my father’s name in a newspaper. I borrowed the newspaper and immediately ran home,” says Shubham.

“They say my father killed so many people for money. But where did all his money go? I am paid ~8,000 as a gardening supervisor for the municipality. I have defaulted on monthly EMIs of ~2,347 on my motorcycle. My father loved me. If he had the money, wouldn’t he give it to me? The construction of our house has stopped midway. Would the family of a serial killer making lakhs of rupees go through such financial troubles?” says Shubham. His 17-year-old brother, Sugandh, works as a trainee with a car mechanic at a monthly salary of~3,500. The boy has multiple tattoos and spiked hair. “I will meet my father and asked him if he killed anyone. He has never lied to me,” says Sugandh.

Aadesh’s family dismisses media reports of any relations with Ashok Khamra, another alleged serial killer who was arrested 10 years ago for murdering dozens of truckers, but later escaped from police custody.

“Some journalists linked my father to Ashok Khamra because of similar surnames,” says Shubham.

Lodha says Aadesh once boasted that Ashok Khamra was his uncle, and that he had trained under him. “But our investigations revealed no link between the two.” According to police records, Ashok Khamra is long dead. But the legal battle against Aadhesh is just beginning.

First Published: Oct 01, 2018 07:49 IST

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