Jolly being taken for interrogation (Photo: E Gokul)
Indian crime history hasn’t seen too many female serial killers. There were the siblings Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit, sentenced to death for murdering five children. There was K D Kempamma, alias Cyanide Mallika, who killed six women in a span of eight years. Those are probably the only known instances. And to that small list might be an addition from a small town in Kerala. Jolly Joseph is suspected to have killed six people, including her first husband, in-laws and even a two-year-old toddler. It might however be too early to conclusively add her into the list because so far investigating officers have got evidence of cyanide poisoning only for a single death and even that case had been concluded as a suicide in 2011 by the local police. No autopsies were done for the rest and the cause of deaths remain unknown. What is known is that six family members died in similar circumstances in a span of 14 years with Jolly as a common strand to them.
After Jolly married her husband Roy in 1998, the chronology of the deaths as disclosed by investigating authorities are as follows:
– On August 22nd, 2002, her mother-in-law Annamma Thomas, 57, a retired school teacher, at Koodathayi in Kozhikode district fell unconscious after consuming mutton soup and was declared dead in a nearby hospital.
– Six years later, on August 26th, 2008, father-in-law Tom Thomas Ponnamattam, 66, had similar symptoms after eating tapioca, and died.
– Three years later, on September 30th, 2011, Roy, Jolly’s husband and the eldest son of Annamma and Tom Thomas, was found lying in the bathroom unconscious and was declared dead in the hospital he was taken to. Roy’s uncle MM Mathew became suspicious and insisted on an autopsy. Cyanide presence was discovered in the remains and the police ruled it as suicide.
– Three years later, on February 2nd, 2014, the uncle Mathew, 68, suddenly fell unconscious and died.
– That same year, on May 5th, two-year-old Alphin Shaju, daughter of Shaju Zachariah, nephew of Tom Thomas, died after eating bread and chicken in a family function.
– Two years later, January 11th, 2016, the next death in the family happened. Sily, wife of Shaju and mother of the deceased Alphin, too died. She was waiting in a dental clinic along with Jolly. Shaju was inside consulting the dentist. Sily drank water and collapsed. Within a year of Sily’s demise, Jolly and Shaju got married.
The police found Jolly present in the locations of all deaths and the first witness to four of them. They allege that Jolly cheated everyone for 14 years pretending to be a lecturer at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Kozhikode. She used to drive to work daily wearing NIT’s identity card but the institute has no records of her being employed there. Different motives are being ascribed for the deaths, beginning with a dispute over family finance to wanting to take over the property to wanting to marry her second husband. It was the attempt to corner the family property that however brought the deaths in focus. Police say Jolly forged a will in the name of the late Tom Thomas to get sole ownership of the family property. After Roy Thomas died and his brother, Rono, realised that all the property was going to Jolly as per his father’s will, he filed a police complaint expressing doubt over his brother’s death. Investigations by the police, done discreetly for a few months, then unravelled the trail of mysterious deaths in the family. Several people were interrogated, raids conducted before the vaults were opened and remains of the dead exhumed. On October 5th, Jolly was arrested for murder. Praji Kumar, a goldsmith, and MS Mathew, a family friend of Jolly, who allegedly supplied the cyanide, have also been arrested.
In addition to these six, more mysterious deaths linked to Jolly have surfaced. In 2002, Vincent, 24, a nephew of Tom Thomas, was found dead hanging in his house. Suneesh, 28, son of another brother of Tom Thomas, was killed in a bike accident in 2008. Both, according to statements by their respective family members, had financial dealings with Jolly. Some reports claim that Suneesh’s personal diary mentions about being caught in a trap and the family assumes it to be connected to Jolly. One more death in which the needle of suspicion points towards Jolly is that of Ramakrishnan, a 55-year-old local Congress leader whose son has lodged a police complaint that Jolly had financial dealings with his father.
The prosecution’s affidavit submitted to the Judicial First-Class Magistrate, Thamarassery, seeking Jolly’s custody says that she wanted to get rid of Roy Thomas because of his regular liquor consumption and also him suspecting her of illicit relationships. And that Jolly also hated him because he was a man of extreme superstitions. The prosecution states that she wanted to marry someone with a steady and regular income.
The investigating team will however find it difficult to establish the crimes beyond reasonable doubt, according to experts in crime investigation and forensic examination. “Finding the cause of death after a long time is a challenge if it is a case of cyanide poisoning,” says Dr Unmesh AK, police surgeon and additional professor of forensic medicine at Ernakulam Medical College. Dr Krishnan B, deputy police surgeon and associate professor of forensic medicine at Alappuzha Government Medical College, says that even medical practitioners in general can miss it. “Very few people can identify even the smell of cyanide,” he says. “Only 250 mg cyanide is needed to end a grown-up man’s life. The chances of tracing cyanide in the mortal remains after such a long period is almost zero.”
What the police do have is Jolly’s confession statement which, however, has no legal validity in a court. Five more FIRs have been registered in different police stations and separate teams, headed by the Vadakara Rural SP KG Simon, are looking into each death. He draws a parallel to Harold Shipman, a British serial killer suspected to have killed not less than 250 people. It is evident that fictionalisation of this crime will only help the police get a moral boost. Kerala’s Director General of Police Lokanath Behera admitted that investigating the deaths would be a challenge given the 14-year long time span separating the deaths. “We are trying to get the best available forensic support and to adduce the most scientific evidence as possible,” Behera said in press briefing.
Academic studies conducted in Western countries indicate that the commonly used method of female serial killers is poison. Male serial killers generally choose strangers as their targets, while females choose either family members or those who they know very closely. A paper in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology suggests that male serial killers are driven mostly by sex-related motives while the females do it for power and money. “Poisoning becomes the most accessible method for women because of the gender role they play, the role of caregivers,” says Dr Reshma Bharadwaj, a feminist scholar and a faculty member of the Sanskrit University at Kalady.
Jolly had not been an extraordinary woman to those who knew her. She was ‘family oriented’, performed the duties of a housewife and daughter-in-law, attended the Sunday mass without fail, conversed about religious things and had no shadow of criminality till the police came looking for her. Neighbours, friends and villagers are yet to come to terms with the shock of the allegation. Meanwhile, there is also a media trial happening. Online portals, news channels and newspapers have become flooded with salacious stories about Jolly’s sex life. Reporters have even made fake calls to family members and other witnesses pretending to be cops. It led to the Rural SP issuing a notice that such fake callers would have to face legal consequences. “The media who are sensationalising the crime will have to hold on. So far there is no conclusive proof even for a single death. I understand the evidence part of this case is very weak,” says Advocate Manu Wilson, a lawyer at the High Court. He also blames the police encouraging the media. “Police briefing to the media in very early stages of investigation is an undesirable practice. It is nothing but an attempt to build public opinion in the absence of coherent and conclusive evidence.”