‘Death, Lies and Cyanide’: The spine-chilling podcast on Koodathai murders

In 10 episodes, the podcast recreates each one of the six murders allegedly committed by Jolly Amma Joseph, a close relative.
Jolly Joseph, the accused in Koodathayi murders
Jolly Joseph, the accused in Koodathayi murders
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Two little lies are at the beginning and end of Jolly Amma Joseph’s strange story, the first lie that triggers everything and the last one that ends it. Strange is perhaps not the best description for a story that involves six murders of a family in Koodathai, a Kozhikode village in north Kerala. They died between 2002 and 2016, without suspicion or police attention, until in October 2019, it all pointed to Jolly, the one woman and close relative who was allegedly always there when the deaths took place. After some drama of digging up graves and inevitable angry voices in the media, Jolly had reportedly confessed everything to the police. She has been in jail for over a year, awaiting her trial, surviving a suicide attempt in February.

All of this is told in spine-chilling detail on a podcast by veteran media person Sashikumar, punctuated with eerie music, background sounds and the bytes of the people involved. The final episode of the podcast — 'Death, Lies and Cyanide', produced by Sashikumar’s Asiaville for Spotify — was uploaded on Monday.

“Even when it first appeared as a small story, it had caught my interest. It first came out as a report of digging up graves. I called up the police and began following the case from the beginning. So, when Asiaville planned to do a podcast, we decided to make it about the Koodathai murders. I don’t think there have been many podcasts based on true crime from India so far,” says Jeevan Ram, producer of the podcast.

The script is written by Ramesh Ravindranath, replete with cues on where to add music, sound bytes and pauses. In 10 episodes that begin and end with a terrifying piece of music, composed by Sandeep Thulasidas, Sashikumar narrates the story of Jolly Amma Joseph, one he says ‘shook the collective conscience of Kerala’.

The first little lie

Going back to the two lies that undid everything for her, the first began as a harmless little one, told to a prospective mother-in-law who came seeking a bride for her son. Jolly lied about her education, claiming a Masters degree she never possessed. It wouldn’t have been too out of place. There’s a popular notion that you can cook up a few lies to make a marriage happen, and a degree of education was no big deal.

The second lie at the end of all the deaths is more serious (we will come to that). Before that, the podcast tells you of the time the Ponnamattom family — which Jolly got married into — spent happy years together: Roy, Jolly’s husband; Annamma and Tom Thomas, the parents-in-law; and the two children born to the young couple.

Trouble began in 2001 when Annamma, a school teacher, retired and the family needed an income. Roy, too, did not have a job. Annamma then looked at Jolly, with the Master's degree, for the support that Roy could not provide. That’s when the old harmless lie came back to haunt Jolly and new lies were concocted – a training course for a teacher’s job, at the prestigious NIT. Jolly presented them all with conviction but at the back of her mind, feared that her lies would be exposed, the podcast narrates.

Here, the podcast breaks into episodes to detail the incidents that lead to each of the murders. In the one about the first murder – Annamma’s – it tells you of Jolly’s adoration for her mother-in-law. Jolly wanted to be like Annamma, smart and running a household efficiently. But even with all her awe for the older woman, Jolly allegedly had to kill her, lest her lies are exposed. Annamma was too smart to not find out.

“You hear about serial killers but those would mostly be stories of murdering random people. A person killing six of the family members in these many years, and lying to keep it all together, was something you never heard of,” Jeevan says.

A calm murder

The first two murders were with rat poison, according to the charge sheet. Jolly had allegedly tested the poison on her favourite dog and killed it before putting bits of the poison in Annamma’s mutton soup, chatting with her while she drank it.

It’s that calmness of Jolly in these narrations that scare you most. She will watch you have the poison, she will go about her everyday business while you crawl on the floor and writhe in your vomit, the podcast says.

The team went by the charge sheet and interviews and media stories to recreate these murders for the audience. “We took our own interviews, spoke to the neighbours, and some relatives. We included newspaper articles and common bytes given to the media by people involved. And there was, of course, the charge sheet,” Jeevan says.

In the episode that follows Annamma’s murder, you learn why Jolly allegedly killed Tom Thomas – the father-in-law who went on to depend so much on the young woman after his beloved wife had died. Jolly was loved, a favourite who took care of the family and the elders in the family. Neighbours watched her in awe – this woman who continued to take her car out and go for her job, a lie that continued for 16 years, and took care of the family. The podcast describes the change in the timid Jolly in the years following Annamma’s death – she rose to the occasion, filled the absence of the strong woman, and was admired.

After Annamma’s murder, and every other death that followed hers, Sashikumar’s voice asks, but why didn’t Jolly stop. With Annamma out of the way, she could have been at peace. No more risk of lies exposed. But she allegedly killed Tom after having the will written for all of the wealth to come to her and Roy.

Roy’s siblings – Renji and Rojo – oppose but the sympathetic relatives and Jolly admirers tell them to not make a big deal of it, that Jolly needed the money the most to run the family. Money must have been the motive then, you infer. The murders, however, did not stop. Even when you know the story, thanks to extensive media coverage of the case, you wish at the end of every episode, please, let this be the last. That’s the power of the narration and the music that makes you stop on your track and turn back every few minutes to see if there’s a Jolly behind you, standing with that calm smile of hers you saw in photographs.

Music that builds tension

“The mood was anxiety and you needed tension building music,” says Sandeep, the man who helps to scare the wits out of you with his music.

“We didn’t want to overdo it, make it a musical or take the attention away from the narration. In-between music or sounds in the background were related to the lines spoken – when the poison got mixed, you hear the clang of a spoon hitting steel. Music bits were introduced when the voice modulation changed or a punchline was thrown in. We approached it like a thriller,” he adds.

It’s during the third murder that cyanide is used for the first time. Roy is the third victim. The fourth is Mathew Manjadiyil, Roy’s uncle who lived a few blocks away. The fifth and the one who got the most sympathy from all of Kerala, is two-year-old Alphine, daughter of Roy’s cousin, Shaju. The final victim is Cily, Shaju’s wife. A year after Cily’s death, Jolly and Shaji got married – that’s 2017.

This story is known – the outline of it, the victims and the years. But what led to each of it, the timeline and the events that guided Jolly in this mad mission, comes frighteningly clear in the podcast, each about 20 to 25 minutes long. It’s recreated for you in ways you can imagine the Ponnamattom house itself, the sounds it made, the people it hosted. You forget the absence of visuals – sound can do so much.

Every character becomes more than a name you read about, but with life and relations like you, joys and sorrows and quirks. The toddler who never sat still and ran around between helpings of food, the middle-aged man who took to black magic as a way to find solutions, the elderly man who liked to have his evening drink, the widower who did the taxes of all his neighbours, the young woman who was told to be more like her efficient cousin, Jolly.

It’s not just the victims, there are the other accused too – MS Mathew, a jewellery shop owner who brought the cyanide to Jolly, and Praji the goldsmith who gave it to him. But they only briefly get mentioned in the podcast. This is more Jolly’s story.

The friendly able woman

After the last murder in 2016, it took three more years for Jolly to get caught. Why, Sashikumar asks half a dozen times throughout the podcast... why didn’t anyone suspect foul play until so far – with so many similarities between the murders, with the members of the same family dying one after the other. That is the magic that Jolly had on the others, he answers. She easily created the image of a nice and friendly woman who deserved all the sympathy in the world.

What finally turned things for her is that second lie we spoke about. At the time of Roy’s death, an autopsy was performed, on the insistence of his uncle, Mathew. Cyanide was discovered but at the time Jolly convinced everyone it was suicide – changing her earlier story that it was a heart attack. But such is Jolly’s influence that no one doubted her and everyone, including the suspicious uncle, agreed to keep mum about the whole thing for the family’s honour. At the time, Jolly had kept repeating that poor Roy didn’t even have the food she had prepared for him before dying. That is the little lie that she would be undoing several years later when Roy’s brother Rojo and another relative went through the autopsy report again. It said there was undigested food in Roy’s stomach. If Jolly hadn’t stressed on the dinner part, she might still have been free.

If some media comments are to be taken seriously, there might have been more murders.

The story is far from over. Jolly’s in jail and the trial has not begun. The podcast began with a disclaimer that it was not doing a media trial. It also looks critically at the frenzy of people suddenly becoming judges and blaming and cursing Jolly for everything wrong with the world. The same people who once adored her now showered abuses on her. But the way the podcast is presented makes you not want to be a part of it. It makes you want to wait and watch and reserve your comments. But it doesn’t stop you from imagining faces in the night, ready to eat you up, the way a horror film does for days on end. So perhaps the weak-hearted should tread with caution, a lot of caution while listening to 'Death, Lies and Cyanide'. 

Watch 'The Jolly Story: Decoding the deaths that shook Kerala'

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