For years, perhaps the only thing Koodathayi was known for was through-traffic. Its proximity to state highway SH-34—the artery connecting hub towns Koyilandy and Edavanna—makes the village a mofussil pit-stop some 35 km from Kozhikode city in Kerala’s Malabar region. With a little over 13,000 people (Census 2011) calling Koodathayi home, ‘vajagam’ (idle chatter) is what passes for entertainment here. When villagers used to talk about Jolly Joseph, daughter-in-law of the prominent Ponnamattom family, it was generally in complimentary terms. Much like her business-owner husband’s parents, educationists Tom and Annamma Thomas, Jolly—ostensibly a commerce lecturer at the nearby National Institute of Technology, Calicut (NIT-C)—was accorded the high regard her station afforded her and was a familiar face at the Lourdes Matha Church. “She was very approachable and would go out of her way to talk to people,” says K.P. Kunhammad, a member of the village panchayat. The sudden deaths of Annamma in August 2002 and Tom in August 2008 did little to dent this public approval.
“We sympathised with her as she now had to manage the household by herself. There was talk that her husband was depressed since his parents’ deaths and facing business difficulties,” says a villager. “Then, in September 2011, when the husband, Roy Thomas, died of an apparent suicide by cyanide, we were struck by how Jolly maintained her composure and stayed strong for her sons.” These days, however, a different sort of conversation has been brewing in Koodathayi and across the state. After exhuming six bodies from the family burial vaults at the Lourdes Matha Church and the St Mary’s Forane Church in nearby Kodenchery on October 4 as part of a two-month probe, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Kerala Police arrested Jolly and two other people for Roy’s murder.
Kozhikode (rural) superintendent of police K.G. Simon said Jolly confessed to giving cyanide to Roy, his parents and three other relatives—Annamma’s brother Mathew Manjadiyil, Sily and two-year-old Alphine Shaju, who died in February 2014, May 2016 and May 2014, respectively. Sily and Alphine were the former wife and daughter of Shaju Zachariah, whom Jolly married in 2017. While charges for the deaths of the parents and other relatives are still pending, the “perfect daughter-in-law as serial killer” has become the peg of the story.
During his press briefing after the initial arrests, Simon said Jolly was trapped in a series of lies and contradictions. “Jolly came under closer investigation after her presence was found to be the one constant in all the deaths,” he said. “We discovered she had told people in the locality that she was a BTech graduate and a lecturer at NIT-C. She had forged a NIT-C employee ID card and used to travel in a car with the institute’s board and sticker. In reality, she is a BCom graduate who operated a beauty parlour at Mukkom. Her in-laws too were kept in the dark. She insisted Roy had died from a heart attack though she knew he had cyanide in his system. There were also attempts to forge documents, including a will that made her the sole beneficiary of the family properties.”
The police claim that the motives for the murders varied. “As the matriarch, Annamma had the run of the house,” said Simon. “She needed to be eliminated for Jolly’s position in the power structure to be secured. Jolly also fell out with Tom over the allocation of property. After the parents’ deaths, the relationship between Roy and Jolly seems to have been very strained. It led to Roy’s murder.” The police also noted that Manjadiyil, who was killed later, had been the most vociferous in demanding Roy’s post-mortem.
Roy’s post-mortem and police investigations concluded it was a case of suicide and found nothing suspicious in the manner of death—the body was found in a bathroom locked from inside. “When the case file was inspected again, we found no satisfactory answers to how and where Roy had acquired the cyanide,” said Simon. “Further investigation uncovered five other deaths in the family that seemed to share some commonalities, including the manner of death and the presence of one person.”
While Simon likened Jolly to Harold Shipman, the UK doctor dubbed ‘Dr Death’ for killing at least 15 patients, more apt parallels may be found closer home. “The vast majority of cases involving female perpetrators of such crimes involved the use of poisons and were crimes of opportunity, which remained confined to intimate relatives and close friends,” says Jayesh K. Joseph, a veteran criminologist and trainer at the Kerala Police Academy in Thrissur, pointing to last year’s murders in Pinarayi, Kannur district, where the prime accused allegedly poisoned her daughters and parents reportedly after her alleged extramarital relationship was discovered, and the 2014 twin murders in Attingal, Thiruvanthapuram district, where lovers Nino Mathew and Anu Shanthi were found guilty of stabbing to death Shanthi’s mother, daughter and husband. “In the Kerala scenario, we can see commonalities such as close attachment to the victims, same modus operandi, gaps between murders, presence of a male accomplice and illicit affairs in a majority of the cases.”
In Tom’s case, the alleged cause of death was cyanide salt mixed into cooked tapioca, whose smell, a forensic expert says, “resembles that of cyanide”. “It takes just 150-300 mg of cyanide salt to kill a person,” says former forensic pathologist Dr N. Rajaram, who has performed over 1,000 medico-legal autopsies. “After ingestion, cyanide salt is converted into hydrocyanic acid. The speed of conversion depends on whether the stomach is full or empty. Cyanide affects tissue respiration. It may take only two minutes for the poison to act. Death takes place very rapidly.”
A number of factors could have influenced Jolly’s alleged crimes. “A multi-factor approach, incorporating risk vs reward and pleasure vs pain principles, can be useful to help understand this,” says criminologist Febin Baby, president of the Indian Criminology and Forensic Science Association. “After her first attempt to murder Annamma (an earlier incident prior to the 2002 crime, also involving mutton soup, which resulted in a trip to the emergency room, was disclosed by the police), Jolly was waiting to see if she would be caught. When the axe didn’t fall, she succeeded in her second attempt and was rewarded with more power.”
While the theory of opportunity might explain the gap between the deaths of Annamma and Tom, Baby said, “The failure to punish or even suspect Jolly for the first crime provided positive reinforcement and emboldened her. This could be why she brought down the interval from six years to three and so on between the subsequent murders. There are also clear signs of psycho-pathology or anti-social personality disorder. Projecting a strong, calm and sympathetic figure to the outside world, while meticulously covering up the crimes and having no empathy for the victims, is a strong indication.”
“It takes just 150-300 mg of cyanide salt to kill a person. It may take only two minutes for the poison to act,” says Dr Rajaram.
Speaking to the media earlier this week, Roy’s sister Renji Thomas said, “After Jolly got married to Roy in 1997, I considered her my elder sister. She was friendly with everyone. No one had a bad word to say about her. She even took care of my father after my mother’s death. However, soon she began to take control. When Roy died, Jolly told us he committed suicide because of financial difficulties. Roy had 38.5 cents of land and a house worth crores. Also, if he had any money issues, he would have turned to family members. That’s when I felt something was wrong. When Shaju’s wife, Sily, died, Jolly was behaving like an event manager and taking stock of everything, while the rest of the family was grief-stricken.”
After her marriage to Shaju and discovering the forged will documents, Renji said she and her US-based brother Rojo were convinced that something untoward was up. That was when Rojo filed the official complaint that led to the re-investigation of Roy’s death. “The hand of God was at work in bringing the truth of the case to light,” said Renji. With her at the press meet Roy and Jolly’s older son Romo. He said his mother “could not have done this alone” and that the probe would find the others involved.
M.S. Mathew and P. Prajikumar, t he two other accused in Roy’s murder, are alleged to have procured the cyanide. The police also brought in Shaju, a high school teacher, for repeated questioning. “Jolly is attempting to implicate me by saying I was in cahoots with her,” Shaju told the media. “She was the one who initiated the marriage discussion. I was just thinking about my kids after their mother’s death. The investigators interrogated me to collect additional details. I am not an accused.” Nearly 200 people, including relatives, have been reportedly called in to give statements. No further arrests have been announced as of going to print.
Due to the relative dearth of physical evidence, the exhumed remains of the five other victims assume added significance in light of Jolly’s confession. Section 26 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, negates any confession in police custody without a magistrate present. The import of actionable evidence in this case can be gleaned from a police statement about expanding the SIT and exploring the possibility of sending the remains elsewhere for testing. “After death, cyanide in the bloodstream will go into the skeletal bone marrow,” says forensic scientist Siva Prasad. “Using sophisticated tests like gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy analyses, cyanide could be detected in the long bones, especially the sternum and femur leg.”
Dr Rajaram is more measured however. “The possibility of finding cyanide in an exhumed body is low, but that should not prejudice the investigation. As per Jolly’s statement, she gave her victims cyanide. But only through chemical examination will we know for sure whether it was cyanide or some other poison. If not the bones, perhaps the soil samples from the grave might help,” he said.
Regardless of what other skeletons tumble out of the closet, for those in Koodathayi, the harm has been done. “From now on, all will remember our village only for this,” Kunhammad rued.
By Siddharth Premkumar in Thiruvananthapuram