25-year-old Malathi's* eyes dart nervously to the open front door of her home and then to the closed rear entrance. Neighbours pretend to walk by casually, stealing a glance at the woman. Avoiding their eyes, Malathi takes a deep breath and narrates a horrific tale, that the Vellamputhur village in Villupuram district has been hiding for over three months.
"In October last year, my husband was away for work and I was sleeping with my three-year-old child in the house. We always left the door open because it was considered a safe neighbourhood," she says, running her hand through her short hair. â€œMy other daughter was in the neighbouring house with my parents. We were lying down on a mat on the floor and I remember waking up around 1 am because the child was restless. The next thing I knew, I was on a hospital bed with a severe head injury and no recollection of a whole week," she explains.
When Malathi's elder child had walked back to their home the next morning, she found her mother in a pool of blood and her sister crying in a corner of the house. The six-year-old began wailing and alerted the grandparents who came rushing to the scene of crime.
"I had an abortion three months before the incident and when they saw me bleeding profusely from my genitals, they assumed that it was a complication involving that," says Malathi. "The bedsheet I was using was found behind the house and there were bloodstains in the backyard. Someone had dragged me out and then back in again. I don't know who it was and what he did to me. All I remember is that it was raining that day," she adds looking away, her voice shaking.
(Wall between field and Malathi's house that culprit allegedly jumped over)
A severe head injury, also a result of this incident, had left Malathi unconscious for a week. And when the police came to investigate the matter, her family claimed that she had fallen off the bed and that there was no necessity to probe the matter further.
"The person who had attacked me took away my thaali, everything else was intact. By the time I woke up and even began to understand what happened, my family told me not to make a big deal out of it. All I had left was this large wound on my head and the pain from the stitches," says Malathi, tearing up as she recalls the struggle of recovery. "I wasn't even on a bed, but the police just didn't look into the incident any further," she adds, nervously.
And this oversight, just one of many, has proven to be very costly for the Villupuram police.
On February 22, the same village woke up to another horrific crime, allegedly by the same monster.
He strikes again
It was 16-year-old Sneha* who first discovered her neighbours lying in a pool of blood. 45-year-old Mangai*, who would come out around 5 am to fetch water from the community tap, did not turn up on that Thursday morning. What more, the two children in the house, 14-year-old Lalitha* and eight-year-old Balu*, were not up and about getting ready for school.
"When I went close to the house, I saw that their door was ajar. There was enough space for just one person and I could hear the TV blaring inside. I made my way in and there was blood everywhere. I first thought they were all dead," she shudders.
(Latest scene of crime from Vellamputhur village)
When the police arrived at the site, they found Balu killed, his sister sexually assaulted and mother beaten mercilessly. The wall of the 10x10 living room was covered in blood and the faces of the victims were swollen beyond recognition.
"They were hardly breathing," recalls Sneha. "Their relatives rushed to the house. I remember their nephew screaming 'Chinamma' and lifting Mangai. That is when her hand moved a little. We immediately called an ambulance," she adds.
They had all received blows to their heads, and had been attacked with a 'chhatti' (a stone vessel), according to investigators.
The child's body was taken to the local government hospital for a post mortem while the other two were rushed to the JIPMER hospital in Puducherry.
And a week after the brutal crime, mother and daughter are battling for their life while the police are yet to even zero in on a prime suspect in the crime. One, that could have been prevented if not for their lackadaisical attitude when the first case of this nature arose in May.
The first attack
Residents of Vellamputhur identify their village as two parts â€“ the colony, where mostly Dalits live, and the 'ooru' (village). While houses in the colony are built very close to each other, the 'ooru' has structures placed at least 100 metres away from the next house. The latest crime occurred in the colony, but Malathi's assault took place in the 'ooru' â€“ which had kept another similar incident under wraps.
Close to Malathi's residence, is a house where 35-year-old Karumari* lives with her husband and children. Dressed in a yellow saree, the tall woman readily shows us the stitches that are hidden in her short hair. She tells her story without emotion, while keeping an eye on her younger children.
"My husband was sleeping outside and the children and I were inside the house. We really don't know what happened that night, but only remember waking up in the Villupuram hospital," she says.
"Neighbours later told us we were all bleeding from the head, nose and ears and were found unconscious. My husband who was sleeping outside was hit on the head and dragged into the house. The three small children were left alone but my husband, my 14-year-old daughter and I were attacked," she adds.
(Karumari* washing vessels in the field near her residence)
Were the police notified?
"Villagers found us after my other three children began crying. When they took us to a local hospital, my husband who was delirious by then told them that we put pesticide in our ears," she claims. Karumari's husband apparently told investigators that they were trying to commit suicide due to unpaid debt. Karumari admits the story was untrue when questioned, but blames her husband's alleged mental illness due to the attack, for the lie.
And the police accepted this lie despite the Villupuram Government hospital informing the patients that they were struck on the head.
Monster on the loose
"They were not willing to tell the truth because the 14-year-old child had been sexually assaulted in that attack," says an officer at the Arakandanallur police station who is now heading the investigation in the case. "And the police, too, didn't pursue the matter because there was no complaint of any sort," he adds.
But now, as he pores over various FIRs that have been filed in cases of sexual assault over the last three years, the similar pattern in the three crimes cannot be denied. "This is not a caste based crime. Malathi is a caste Hindu, while Karumari belongs to the scheduled caste. The latest incident involves Dalits. What we are looking for here is a â€˜psychoâ€™ whose only motive is sexual pleasure," says the officer.
(Arakandanallur police station where investigations are underway)
There are several similarities in the cases, he says. The first being the nature of houses chosen â€“ all residences which are isolated in different ways. And all these homes had their doors open when the criminal struck.
Second, the injuries inflicted in the three cases are all allegedly by a blunt weapon and to the head. "He gets into the house and immediately hits them all on the head. That way they are stunned and cannot move even if they know what is happening," says the officer.
(Karumari* shows the scars from the assault)
The third similarity is the motive of the crimes.
"His first need is to rape or sexually assault. Someone who comes with the intention of stealing would have opened another door to escape in case other people arrive. But this man never did. And he never actually intends to murder his victims," says the police official.
"If that was the case, there were sharp objects in all these houses. He could have finished them off but instead he uses what we think is a hammer to stun them," says the official, adding that the murder of Balu could perhaps have been unintentional.
The culprit has however taken certain objects of value from Mangai's house. "That is an afterthought. Not the first intention," the officer guesses.
And how does the police believe he choose his targets?
"That is the next similarity. Except in the first case, the other two are homes where men were not present. So he clearly observes the houses for a while before descending upon them," says the investigator. Most men in the village, according to residents, work as labourers in the neighbouring states and come home only for festivals. "Considering that there is a gap of 3-5 months between each case, we suspect that it could be someone who comes to town often. Or it could even be someone who is working on construction sites near the village," he adds.
But even the police can't deny the clinical nature of the crimes. "There is no trace of fingerprints at all from the recent crime scene. Even the sniffer dog that we brought couldn't trace his scent," the investigating official admits.
How much longer?
Sources however told TNM that samples of the perpetrator's semen was found on the clothes of 14-year-old Lalitha. Police are hoping that scientific evidence will help them find the criminal. Seven teams have been formed to probe various angles including call records, suspicions regarding migrant labourers and those who visit the town regularly.
They have further ruled out the land angle in the case. The Social Awareness Society for Youth (SASY), which had sent a fact-finding team to the village told TNM that a tussle over land could have been the cause for the crime.
Pandian, the director of SASY had told TNM that there was a land dispute between Mangaiâ€™s family and members of the Vanniyar community.
â€œThey had given 14 cents of land in return for 4 cents of land and cash, but they never received the full amount. The matter was even taken to the civil court. Last month, a huge fight had erupted between both parties over the issue. This particular village has only 65 Dalit families. Next to it is the village of Sevallur, which is dominated by a large number of Vanniyar families. Cases of violence against Dalits, especially their women, are on the rise here, but they have been too afraid to complain," he had said.
But the police have interrogated the upper caste man involved in the land deal, Rajendran, and ruled out his involvement.
"We are doing all that we can," says the investigating official. "We just need time to solve the case," he states.
But haven't they already lost eight months due to their unwillingness to probe the attack on villagers?
"What can we do if victims don't cooperate?" he asks defensively. "Even now if the boy hadn't died, this case would have never seen the light of day."