Murder Tailor-Made

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How an unlikely serial killer in Bhopal took the lives of 34 truckers over a span of 11 years

TUFFY HASN’T eaten for days and loses his cool at the slightest provocation. Tethered to an iron peg next to the entrance of the Khambra family’s Bhoi Mohalla residence in Mandideep on the outskirts of Bhopal, the poor Indian Desi with one leg crippled barks at first glance and within minutes curls up with a whine, perhaps wistful of a master who has gone missing for days. Aadesh Khambra, the man in question, was close to the 7-year-old canine. What Khambra, the ‘master tailor’ of Mandideep, was locally famous for was something else: it took him no more than a glimpse to get the measure of a man. “One look at you, and he would have your measurements,” says Shubham Khambra, 25, the elder son of the tailor who now stands accused of murdering 34 truckers in cold blood in a series of attacks—as many as 23—across the country. As the police connect the dots, that count might yet mount. And if the murders are proven in court, Aadesh Khambra’s roll of victims would make him the country’s second deadliest serial killer after Raman Raghav, who claimed 42 lives in Bombay of the 1960s. Khambra is currently in police custody.

Mandideep is a peculiar place. About 18 km from the heart of Bhopal, an arterial highway runs through this industrial township which branches off into alleyways and nondescript zones that are inhabited by only 3 per cent locals, namely Meenas, Pals, Lodhas, Malaviyas and Sahoos. The rest are all immigrants who work in several factories and local enterprises dotting the landscape. The Khambras are one such clan. “They moved from Pakistan in the 1940s and are a mix of Punjabis and Jhangis belonging to Bhawalpur and speak a dialect close to Multani,” says Bhupender Singh, deputy superintendent of police, Habibganj Police Station, Bhopal, who has been tracking the community; in June, he had arrested Khambra’s sister-in-law Nimisha under Section 25 of the Arms Act for illegal possession of a 7.65 bore pistol. “The Khambras [of Mandideep] are notorious for transporting spurious liquor to Gujarat [a dry state],” says the police officer.

Aadesh Khambra, 48, apart from being a reputed tailor, was known as an affable man in his neighbourhood. With no criminal record in Mandideep Police Station, he was usually well-dressed and had the gift of the gab, says Mukesh, a neighbour and a client at Khambra’s Z’dex Tailors, which downed its shutters in 2009, not long after its main tailor is thought to have ventured into the more lucrative business of highway robbery. Even his classmate Gautam, a farmer who hasn’t kept in touch with his old buddy for over a decade, claims that Aadesh had a knack of befriending people and used to top the class in the local government school, though he studied only till Standard X.

That never held the Khambra family’s political ambitions back. Aadesh’s grandfather, Shrinarayan Khambra, contested a record number of municipal elections as an independent candidate, and his wife Sharda fought—on his prodding—and lost civic polls for the post of corporator two years ago. His uncle, Paksh Khambra, an advocate in Bhopal, too contested the last state Assembly elections as an independent backed by the Congress party.

How did a bright student who grew up to be a fine tailor from a politically ambitious family turn to crime? Gulab Khambra, Aadesh’s father, a subedar in the Indian Army, was a martinet who would thrash his son at whim until his dying day (in 2014). There are even whispers in the neighbourhood that Aadesh poisoned his father and buried him in a bog. Rebuked at home and struggling to cope with restrictions imposed on him, he opened his first tailoring unit in Tumsar village of Bhandara district in Maharashtra in 2005. “He soon got into a fight with locals as they started getting their clothes stitched for free,” says Rahul Kumar Lodha, superintendent of police, South, Bhopal, who heads the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on the truckers’ murders. The police arrested him back then, but he got bail. In 2006, he opened shop in the upscale Teka Naka area of Nagpur where he worked briefly before returning to Mandideep upon his mother’s death.

It was around then that Khambra set up Z’dex Tailors, named after his eldest son Shubham’s nickname, and became a sartorial legend of sorts among locals. “He could stitch a trouser and shirt in two-and-a-half hours and was the first in Mandideep to design and stitch coats,” claims the 30-year-old Anil, who was an apprentice at his shop and is beholden to the master tailor’s generosity for having donated blood to his ailing sister in 2015.

According to Sanjeev Chouksey, town inspector of Misrod, a southern suburb of Bhopal about 10 km away from Mandideep, it was in 2007 that one of Khambra’s distant relatives, a truck driver called Sandesh Khambra, “brainwashed” him into joining hands with him and they got into petty crimes. He claimed his first victims the same year, say the police, referring to a trucker and a cleaner found dead on a national highway in a closeby district.

It was only the beginning of a long career in crime, it seems. His Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation also coincides with a period of infrequent home visits; he was out of Mandideep on ‘tour’ for 20-22 days a month, and even began torturing his wife, according to reports. “Aadesh has [also] confessed to maintaining a mistress in Gwalior, besides another paramour elsewhere,” says Chouksey. Though many who knew him speak of his strict upbringing, his pursuit of material advancement also attracts its share of comments. Khambra liked to wear good clothes, savoured his chicken curry and loved a good tipple. With an income of Rs 15,000-20,000 a month that he used to bring home from his tailoring business, it was hard to sustain the good life. At one point, he completely stopped sharing any money with his family. To make ends meet, his wife had to make disposable plates and bowls at home, son Shubham had to sign up with the Mandideep corporation as a garden supervisor, and the younger son had to work as a car mechanic, while their three girls helped their mother in the cottage business. But their hardships had no apparent effect on Khambra, who allegedly went about killing one trucker after another to sell their consignments (and even trucks on occasion).

The identified modus operandi was simple. Khambra would befriend truck drivers and cleaners on such pretexts as needing to charge his mobile phone and get onto their trucks. Along the way, he would spike their tea or alcohol or even chicken curry with powdered sleeping pills. Once his victims fell asleep, he would strangle them and dump their bodies—shorn of clothes and with faces disfigured to prevent easy recognition—in obscure spots where they would decompose without quick detection. Also, as the allegations go, he would always target large trucks, those with over 10 wheels, since these had more valuable payloads to rob. But perhaps the most devious tactic he deployed was to kill and dump the body in one district or state, sell the consignment elsewhere—at times, hundreds of kilometres away—and abandon the truck in yet another. Three crimes, three locations, three jurisdictions.

In police custody, Khambra in chains curls up with a whine, reminding me of Tuffy back home in Mandideep

In the process, the master tailor stitched up a supply chain of intermediaries—buyers, sellers, drivers and helpers. Eventually, it was this very nexus that helped the police nab him. In August, in the 4-5 km radius around Bilkhiriya Kalan village in Bhopal district, cops recovered the body of a 30-year-old truck driver that was more or less intact and were able to identify the victim. It happened to be a driver employed by the Bhopal-based healthcare-to- engineering Bansal Group.

The truck was carrying iron bars worth Rs 15 lakh when it was waylaid by 4-5 people in the region, as reported. It was a departure that nobody can explain, given Khambra’s practice of squeezing into the truck’s cabin by sweet-talking the driver. After killing the Bansal Group’s driver, this gang drove the truck and sold the consignment to an iron trader in Old Bhopal at nearly one-fourth the price. In the process, the police got alerted and used surveillance cameras in Bhopal to track down the vehicle. “We traced the truck to a point where our CCTVs disappeared and the road bifurcated. Hereon, we relied on seven private CCTV cameras and found the truck on one of them. Then we sought out hardware shops along that route that would buy such a consignment. One of the shopkeepers confessed that a friend of his was instrumental in getting the stolen iron bars to his shop,” elaborates Sub-Inspector Misrod Rajni Singh Chauhan, who is part of the SIT on the case.

The names of the gang-members came up almost serendipitously. The first to sing were Jaykaran Prajapati and Mahesh, who apparently drove the truck laden with rice all the way to Pune from where they loaded it with sugar worth Rs 8 lakh, which they were to deliver at the 11 Mile area in Misrod, where a contractor was waiting for his consignment. When the goods never showed up, he called up the duo and found their phones switched off. He kept trying and Mahesh picked up at one instance. Upon asking where his sugar was, Jaykaran turned the tables on him by saying that he was not a driver but a dhaaba worker. This was the turning point, as the contractor immediately reported the matter to the Misrod police. En route, at Indore, Jaykaran called up his boss Khambra and driver Tukaram Banjara to take care of the truck and consignment. They duly arrived and headed out with the vehicle. What they failed to notice was that the truck had a GPS device that would give them away. In the meanwhile, Jaykaran and Mahesh returned to Bhopal and were nabbed by the Bilkhiriya police for the murder. Once in custody, Jaykaran gave out the names of all accomplices, including the mastermind, Aadesh Khambra.

Little did Khambra and Tukaram realise that they were leaving a digital trail. Equipped with an RFID tag, whenever they stopped at toll stations, they paid hard currency while the fee was being deducted electronically from the owner’s account. This helped pinpoint their location, and they were eventually pinned down at Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur forest near Rae Bareilly. Before heading for Sultanpur, they had picked up three more accomplices— Sahab Singh, Sunil and Pau—from Gwalior, who followed them in another vehicle, to help sell the sugar. Khambra would have made Rs 1 lakh in the bargain, and his driver, Tukaram, half of it. In the forest, after unloading the sugar in the smaller truck that Pau was driving, Khambra and Tukaram waited for their money while the troika left to deliver the consignment, never to return—the three are still absconding. When the Misrod police saw that the location of the truck had not shifted even after an extended period of over 24 hours, they swooped down on the two in a deft operation and arrested them.

IN CUSTODY, KHAMBRA was put to a sustained interrogation. According to the police, he disclosed having committed murders across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, and fresh evidence shows that he may also have been on a killing spree in UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan.

According to Lodha, Khambra was a hard nut to crack initially. “When I interrogated him for the first time, he was very stubborn and cold and had a very thorough understanding about police diary, chargesheet, witnesses, menus, and had confidence that he would get bail,” says the superintendent. It goes without saying that he knew the police hierarchy like the back of his palm. This would be no surprise of a seasoned criminal who has sporadically spent two years in the slammer for murders in Amravati, Guna, Nagpur and Pune (these are cases he has obtained bail for since they are still being heard in court).

While he kept mum at first about his murky past, the police decided to resort to hierarchy role-playing to squeeze out information. So a sub-inspector would act as a constable, or a town inspector would speak to him in the guise of a sub-inspector. These mind games served to confuse the subject badly enough to break him down, and he started spewing one bone-chilling story after another. Until this point, says sources, he would taunt his captors from behind the bars with a favourite line of his: “You’re bound by the same law I break. You won’t kill me.”

According to Bhopal Inspector General Jaideep Prasad, Khambra also disclosed during his interrogation why he preferred to kill people after sedating them: because it was a “smooth act” and did not involve any struggle. “He even confessed that killing truckers had its advantages as the police and truck owners usually believed that the ‘missing’ driver and cleaner may have stolen the goods in the truck and gone into hiding. Besides, he strangled his victims with a gamcha (coarse towel) since it left no fingerprints, and dumped the naked bodies of his victims in wastelands to decompose. Aadesh Khambra knew the art of destroying evidence very well,” says the officer.

So far, of the 34 bodies Khambra is alleged to have disposed of, only seven have been identified. The man’s modus operandi has kept progress on the cases slow. For instance, he would first befriend a trucker and board the vehicle in, say Misrod, committing a criminal breach of trust under Sections 405, 406 and 407 of the Indian Penal Code. Then he would kill his victim in, say Bhind, and be guilt of murder under Section 302 and destroying evidence under Section 201. Finally, he would sell the goods and commit crimes under Section 411 for dishonestly receiving stolen property and also Section 20 (b) of the Evidence Act that makes possession of contraband articles an offence. All this across different states, under the jurisdiction of different prosecutors. While the police rack their brains to solve the remaining 27 cases, the sheer sprawl of Khambra’s operations and ability to hoodwink the cops remains a stumbling block to his conviction.

IN MANY WAYS, Aadesh Khambra’s story takes us back to the demon tailor of Chalons in Paris of the 16th century, where according to records, an unnamed tailor would lure children into his shop unsuspectingly and eventually kill them by slitting their throats. Though the total number of murders is yet unknown, the tailor was found guilty and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Interestingly, till his very end, he neither showed remorse nor asked for forgiveness. The case went down in time as one of ‘damnatio memoriae’, which is Latin for ‘damnation of memory’, the ultimate dishonour done to criminals (calling for their obliteration from the historical record).

In today’s world, the master tailor from Madideep may not quite meet the demon tailor’s fate, and given the lacunae in the Indian legal system, there is every possibility he may even get bail and be on the prowl again. “But we have a foolproof case now and we are ensuring he receives capital punishment,” emphasises Superintendent Lodha, though insiders in his own department are sceptical. “It is not that easy because in none of the 34 murders that Aadesh has confessed to, has he left a trace,” observes a constable, requesting anonymity. Just the locating and identification of bodies is proving to be a nightmare for the police. This has reportedly been a bone of contention between Khambra and Jaykaran. When they came face to face a few days ago in police custody, says a police insider, Khambra tried to assault Jaykaran, not just for spilling the beans, as the insider guesses, but also for defying his instructions. If the police are to be believed, Khambra was not pleased with the way Jaykaran left the body after the Bilkhiriya murder of the Bansal Group driver—he just dumped it from a culvert onto a stream in the undulating Jhagaria Hills, about 8 km from Bikhiriya police station, and that too with the victim’s clothes on. On interrogation, it was later revealed that Jaykaran wanted to double-cross Khambra and take over as the ringleader of the gang. So he acted in defiance.

Since a chargesheet is yet to be framed in the case, Khambra is in police remand and it is almost impossible to meet him. In an effort against the odds, we land up at dusk at the Bilkhiriya police station and try to convince the inspector on the premises, Lokendra Singh Thakur, to allow us a visit. After much back and forth, Thakur relents, partly—while we will not be able to talk to him, we may observe him for a few minutes.

Thakur walks me through a narrow corridor with cells on one side and three people chained to the bars outside each. In the middle is Aadesh Khambra. To his left is Tukaram, who looks the other way.

Khambra, a lean bearded man with tightly knit brows and a slight hunch in a brown shirt and cream trousers, looks restive. He interacts with the cops, pacing around in a 4-metre radius. The moment he sees Thakur, he makes a request for home-cooked food. It is declined. Could he meet his son and family then? No answer. He looks at me and chuckles, then curls up with a whine. It reminds me of Tuffy back home in Mandideep, who too is seeking answers while awaiting his master.