Forget Saint Valentine, even Satan would have shuddered in fear if he received a dead body as a Valentine's Day gift. But Tharun Jinaraj is a person with different tastes. He is an obedient son, a sincere lover, a perfect murderer and an impeccable impersonator. He loved his mother and girlfriend the most. He could do anything for them. So, Tharun's V-Day gift to his girlfriend was his wife Sajini's body. He killed her to make way for a happy life with his longtime girlfriend Anita (name changed).
But destiny had different designs for him — his lover spurned him, his fake identity was exposed, his second marriage is on the verge of collapse and he is behind the bars now.
All because of one Malayali IPS officer, who doggedly pursued Ahmedabad's Valentine's Day murder case for 15 years to send the killer to jail.
“Uncertainty is both the most stressful and the most thrilling part of life. When nothing is certain, we can let things evolve freely, the way they wish,” says the super cop Deepan Bhadran, who has cracked the case that worried Ahmedabad crime branch for over 15 years.
‘Sajini Krishnan murder case’ of February 14, 2003, had been a hard nut for Gujarat police to crack until a sharp-witted, young Deepan took over as the deputy police commissioner of Ahmedabad crime branch in 2015.
“No evidence was available. Tharun Jinaraj had long left Ahmedabad immediately after the murder. He was ‘nonexistent’ as cops were unable to trace him with any available identification document. I strongly believe that an iniquitous mind will commit a mistake somewhere. I was waiting for that in Tharun's case.”
In an exclusive conversation with Onmanorama, 37-year-old chief investigation officer Deepan Bhadran and PK Sashidharan, complainant in the case and the brother-in-law of murdered Sajini, narrate the tale of perseverance which finally led to the arrest of Tharun, who lived with a stolen identity as a family man and software professional in Bengaluru.
Valentine's Day murder
Tharun, a basketball player and physical education instructor, is the eldest son of Jinaraj and Annamma, a Kottayam-based business couple settled in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh. Tharun and his younger brother Arun studied in Ahmedabad and later got a job at Bopal, a suburb of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. A postgraduate in physical education, Tharun was a passionate basketball player. He fell in love with Anita (name changed), a Parsi woman from Gujarat, who was his teammate in a unisex basketball tournament. After four years of secret courtship, Tharun’s mother learned about the affair and objected to it as they were from different castes. Tharun decided to part ways with Anita as per his mother's advice.
In November 2002, Tharun’s parents fixed his marriage with 26-year-old Sajini Krishnan, an employee of a private bank in Ahmedabad. A graduate in commerce and a diploma holder in accountancy, Sajini was the second and youngest daughter of Krishnan, a Calico Mill employee, and Yamini, a retired employee of State Bank of India. Sajini's elder sister Rajini is married to P K Sashidharan, a management professional.
Tharun called Anita to tell her about the marriage and learned that she was also getting married in a couple of months. In December 2002, Tharun, 28, tied the knot with Sajini at Viyyur in Kerala's Thrissur district. Sajini’s parents hailed from Viyyur though they were long settled in Ahmedabad.
“Within a couple of weeks, Tharun got a phone call from Anita to say that her marriage was cancelled. Meanwhile, Tharun’s parents had a spat with Sajini’s family over dowry,” revealed Deepan.
Before Tharun could develop a personal intimacy with Sajini, he realised that there are still chances to unite with his girlfriend and that his mother hasn’t accepted his new wife. Tharun desperately wanted to get rid of Sajini. He tried to convince Sajini to move a joint divorce petition, which she refused. “Sajini was an ordinary young woman who believed true love happens only once in a lifetime. She was ready to accept all the flaws of Tharun and his past life and lead a happy family life with him,” Sashidharan recalled.
With no options left, Tharun made plans to eliminate Sajini and elope with his girlfriend. He dissolved Sajini’s fixed deposit account and transferred all the money to his account. He bought a new car using Sajini’s salary and registered it in his name. He also kept 60 sovereigns of Sajini's gold ornaments in a bank locker. On February 14, 2003, Tharun arranged the ‘Valentine’s Day gift’ for Anita. In the morning itself, Tharun said he was going to invite his brother for dinner. He left the house at 7.30 am after having a cup of tea. Sajini started getting ready to leave for work. After half-an-hour, Tharun returned, tied a shawl around Sajini’s neck from behind and strangled her to death. He muddled up the house to make it look like a robbery and put Sajini’s body on the bed. He called Anita immediately from the spot and told her: “Maine rastha ka patthar nikal diya” (I have removed the roadblock).
Later, he visited his brother’s flat and invited him for dinner. Tharun returned home, called Arun and told him about ‘the robbery’ at his house. He sought neighbours' help before fainting in the room.
“Tharun’s plan worked out till this point. People who saw him leaving the flat and the ones who saw him entering his brother’s flat testified that he was out of his residence when the murder occurred. Moreover, his drama of fainting generated some sympathy among the neighbours,” the IPS officer said.
Tharun's plot suffered a huge setback when a worried Anita called him to say that she is not ready to marry a murderer. She called off the affair and promised to keep all his dark secrets hidden. The cops also got suspicious over the sequence of events and asked Tharun to reach the police station to record his statement. This alerted Tharun and he approached a lawyer for legal advice. The lawyer told him to surrender. However, a day before he was supposed to be questioned by Bopal police, Tharun fled Ahmedabad, withdrawing all his money.
There was no clue about Tharun for 15 years after that. Police traced Tharun’s records, certificates and identification documents, all in vain. In January 2012, Ahmedabad police dumped the 'Valentine's Day murder case’ as unsolved.
“I was on an official tour when my wife called me to say that Sajini was dead. It was Arun, Tharun’s brother who called Sajini’s parents. He told them Sajini had suffered some serious injuries in the fight with the robbers and she was rushed to a hospital. They reached Sajini’s flat within half-an-hour to see her body lying on the bed. Tharun was lying unconscious,” Sashidharan recalled.
However, Bopal police shared their suspicion with Sashidharan on the same day which prompted him to file a case against his brother-in-law. According to the police, it was highly unlikely for the robbers to enter a thickly populated residential complex with around 200 occupied flats at 8am without getting noticed by anyone. Sashidharan alleged that Tharun had plans to eliminate Sajini even before he tied the knot. Tharun wanted to make his parents happy with a marriage from the same caste and get some dowry. He had plans to eliminate his wife soon after marriage so that his parents would not object his reunion with Anita, Sashidharan claimed.
“It was our mistake that we didn’t do enough background check on the groom. We were fancied by Tharun’s financial status and a favorable job location to suit Sajini’s career. However, I was always sure that he will be caught by the police some day or the other. I kept on calling the police officials concerned seeking follow-ups. Had we lost our hope, that criminal would have escaped from his ultimate destiny,” Shashidharan added.
Sashidharan’s wife Rajini is an employee with National Insurance Company in Ahmedabad. The couple has two daughters.
Having appointed as the deputy commissioner of police (crime,) Ahmedabad, in 2015, Deepan, a Kollam native who joined IPS in 2007, had a comprehensive look at the case files in his office. Among the many unsolved crimes, the 12-year-old Sajini Krishnan murder case made him curious.
"There can’t be a closure to a murder case without any clue towards the criminal. If there is no one called Tharun Jinaraj in India, it is a clear case of identity theft. Tharun lives under some other identity somewhere. I constituted an investigation team and reopened this case with the help of Sashidharan,” Deepan recalled.
His investigation team comprised inspector Kiran Chowdhary, two civil police officers and four sub-inspectors. The team of eight held monthly meetings to discuss about developments in this case and kept close watch on Tharun’s family members.
“Both of the earlier investigation teams targeted Tharun, who has cleverly killed his real identity. It was a waste of time to target Tharun. Instead, we decided to focus on an alternative target and work towards it. Our target was Tharun’s mother Annamma and the person who is most connected with him,” Deepan revealed. He asked Kiran Chowdhary and a few constables to keep a close watch on Annamma. The team rented an apartment on the upper floor of Annamma’s Mandsaur residence and observed her movements.
Deepan said he was sure Annamma would commit a mistake which will provide his team a breakthrough. “All eight of us would gather around a table once a month though we couldn’t gather any new information. All of us were busy with our usual work life. It was Sashidharan’s constant phone calls and our monthly meetings which helped us crack this case,” Deepan said.
Annamma has been living alone in her Mandsaur residence ever since the death of her husband Jinaraj. Her younger son Arun is married to Roopkantha and settled down at Bopal with their two children. Annamma maintained very good contacts with her neighbours. After talking to some of her neighbours, inspector Chowdhary learned that Annamma is still in contact with both of her sons.
“Annamma had disclosed to one of her neighbours that she has two sons and one of them is settled in Ahmedabad. The neighbour, who was an elderly woman herself, also knew that Annamma has close ties with two families in Bengaluru. This revelation she made after 15 years to her best friend in the neighborhood was the biggest mistake Annamma committed,” Chowdhary said.
Chowdhary tracked the two families in Bengaluru who are in contact with Annamma. One of them was an elderly woman from Kottayam whom Annamma befriended during a prayer session at Divine Retreat Centre, Ernakulam. The second family constituted of a young woman called Nisha and her two children, aged 7 and 5. “There was no information about her husband. Neither her social media profiles, nor public documents had a clue about her husband. We sent our team to Bengaluru to check Nisha and her ties with Annamma,” Deepan said.
Nisha, a Malayali software professional settled in Bengaluru. was married to a man called Praveen Bhatle, who is a senior employee of an acclaimed software development firm in Bengaluru. Praveen has an annual income of Rs 24.4 lakh. According to Nisha’s close circles, Praveen is an introvert who seldom appeared at family gatherings. Praveen was reluctant to pose for photographs even with his children. Annamma had introduced Nisha to her neighbours as ‘the daughter of her nephew,’ a connection police couldn’t establish. The investigation team returned to Gujarat with some suspicions.
“Meanwhile, Chowdhary found out with the help of cybercell that Annamma was making phone calls to a particular number in Bengaluru at least once in a week. The mobile number belonged neither to Nisha nor to the woman she met at the retreat centre. On further probe, we found that the number belonged to Praveen Bhatle, Nisha’s husband,” Deepan said.
This was in August 2018. Now, the investigation team got a new name to ponder – Praveen Bhatle. Deepan’s meetings with his team became more frequent. They tracked the identity and found that there is a physical education instructor under the same name in a private educational institution in Ahmedabad. The team interrogated him to find that his original certificates were long stolen. “He said his original certificates, including SSLC book and PG certificate, were taken by a senior at his college promising him a job. He remembered the person’s name as Tharun. Praveen had to shelve all his plans to join a government job as he did not have the original certificates. He worked as a teacher for physical training in a private school,” Deepan said.
Finally, Deepan and his team identified Nisha’s husband Praveen Bhatle as Tharun, who was leading a peaceful family life under a stolen identity.
The next step was to collect evidence to prove Tharun’s real identity. Sajini’s parents helped the investigation team to come up with some of his physical identification marks. “The main thing among them was his injured right ring finger,” Sashidharan said. “Tharun had told us about an injury which fractured his right hand’s ring finger, the day he came home to meet Sajini first. He was unable to twirl that finger.”
After a couple of visits to Tharun’s workplace in plainclothes, the cops collected some of his photographs which matched perfectly with his old pictures.
Fish in the net
On October 25, 2018 morning, inspector Chowdhary walked into Tharun’s Bengaluru office in plainclothes even as a team of policemen waited outside. He registered himself as a visitor for Praveen Bhatle and waited in the lobby. A tall, stout man, wearing designer spectacles and tightly trimmed French moustache appeared in front of Chowdhary in about 15 minutes. “Praveen,” he introduced himself, extending his right hand to Chowdhary. The cop shook hands with him, turned around his hand and lifted his injured ring finger which didn’t fold, and said: “Hi Tharun. I am from Ahmedabad crime branch. Come on, let’s go.” Tharun followed him silently without any objection.
Tharun was taken to Ahmedabad by the probe team. He did not utter a single word on way to Ahmedabad other than one question: “Who betrayed me?”
Back at Deepan's office, Tharun gulped down a glass of warm water and hurled out his entire story without giving room for questions. He explained the circumstances which led to Sajini's murder and all details about his life in fake identity. He also described how he forged documents and certificates to make his new identity as Praveen Bhatle.
“There are multiple criminal cases against Tharun. Killing his wife, destroying evidence, refusing to surrender before law, forgery and identity theft are a few among them. The cases have been registered under Sections 302 (murder), 304B (dowry demand), 498 (enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman), and 210 (fraudulently obtaining decree for sum not due) of IPC,” Deepan told Onmanorama.
Annamma was well aware of each of Tharun's moves. The mother and son maintained constant communication with each other, no matter what happened in their lives. She kept her son's secrets away from her husband and younger son. Tharun had told Nisha that he is an orphan and convinced her that his parents and a sibling were killed in a car crash when he was young. “Praveen was raised by his aunt named Annamma. We had met her once at Divine Retreat Centre, Ernakulam. Her husband collapsed the moment they saw us and died,” Nisha told police.
This was another mistake committed by Annamma. After Tharun married Nisha and settled down in Bengaluru, Annamma wanted to meet her son and the new daughter-in-law who was pregnant with her second child. She arranged a meeting at the Divine Retreat Centre and did not tell her husband about it. She thought she would surprise him. Jinaraj had no information about his eldest son for over 12 years. On a pleasant morning in 2013, Jinaraj, in his eighties now, answered the door at the Retreat Centre to see Tharun smiling at him. A shocked Jinaraj suffered a cardiac arrest and died.
Nisha was shocked to learn about her husband's arrest. “Nisha did not even know that his real name was Tharun and that he hailed from Kerala. It was a police constable from our team who informed Nisha about Tharun's arrest. She initially thought it was a wrong phone call as she isn't familiar with the name Tharun Jinaraj,” Deepan said.
Nisha hasn't yet decided whether or not to fight a legal battle for her husband. Onmanorama tried to contact Nisha on phone but she expressed her unwillingness to talk.
However, the investigation team has not yet confirmed the involvement of Tharun's younger brother Arun in the case. He would be subjected to grilling along with Annamma to derive evidence, Deepan said.
Father cop, son super cop
Deepan hails from a rural hamlet in Kerala's Kollam district, where he has his parents, wife and a daughter. Deepan's father Krishna Bhadran is a retired superintendent of police in Kerala. “My father was a policeman. I am familiar with many such complicated criminal cases and their courses of investigation right from my childhood,” he said. Having joined the IPS, Deepan was initially posted in Porbandar, where he worked as a deputy commissioner for seven years. Deepan has cracked several clueless cases during his 11-year career.
It is not yet time for Sajini's family to sit back. Sashidharan said Tharun's arrest is only the initial victory. “I shall continue my legal battle. Sajini's parents are too old to fight for their murdered daughter. She wasn't just a sister-in-law to me but a sister. I will fight until I reward him a punishment which will teach all such criminals a lesson,” Sashidharan said.
Sashidharan alleged that Annamma is an accomplice in the crime. Tharun and his family did not even return Sajini's clothes and personal possessions when they disposed of the Bopal apartment where the murder occurred. They even refused to pick up our phone calls.
Sajini's parents Krishnan and Yamini, aged 80 and 75 respectively, were happy to learn about Tharun's arrest. Tharun, 42, is under the custody of Ahmedabad crime branch at present.