As sexual serial killers go, what marks Kumar out is his use of cyanide-laced pills couched as contraceptives to do his victims in, almost all of them women of lower-middle-class families. He would promise to marry them, and most left home for him dressed in wedding finery, sneaking away with jewellery and cash.
Police lethargy and lack of communication gave Kumar plenty of leeway. The women remained ‘missing’ in their records though many were found dead in the toilets of bus stands in other towns and cities within days of the missing complaints being lodged. Local cops passed these off as destitute deaths. Even if froth was found on the deceased’s mouth, a sign of poisoning, they put it down as suicide by an impoverished depressive. They made no effort to match the details of those reported missing with those found dead. This suited Kumar well.
It was only after the Bangera case was handed over to the Corps of Detectives, a premier investigating agency, that police investigators joined the dots through a pattern of phone calls. The killer, they found, would use one victim’s cellphone to call another, and had left a trail of calls. The detectives looked up the missing person files, examined the details of bodies found in bus stand toilets, and put all the clues together to crack the cases of 20 missing women.
Kumar was finally arrested in the autumn of 2009, and the only woman who survived has been a key witness for the prosecution. On 28 December 2013, he was sentenced to death for three murders—even while 17 other cases are at various stages of trial.
The family’s village Barimaru is 40 km from Mangalore off the Bangalore highway in the Western Ghats; the roads are barely motorable. They have a small agricultural patch here. It was in June 2009 that Anitha left home with the gold, money and an expensive cellphone gifted by her brother Madhav. Kusuma was at work that day in their field. The others were away from home.
The 22-year-old’s disappearance shocked everyone in the village. When a police complaint was lodged, the policemen said she had likely been lured into a relationship by someone bent on converting her to Islam, the so-called ‘love jihad’ that Muslim men are alleged to be waging by right-wing propagandists who spy an evil design in this.
“The police asked us to keep our mouths shut,” says Anitha’s father, Duggappa Mulya, “They were not willing to listen, despite no one having seen Anitha talking to any person of [another] community.” That is how the case would have been treated had it not been for the pressure mounted by villagers, a local swamiji and Madhav over three months, demanding that she be traced.
“The pressure forced us to investigate,” admits a police officer who does not want to be named. The Bantwal Police examined Anitha’s call records and found she had made several calls. Examining these, they zeroed in on one person called Sridhar, a resident of Coorg, as a suspect.
Madhav, who was closely following the police leads, got wind of this from a constable, landed up at Sridhar’s house in Coorg with six fellow villagers to thrash him. When the police were called in, it was found that Sridhar’s sister Kaveri had also gone missing a couple of months earlier—along with his phone.
Kaveri, who worked in Kasargod, had vanished in February 2009 and her body was found in a toilet at Mysore bus stand that very month. Though her family had filed a complaint, they did not know that she had already been found dead. It was her phone, its SIM card registered in Sridhar’s name, that Mohan used to speak with Anitha, with whom he had struck up an acquaintance by then.
Intrigued, the police revised their suspicion and floated the theory of these women being possible victims of human trafficking. The call records they had examined led to calls terminating and originating from Darlakatte, a Mangalore suburb. “We were wondering if a prostitution racket was operating without our knowledge,” says an inspector. It no longer looked like a case of a single person’s disappearance and the story started drawing media attention.
After Anitha’s death, Kumar threw away Kaveri’s phone and gifted Anitha’s handset to his nephew. As luck would have it, the 16-year-old started using this phone after a month with his own SIM card. The police traced the user, who claimed it was a gift from his uncle Mohan Kumar. When Kumar was questioned about this, he did not have a convincing explanation of how he came to possess the phone. A search of his residence yielded a plastic bag filled with jewellery, seals and letterheads in his name (and the aliases he used to pursue women with, the police later learnt). To impress his targets, he had been trying to pass himself off as an executive of Kudremukh Iron Ore Company, Malnad Area Development Board and other government departments.
It was under the subsequent police interrogation that Kumar admitted his crimes and revealed what he’d done to Anitha and Kaveri. He had killed them by having them swallow cyanide-laced pills. Later, he confessed to luring and killing other women too.
Anitha’s parents did not get to see her body. She had been educated till Class VII and her parents were searching for a suitably boy for her to wed. They have no idea of how she fell for Kumar, nor any idea of whom she spoke with on the phone. They did not even want to go to court to see their daughter’s killer. “We saw his smirk on TV whenever he was brought to court,” says the father, “But we were not witnesses, nor did the police ask us to come to court. Our only regret is that we could not see Anitha one last time.”
Kumar’s mother Tukru has blamed an uncle called Govind Master, a tailor, for her son’s crimes. The allegation upset the uncle so much that he went to Kanathur temple in Kasargod, across the Kerala border, to ask the presiding deity for justice. This temple is famous for accepting written complaints on behalf of people who find their image tarnished by someone, and the pandits there like to issue summons calling upon the offender to come and explain. Tukru has not responded to the temple’s summons, says a family friend.
After Kumar’s arrest, the police claimed that 18 missing women cases had been solved as a result of his confessions. In all the cases, his modus operandi was similar. He would choose his victims by observing their routine, ascertaining their workplace and checking their social status. He targetted women who looked past marriageable age.
“How these women fell for him, don’t ask me,” says a policeman. “But, they always seemed to fall for his idea that they should be dressed in bridal finery to meet his parents, who he said would accept very little dowry. Without confiding in any family member, these women would walk away with the gold and cash their parents kept aside for their marriage, travel with him to other cities to visit temples, and have an illicit relationship [with him].”
The police say Kumar would advise them contraception to avoid pregnancy, since they were not yet married, and hand them a cyanide pill at a bus stand just before boarding a bus for an onward journey. “It works best while travelling as we are not doing anything naughty,” he reportedly told them, suggesting that they gulp it down with water from a faucet in the bus stand washroom. Death would be almost instant.
‘Brought dead’ to hospitals, the victims’ post-mortem reports indicated poison consumption, and since no one was around to claim the bodies, they were disposed of by the authorities in accordance with civic norms. This left Kumar free to get on his way, pawn the victim’s gold with a gold-loan company, and spend the cash in pursuit of other potential victims.
Raju and his relatives visited Kollur and identified—to their dismay—Shanta’s ear-rings, blouse and wristwatch. They forced the administration to exhume her body, but the gravediggers refused to cooperate as she had been declared an AIDS victim. “We got the body exhumed, and after a protest by our community, a second post-mortem was done in a Mangalore hospital,” says Raju, “By then it was not clear how she died. She had taken 20 paun gold and some cash. We went around the town’s lodges with her photo. An auto driver said he had dropped my sister and a middle-aged man at a lodge. The lodge people refused to confirm their stay, and the police did not enquire any further.”
On his arrest three years later, Kumar admitted to having taken Shanta to Kollur and killed her. He claimed he had talked to her at the bus stop and even visited her college and introduced himself as an official of the state education department. “She fell for his fake credentials and his demeanour, and probably believed that life had taken a turn for the better, but she was not ready to show her family the man she had decided to spend her life with, lest they disapprove,” says a policeman on the investigation.
Shanta was religious and would visit temples on special occasions. This worked to Kumar’s plan, since he had always made it a point to use temple visits as a way to gain his victims’ confidence. “It really bothered us no end to think how a woman who’d leave home every day at 8.15 am to take a bus to her workplace and return around the same time every evening just disappeared one day dressed in all her finery,” says Lohith R, Shanta’s nephew, “She had taken jewels and money too.”
Both nephew and uncle are now determined to bring Kumar to justice: “She is victim No 16 in police records. But she is our loved one. We want the death penalty for Mohan in this case, too. Her soul will not rest in peace till this case finds closure.”
Another woman that Kumar admitted the murder of was Vinutha, a 28-year-old. She used to travel regularly from her village Bhaktakodi to the taluka headquarters Puttur for meetings with officials in pursuit of a house for her family under the government’s Ashraya Scheme. The police say Kumar met her on one of his visits to the taluka office, observed her routine and struck up a conversation with her. They became friendly, and soon, like the others, Vinutha was on her way to marry him without telling anyone.
An earlier victim was 22-year-old Nelyadi Vanitha, who was a member of a women’s self-help group in Uppinangadi town. She left home on 27 May 2004, never to return. Though her family lodged a complaint, the police could not trace her. When her body was found at Hassan bus stand a few days later, the local police assumed her to be a destitute woman and buried her without an investigation.
The others met fates no different. On 23 January 2008, Sharada Gowda, 28, left home as usual to take a bus to Udupi, where she worked at a private firm. She was found dead at Mysore bus stand a few days later. The local police concluded that this ‘unknown’ person had committed suicide in depression. They did not circulate her picture to other districts. When Leelavathy, a 30-year-old resident of Vamana Padavu in Bantwal taluka went missing on 9 August 2005, the local police did not bother to probe it. Instead, they insisted she had run away to join Naxalites, whose presence in the region had been noted for some time. “What went against her was the fact that she was a Left activist,” says Bheemappa Shenoy, a villager in Bantwal.
“In the early 2000s, she had invited and hosted Gaddar from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to her village. This poet is known to inspire people by singing revolutionary ballads, and is identified as being in charge of the Naxal cultural wing. This event alerted the intelligence wing of the state police, who later generated a report that Leelavathy, a known Naxal sympathiser, was missing and presumed to have joined a group of Naxals,” says Shenoy.
She was also found dead at Mysore bus stand a few days after she went missing; she was never properly identified.
Sunanda Poojary, who rolled bidis for a living, was another victim. She left home on 11 February 2008, and was found dead at Mysore bus stand a few days later. The police saw nothing odd about two women found dead in the same place within a fortnight of each other. Again, they thought her destitute and pinned her death on pesticide.
Shashikala of Balepuni was found dead at Bangalore bus stand on 14 August 2005. A member of a self-help group, she had taken a loan of Rs 90,000 right before she went missing. Filing their complaint, her family said that she was wearing a 50-gm gold chain (this was never found).
Exactly a year after Shashikala, 32-year-old Kamala was found dead at another bus stand. On 25 September 2009, Yashoda was discovered lifeless at Hassan bus stand, but on a bench, not in the washroom; she was perhaps one of Kumar’s last victims.
Meenakshi, a 25-year-old of Alike, is still missing. Arathi, 22, went missing in January 2006, as did Baby Naik, a 25 year-old who lived in Udupi district. These women are yet to be traced, but since Kumar has confessed to poisoning them, they are presumed dead.
At one point in the process of identifying the missing women listed in the police register, Kumar claimed he was losing his memory and that he couldn’t recall where he last left them. “It was so many years back,” he told the police, though he did remember other sordid details—such as their ‘intimate parts’—of each victim.
Mohan Kumar has had chargesheets of 20 cases against him being looked into by a Mangalore fast-track court. Late last year, announcing verdicts on three of these, the murders of Anitha, Leelavathy and Sunanda, the judge awarded him capital punishment and made a mention of how he showed no remorse for his deeds. The judgment was passed after an in-camera trial, with three witnesses—a woman who survived the cyanide poisoning, Ishwar Bhat, a priest whom Kumar had asked to perform a ritual to cleanse him of guilt, and Abdul Salam, an agent from whom Kumar procured his stash of cyanide.
During the trial, the prosecution relied on 49 witnesses to establish the chain of evidence on how Kumar had lured Anitha to Hassan, stayed at room No 23 in Sanman Lodge, later checked out alone, and pledged her jewellery with branches of two gold loan firms. His long absences from his job also went against Kumar, as he could not prove he was at work around the time his victims were killed. The state’s department of education had served him a suspension notice for being absent without authorised leave. As a government school teacher, Kumar taught children mathematics, social science and English. At one time, he had written to the district administration for permission to teach undertrials in jail English.
Kumar, who served as his own lawyer at his trial, countered the claim that he killed his victims with cyanide arguing that no post-mortem report made any mention of this particular poison.
The police had a magisterial confession from Abdul Salam, a chemical dealer who testified he’d sold Kumar cyanide powder several times, thinking he was a jeweller and needed it for professional use. Salam was arrested too—for selling cyanide without a valid licence—and though he turned hostile as a witness later, his testimony on selling it to Kumar was upheld by the court as evidence.
The woman of Bantwal who survived was also a prime witness who offered clinching evidence. Kumar had lured her to a Madikeri lodge, but she had only licked the capsule and not swallowed it. She collapsed immediately in the washroom of Madikeri. Commotion ensued, and Kumar made a quick exit assuming she’d been found dead by onlookers. She recovered after five days in hospital, and returned home with the help of some money that her nurses gave her. She did not tell anyone about Kumar and her ordeal—and got married within months.
The police stumbled on her as a key link in the chain while studying the call records of one of the cellphones used by Kumar. “She had to be gently persuaded to become a witness,” says a policeman, “We promised her that her husband’s family would not know anything. She agreed to an in-camera hearing and was our star witness.”
The other witness that the prosecution relied on was Ishwar Bhat, a priest whose help Kumar had sought at Annapoorneshwari temple near Mangalore. Once Anitha Bangera’s case hit the media, Kumar had asked Bhat to perform a ritual that would relieve him of the sin of murdering a woman. At first, Bhat took him lightly, but when Kumar persisted, he performed a special aarthi to get rid of him, as he testified. It was later that Bhat saw photos of Kumar splashed across newspapers, and that’s how he decided to inform the police of the killer’s request.
That was perhaps the beginning of his sense of impunity as he embarked on his career as a serial killer.
In his 91-page judgment condemning the accused to the gallows, BK Naik, the judge of the fast-track court, had this to say: ‘As [Mohan] has been denying [charges] without rebuttal, the sufficient evidence proves that he committed the acts intentionally.’
The police say Kumar had even mapped the fertility cycles of his victims. “Even if one of them had refused to take the pill, they would have survived,” says a police officer, “But as none wanted an unwanted pregnancy, they paid the price.”