On September 24, a 35-year-old businessman and rowdy-sheeter Kishan Hegde was followed by gangs of men in two cars, brutally attacked and killed in broad daylight in Udupi district of Karnataka.
Three weeks after the incident, a 41-year-old pub owner - Manish Shetty - was hacked to death and shot outside his establishment in central Bengaluru, 400 km away from Udupi. Another week later, a 41-year-old rowdy-sheeter and Tulu actor Surendra Bhandari was killed in his apartment after he was fatally stabbed with a sharp weapon in Bantwal in Dakshina Kannada district.
Police investigating the spate of killings are probing a common link - were the murders in Bengaluru and Bantwal an act of revenge over the murder of Kishan Hegde? And whether underworld criminals are involved in a turf war amid the killings?
The murder of Kishan Hegde
The first murder took place in Udupiâ€™s Hiriadka on the afternoon of September 24. Kishan Hegde, a rowdy-sheeter from Padubidri was driving a car with his friends Harpirasad Shetty and Divyaraj Shetty. As soon as he stopped in front of Hiriadkaâ€™s Veerabhadra Temple, which is located on the highway, a gang of men, armed with machetes and hammers, approached his car from the front.
One of the men smashed the windshield of the car with a hammer. Four more men joined the attack from behind the car. One of the attackers - Manoj Kodikere - who was identified by Kishanâ€™s associates allegedly said, â€śDo you think you are a big man? Hit him (Kishan). I will finish him,â€ť before attacking Kishan with a machete. He sped off with his gang members and Kishan bled to death due to injuries sustained in the attack.
The murder occurred at 2:15 pm in the afternoon and in public view. â€śIt was a brazen act that has not been seen in coastal Karnataka for some time now,â€ť said a police official from Udupi.
Crime scene in Kishan Hegde's murder in Hiriadka, Udupi
The investigation into the murder revealed that Kishan owed an undisclosed amount of money to Manoj Kodikere and this led to the murder. The duo ran money lending businesses and were previously charged in extortion and attempted murder cases. â€śThey were close friends for many years but in the past year, a financial issue had come up between the two and they often publicly exchanged words,â€ť a source close to the duo said.
Manoj Kodikere is also an activist of the Hindu Jagrana Vedike but officials in the pro-Hindu organisation sought to distance themselves from Manoj when asked about the recent murder. â€śHe has not been involved in the Vedikeâ€™s work in the recent past and the murders are linked to his business dealings,â€ť a Hindu Jagrana Vedike activist from Udupi told TNM.
Police sources say that the murder in Udupi pitted Manoj Kodikere against Vijay Shetty, alias Vicky Shetty, a fugitive underworld criminal, who Kishan was allegedly close to. Vijay was a former associate of Mumbai gangster Chhota Rajan and brands himself as a â€śpatriotic gangsterâ€ť.
Crime scene in Kishan Hegde's murder in Hiriadka, Udupi
Bengaluru bar ownerâ€™s murder
Three weeks after Kishanâ€™s murder, a similarly brazen murder took place in the central business district area of Bengaluru. Manish Shetty, who owned Duet Bar on Rest House Road, was hacked with a machete on his head and later shot at by contract killers, who had studied his movements.
The murder was followed by a phone call to two media houses - TV9 and Daijiworld - from a man claiming to be the fugitive Vicky Shetty. The caller said that he was based in Australia and that the bar ownerâ€™s murder was a revenge act for carrying out the murder of Kishan Hegde.
â€śThe murder of Manish Shetty in Bengaluru was done by our men. It was a revenge for Kishan Hegdeâ€™s murder. Manish was the boss of Manoj Kodikere. He brought the men together and it (Kishan Hegdeâ€™s murder) was done with his support, that is why we attacked Manish Shetty,â€ť the caller said.
Police officials investigating the murder in Bengaluru are yet to establish a link between Manish Shetty and Manoj Kodikere, who has since been arrested along with eight others for Kishan Hegdeâ€™s murder.
Bengaluru police arrested four men - Shashikiran, Nitya, residents of Somwarpet, Ganesh, a resident of Mangaluru and Akshay, a resident of Bantwal - in connection with Manishâ€™s murder. â€śThere is no direct connection we have found between Manish and Kishanâ€™s murders like Vicky Shetty claimed. The people arrested in Bengaluru are the hired killers and they are not aware of the motive behind it,â€ť a police source in Bengaluru said.
But that has not stopped speculation that the bar ownerâ€™s murder was a result of Mangaluruâ€™s underworld gang rivalries entering Bengaluru.
The murdered Shetty was arrested for an armed robbery of Chemmanur Jewellers in Bengaluru in 2007 and served a 10-year jail term for his involvement in robbing a State Bank of India branch in Belagavi in 2006. In his prison term, he is alleged to have been involved with underworld dons Ravi Pujari and Kali Yogesh.
Vicky Shetty was earlier close to Ravi Pujari but became an independent don in the early 2010s. He was later opposed to Ravi Pujari, who was elusive for over 15 years before he was arrested in January 2019 after he was tracked down in Senegal living under an alias - Anthony Fernandez.
Though the speculations of a turf war among Mangaluru gangs is a popular topic in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada, it is contradicted by another claim from police officials investigating the Manish Shetty murder case that the men arrested were in Bengaluru for at least four months and studied Manishâ€™s movements for more than a month.
Murder of Tulu actor
Another murder, that of Surendra Bhandari, a Tulu actor and rowdy sheeter residing in Bantwal in Dakshina Kannada district on October 21 was also linked to the murder of Kishan Hegde.
Surendra, a rowdy-sheeter and an actor in the hit Tulu film Chaali Polilu, was out on bail over an incident from 2018 in which he was accused of attacking BJP workers with a talwar and abusing them.
Actor and rowdy-sheeter Surendra Bhandari
He was killed last week with a sharp weapon in his apartment in Bantwal and just like Manishâ€™s death, an audio clip was released to the media, claiming that Surendraâ€™s murder was in retaliation to Kishan Hegdeâ€™s killing.
The audio leaked to the media supposedly from Sathish Kullal, an associate of Surendra, claimed responsibility for the murder and stated that it was in retaliation to Surendra giving support for Kishanâ€™s murder.
â€śThe murder (of Surendra) is a retaliation to the murder of Kishan Hegde. Surendra used his money for the killing of people like Kishan. I have known Surendra for 22 years and I know all his misdealings. He helped in the murder of Kishan and I knew this. I told him this is not an issue that he should concern himself with,â€ť the audio supposedly of Sathish said.
Surendraâ€™s associate Sathish was arrested on Tuesday by police in Dakshina Kannada along with Girish, a 28-year-old tattoo artist from Yelinje near Kinnigoli.
Police sources said Girish was a close friend of Kishan Hegde and that he was allegedly involved in the murder of Surendra along with several others after he was told that Surendra had supported the murder of Kishan.
â€śGirish was very close to Kishan. He owed a lot of his success with the tattoo shop to Kishan and he was distraught after finding out about his murder last month. He was told that Surendra had a role in Kishan's murder. We are verifying whether this is true and who gave this information to Girish,â€ť a police source said. â€śSathish was at odds with Surendra for personal reasons. Others accused in the crime had financial motives. Different people have come together to kill Surendra,â€ť the source added.
The police are still interrogating others accused in the case to find out who told Girish that Surendra had supported Kishanâ€™s murder. Long-time friends of Surendra said that the actor had no role to play in Kishan Hegdeâ€™s murder and that â€śSurendra and Kishan ran in completely different circlesâ€ť.
â€śThe investigations into the murders in Bantwal and Bengaluru are yet to be completed and more names connected to them will come out soon,â€ť an investigating officer added.
Alongside the extradition of Ravi Pujari, another underworld don Muthappa Rai passed away in Bengaluru earlier this year. With two big names in the underworld not around anymore, speculation is rife that a turf war is underway among criminal gangs in coastal Karnataka. However, police officials investigating the cases denied the claim since those involved are â€śsmaller playersâ€ť.