Late police surgeon Dr B Umadathan, who worked on the case, details the incidents from the time in his memoir ‘Dead Men Tell Tales’.

Black and white image of a burnt Ambassador car taken from 'Dead Men Tell Tales' by Dr B UmadathanBurnt car in Chacko's murder / All images from 'Dead Men Tell Tales' by Dr B Umadathan
news Crime Friday, November 12, 2021 - 18:11

In the eerily early hours of a January morning in 1984, a man travelling over the Kollakadavu Bridge in Kunnam in Kerala’s Alappuzha district saw a charred body in a burnt car in a nearby farm. He went to a house in the vicinity and woke up the man living there – Suresh Kumar – who in turn called on another neighbour – Radhakrishnan Achari. Both of them went to the site of the burnt car. One door was open and they saw the body of a man in the driver’s seat, so badly burnt that he was unrecognisable.

Radhakrishnan went in a neighbour’s auto rickshaw to the Mavelikkara police station nearby. It was just 5 in the morning when Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Haridas reached the spot and saw the burnt Ambassador car with the number plate KLQ 7831. That was the beginning of what would become a decades-long crime story, one of the most infamous in Kerala – the Chacko murder case and the fugitive Sukumara Kurup. The story, which never really faded from public memory, is once again in the spotlight, with the release of a film on Friday, November 12 – Kurup, enacted by Dulquer Salmaan.

In his memoir Dead Men Tell Tales, late police surgeon Dr B Umadathan describes the incidents of that day – January 22, 1984 – when the burnt body was found in the car. The first witnesses of the incident identified the car as belonging to Sukumara Kurup, a non-resident Indian from Cheriyanad, another Alappuzha village. The car was found in an area between Mavelikkara and Chengannur, barely 5 kms from Cheriyanad. People thought the dead man was Kurup, who had come down from Abu Dhabi days ago.

Read: ‘Dead Men Tell Tales’: Late Kerala forensic surgeon’s book is like a thriller

However, DSP Haridas still wrote it down as “said to be Sukumara Kurup”. Only a pair of gloves and an empty petrol can were found at the site, nothing to identify Kurup except the car. Umadathan did the postmortem but the body was not identifiable, it was just too charred. There were also no objects – rings, watches or even slippers – that could be used in the identification. The only piece of clothing was a half-burnt undergarment. But then Umadathan made another discovery.

“When I examined the parts of the body that hadn’t been scorched, I couldn’t see any signs of the body being burnt while alive. Then I cut open the body to examine the lungs and trachea. I was sure that my assumptions were right. There was no sign of soot inside. If he had been alive while the car was burning, smoke and soot would have entered the body,” Umadathan writes.

It became clear that the man was murdered before his body was burnt. From traces of a brown liquid and reactions of a toxic substance on the abdomen, Umadathan also guessed that the man may have been poisoned. He deduced that the man was between 30 and 35 years, and six feet tall.

Afterwards, the body was handed over to Kurup’s relatives, who buried it in the compound of his house.

Clues and contradictory versions

The next clue waited for them at the police station where Bhaskara Pillai, Kurup’s brother-in-law, was summoned. He had told the police that he suspected Kurup’s enemies in Abu Dhabi to be behind the murder. An observant Haridas noticed that Pillai wore a full-sleeved shirt when it was not the norm those days in a place like Mavelikkara. Haridas got Pillai to roll up his sleeves and found burn marks all over his hands. On further examination, Umadathan found that parts of Pillai’s face, elbow, foot, and even hair showed signs of burning.

Pillai, caught in a tight spot, suddenly ‘confessed’ to killing Kurup for cheating him by taking money and not getting him a job abroad. Forensic experts found evidence of Pillai’s presence at the crime scene – his hair and the hair found on the gloves belonged to the same person.

Soon, Haridas’s hunch that the dead person may not be Kurup proved correct. One of Kurup’s relatives called to say that Kurup had not died. An unsurprised Haridas revealed then that he had sent policemen in mufti to Kurup’s house the day the body was found. No one was mourning and a chicken curry – a celebratory dish in those days – was being cooked.

It also emerged that Kurup used to use another car when he came home for vacations – a taxi driven by a man named Ponnappan. During the discovery of the burnt car and the dead body, there was no sign of the taxi or Ponnappan. When Ponnappan finally made an appearance, people standing around Kurup’s compound jumped on him. A scared Ponnappan told them he had dropped some customers in Aluva, but when Kurup’s uncle questioned him he told a story about hitting a man accidentally while driving with Kurup. When they realised the man had died, they brought him to the field and burnt him along with the car, he said.

There were two different versions about the burnt body already – Bhaskara Pillai’s confession about killing Kurup for revenge, and Ponnappan’s story about a hit-and-run. It didn’t add up. Haridas was too experienced to believe Ponnappan’s version – you don’t accidentally run over a man and kill him and then burn the dead body in your own car. Umadathan had scientific reasons for disbelieving the story – there were no accident-related injuries found during the postmortem.

The police were a tad late to reach Aluva, where Ponnappan confessed he had dropped Kurup. Staff members at a lodge recognised photos of Kurup as the man who had stayed there and left only hours earlier. The handwriting in the lodge register also matched Kurup’s.

The truth finally emerges

It took another round of questioning with Bhaskara Pillai for the pieces of truth to finally emerge. When Kurup came on leave from Abu Dhabi on January 6, 1984, he had with him a man called Shahu from Chavakkad. Pillai, Ponnappan, Kurup and Shahu began discussing a crazy scheme that Kurup came up with. He had taken an insurance policy of Rs 50 lakh in Abu Dhabi and wanted to fake his own death in an accident so he could claim the money. He promised to share it with the three others and everyone was game. The idea came from a similar case of insurance fraud in Germany.

At first their plan was to get a dead body similar in size to Kurup. They tried to get one from the Alappuzha Medical College with a relative’s help, then they tried to dig one up from a cemetery – but nothing worked. So they decided to find a random man who fitted Kurup’s description and kill him and pass his body off as Kurup’s. Just as soon as such a vile plan was hatched, all men were somehow on board.

They drove around a lot through the roads of Alappuzha and Haripad until they found a victim on the night of January 21. The poor man, similar in size and age to Kurup, was standing outside the Hari theatre in Karuvatta, and had the misfortune to ask these strangers for a ride home. The other three men were in the car while Kurup waited for them at a lodge. Once inside the car, the man was forced to consume alcohol and ether by Pillai. In Vishnu Varma’s detailed report of the incident in The Indian Express (IE), the man refused the drink twice, until Pillai’s tone became menacing and he drank it out of fear. He fell unconscious. And Pillai strangled him to death with a towel.


Superimposition using Chacko's image

The men took the dead body to a house owned by Kurup, who reached there from the lodge. They removed the man’s clothes and burnt his face and head to make it unidentifiable, and removed all his clothes and accessories – ring, watch, etc. The IE story mentions he was then dressed in Kurup’s clothes. The four men drove to the field in Kunnam, placed the body behind the steering wheel, and burnt the car. Pillai lit the fire and that’s when he sustained the burns.

Identifying Chacko

Umadathan’s account says that Pillai knew nothing about the man he killed except that he was as tall as Kurup. However, the IE story says that the man had introduced himself as Chacko, a film representative, to the men in the car.

The identity of the dead man came to light after a police station in Haripad reported that a film representative called Chacko was missing. His brother Thomas had given a complaint, which said that Chacko had gone to a movie theatre in Karuvatta but didn’t come back home. It was still only an informed guess and the body had to be identified scientifically. The police decided to exhume the body for another postmortem.

Umadathan, an expert on the technique of superimposition (used to identify skeletal remains using an enlarged photo placed over the x-ray of the skull), got a photo of Chacko to superimpose it over the skull of the dead man. Luckily, the skull and bones of the right foot were not completely burnt. It was still not easy. The upper part of the skull was missing. The lower part of the jawbone was burnt. But the rest of the face matched.


Recreating Chacko's foot

Umadathan also recreated the right foot – another tough task – given he only had the dead man’s bones. He connected the bones with wires and then worked with another doctor called Unnithan to figure out how much flesh was on the foot (“we worked on 13 dead bodies and found 37 anatomical points and the tissue thickness”). They used clay for flesh and tried Chacko’s footwear on the reconstructed foot. It fitted perfectly. Indentations of two toes also matched exactly, Umadathan writes. It was the first time in the country that a dead man’s foot had been thus recreated.

Watch: Who is Sukumara Kurup? Story of Kerala's elusive killer

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