Kerala has been in the grip of a sensational mystery that has been unfolding over the past few weeks in Koodathayi. The sudden deaths of six members of a family over 14 years is making headlines, with the state watching the case with keen interest.
And even as the police pull all stops to establish the alleged serial murders, all eyes are on Jolly Joseph - the 47-year-old woman who’s at the centre of the puzzling story.
A mother of two and the prime suspect in the case, Jolly has remained a crucial subject of discussion.
With the focus continuing on Jolly and the two suspects - Mathew and Praji Kumar - a key link to Jolly’s personal life and her activities over the last 1.5 years also deserves to be examined more. Shaju Zacharias - Jolly’s second husband - has given multiple interviews to several media houses over the past few days. He denies knowing anything about Jolly’s alleged crimes or being involved in them in any way.
In his defence, Shaju has been questioned over six times by the investigating authorities and let off, as there is no conclusive evidence yet that links him to Jolly’s alleged murders. However, over the course of these probes, the 48-year old Kodenchery native has gone back and forth in his statements, leaving behind many gaps and contradictions in the narrative that he’s offered to the media.
TNM looks at some of the contradictions in the statements that Shaju had offered during a one-on-one interview.
‘Was coerced into marriage with Jolly’
Shaju’s former wife Cily and two-year-old daughter Alphine, are among the six family members whose deaths the police are investigating.
Both Cily and her daughter Alphine had passed away within a gap of two years with eerily similar symptoms which included seizures, apnea and foaming in the mouth. According to Shaju, Jolly and Cily had been close friends and they used to attend several social gatherings together.
However, less than a year after Cily collapsed and died at a dentist’s clinic in 2016, Shaju married Jolly in a private ceremony in Kattapana, Idukki. Both Jolly and Shaju had been present at the dentist’s when Cily passed away.
“I was least interested in this marriage. I did it for the sake of our children and because my family and Cily’s family were very supportive of this alliance,” Shaju Zacharias tells TNM. Shaju has a 10-year-old son from his first marriage to Cily, while Jolly has two sons from her marriage to Roy Thomas - whom she is accused of poisoning with cyanide in 2011.
Shaju insists that he was not close to Jolly before they got married and that he had been coerced into a second marriage soon after his wife’s death.
“It was only because Jolly was a relative (Jolly’s first husband Roy Thomas was Shaju’s first cousin) and known to us that I had agreed. Otherwise, I would not have married so soon after my wife’s death,” Shaju claims.
However, a photograph from 2016 in which Jolly and Shaju are seen attending Cily’s funeral together has surfaced on social media. The pair is seen offering ‘Anthyachumbanam’ - a custom in which kisses are offered to the mortal remains of the deceased - to Cily together. This photograph was released by Shaju himself and he told the media that Jolly's actions at the funeral had made him uncomfortable.
When TNM visited Koodathayi, where Jolly lived with her husband Roy Thomas and his family, several neighbours claimed that three months into Cily’s death, Jolly had spread the news of her second marriage to Shaju Zacharias. Many of Cily's relatives have said that they were against the second marriage, but Shaju went ahead.
Did not insist on a postmortem on Cily and Alphine
Shaju’s second argument which has come under suspicion centres around the deaths of Cily and Alphine.
In 2014, Shaju’s two-year-old daughter Alphine Shaju passed away after allegedly choking on a piece of bread during the Holy Communion of her elder brother. Alphine was rushed to a local hospital, then to two bigger hospitals,but could not be saved. Investigating officials have stated that Alphine’s death could have been a case of poisoning.
“My daughter has always had health issues. Three months into the pregnancy, Cily had contracted chickenpox. Alphine was born with swollen kidneys and other medical complications. Therefore, when she died, I did not ask for a postmortem because she had not been a healthy child,” Shaju claims.
Within two years of their daughter passing away, Cily too died. She collapsed at a dental clinic after drinking a glass of water. Police believe that Cily died after consuming a tablet on which poison had been applied.
Both Cily and Alphine died after experiencing strangely similar symptoms - seizures, apnea and foaming in the mouth.
But this was not the first time Cily hasld seizures. In 2014, she had gone through similar seizures and breathing problems after drinking an Ayurvedic medicine which Shaju had bought from a shop. However, Shaju says that Cily had no history of seizures or breathing issues prior to this incident.
With Cily’s death, too, Shaju had refused to get a postmortem done. A report by Huffington Post quoted staff at Santhi hospital in Omassery, who recall Shaju vociferously refusing a postmortem on Cily’s body, despite the duty doctor’s insistence.
“The doctor, P Shamseer, who treated Sily had a hunch based on his medical investigation that Cily could not have died of natural causes,” Mubarak is quoted as saying. “He had communicated the same to Shaju and other relatives who were present at the hospital. Shaju Zacharias, however, insisted that the death can only be natural and that postmortem should not be conducted.”
When Shaju continued to deny the postmortem, the hospital got him to sign a document which stated that he didn’t want the postmortem to be conducted.
Jolly’s fake job at NIT
In his interview with TNM, Shaju admitted that he had discovered Jolly’s fake NIT job five months ago.
“When the investigations into the case had just begun, Jolly was anxious and kept asking me if somebody had asked about her job. I suspected something was shady and asked her if she actually had a job at NIT, to which she replied that she didn’t,” Shaju said.
However, despite being aware of her fake identity and the probes into the suspicious deaths, Shaju not only hid this information from people but also did not investigate Jolly’s NIT connection.
“I had fallen out of love with her after I realised that she was being secretive. She would use her phone a lot and not reveal who she was contacting. I suspected some things and put on an act to save the marriage for the sake of the children. Towards the end, I did not question her or any of her decisions. We were living separate lives. This is why I did not enquire about the fake job as well,” Shaju claims.
Shaju also claims that he did not see any of the money that Jolly earned as ‘salary’ from NIT.
“She told me she had a salary of Rs 65,000. However, to pursue her PhD, she told me she had moved to a part-time position within NIT and thus her salary dropped to Rs 18,000,” Shaju says. The 48-year-old claims that he did not cross-verify any of Jolly’s claims.
It isn’t just Shaju, but also his father Zacharias, who has backtracked on statements over the past few days.
While initially the family was supportive of Jolly and claimed that they did not believe her to have committed the murders, Shaju now believes Jolly to be solely responsible for the murders.
“I doubt if anybody else has had a hand in these deaths. It looks like she has single-handedly done this,” he told TNM.
While Shaju has so far not been directly linked to any of the murders, his role and knowledge, if any, on Jolly’s criminal acts remain to be investigated further by the police.