Nine years after she was brutally murdered, the family of Payal Surekha finally got justice on Wednesday when a CBI Special Court found a gym trainer, James Ray, guilty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
This brutal murder of the 29-year-old techie shook Bengaluru and had raised several doubts about the police investigation. The controversial and widely-covered case took several turns but ultimately, it is not only Payal’s family that got justice, but also the lead investigator in the case – Umesh SK.
Umesh SK was posted as the Inspector of JP Nagar Police Station in Bengaluru and was falsely accused of botching up the investigation. The accused James Ray and Payal’s parents – Kanthadevi and Dindayal Surekha had strongly believed that Payal’s husband Ananth Narayan Mishra was behind the murder.
Dindayal had accused Umesh SK of concocting evidence and framing James. Umesh was also accused of fabricating evidence in order to protect Ananth as the latter’s parents were retired police officers.
As the state debated the safety of women, and the media made it a headline on a daily basis, Umesh received much flak. Not convinced by the line of investigation, Dindayal approached the Karnataka High Court and accused Umesh of botching up the probe. Umesh was dealt a huge blow as the case was handed over to the Central Crime Branch and subsequently, two separate CBI probes were conducted. Years later, Umesh SK’s investigation stood ground and James has now been convicted of the murder.
Convict James Ray
Speaking to TNM, Umesh SK, who is now the Deputy Superintendent of Police (Intelligence), says that he feels validated as the allegations could have cost him not just his reputation, but also his career.
“This was not a case where the CBI took over the probe before the charge sheet was filed. I had conducted the investigation, had hard evidence against James and had also filed a chargesheet against him in the court. The CBI probe began after I filed the chargesheet. These were serious allegations against me. My reputation, all my achievements and medals were at risk but I came out clean. I knew I did nothing wrong as I had done my job right,” DySP Umesh says.
Umesh SK's initial probe
On the evening of December 17, 2010, JP Nagar Police received a call from Ananth Narayan Mishra, Payal’s husband, that she had been killed. Ananth, who was in Odisha’s Cuttack, had called Payal’s mobile phone multiple times during the day. When Payal did not answer the call, Ananth asked his house-owner to check on Payal. The house-owner, who had a spare key, had opened the door to the apartment and had found Payal in a pool of blood.
Her throat had been slit and she had stab wounds all over her body. He informed Ananth of the incident, who alerted the police. When the JP Nagar Police arrived at the spot, investigating officer, Umesh SK had instructed the team to collect and catalogue all material evidence available at the crime scene.
Umesh had insisted that samples of hair be collected from various rooms in the house. As is usual in such cases, the police first suspected Ananth Mishra and took him in for questioning. After several hours of grilling him, Umesh says that it became evident that someone else had committed the crime. Ananth had revealed the names of all the persons who Payal had altercations with, and one among them was James Ray. The JP Nagar police had requisitioned James Ray’s call records and found that he was in RBI Colony at the time of the murder.
The James Ray connection
James Kumar Ray was a former employee at a gym owned by Ananth Mishra and Payal Surekha in Odisha’s Cuttack. In 2008, Payal fired James Ray after she accused him of embezzling money from the gym. James was sacked and Ananth had given him a settlement amount of Rs 75,000.
Payal and Ananth relocated to Bengaluru when she got a job as a technical associate at Dell Corporation. Ananth travelled to Cuttack every month to oversee the management of the gym. However, James Ray, who had moved to Hyderabad with his family in the interim, was unemployed. In November 2010, James contacted a mutual friend of his and Ananth’s – Bhavani Shankar and asked him for help to obtain a job.
Payal Surekha and Ananth Narayan Mishra on their wedding day
Bhavani Shankar had promised James to help him find a job. He had also informed James that he would ask Ananth to look out for openings. On December 11, 2010, James Ray arrived in Bengaluru to meet Bhavani Shankar. The duo landed up in Ananth’s home. Payal, however reprimanded Bhavani Shankar for bringing James to his house and refused to help James.
James went back to Hyderabad and decided to kill Payal. He boarded a bus to Bengaluru on the night of December 16. He reached Payal’s home at around 10 am on December 17 and one of the residents of the building – Munavar Ali, had seen James go up to Payal’s house.
James was arrested in Hyderabad on December 22. The police recovered a jacket, which had bloodstains and hair on it; a knife and spectacles from the catchment area of the Puttenahalli Lake. The hair and blood on the jacket matched Payal’s and the blood on the knife had also matched Payal’s. The hair found on Payal’s body and the bedsheet in her room was a match for James.
James was sent to judicial custody and was lodged at the Parappana Agrahara Central Prison.
How James manipulated Payal’s parents
A week after he was sent to judicial custody, Payal’s father Dindayal Surekha received a letter from James Ray. When he opened the envelope, there was a handwritten letter from James along with what seemed to look like details of call records belonging to Ananth Narayan Mishra.
DySP Umesh says that James had concocted a fake document of call record details of Payal’s husband. This document indicated that Ananth was in Bengaluru on the morning Payal was killed and that Ananth had gone to Cuttack after the murder. James had also said in his letter that the police had tortured him and forced him to confess to killing Payal.
“On December 23, when we brought James from Andhra Pradesh to Bengaluru, the victim’s father wanted to speak to him when he was in the police lock up. We had allowed them to speak. In this letter, James told Dindayal that he couldn’t talk in detail at the police station as he was scared of us. He accused me of planting evidence and framing him. He had said that I was trying to protect Ananth as his parents were former police officers. This was the first time I was accused of botching up an investigation. My career was on the line,” DySP Umesh recalls.
Meanwhile, Payal’s sister, who had had a falling out with Ananth a couple of months before the murder, had called Dindayal and informed him that Ananth had threatened to kill Payal.
How trouble began for Umesh SK
Payal’s parents and James had approached the Karnataka High Court in January 2011, seeking a CBI probe in the case. The High Court had directed the Central Crime Branch to investigate the matter. When the CCB probe came to a standstill, Dindayal approached the High Court to order a CBI probe. In November 2011, the CBI took over the case and for a year, they investigated Umesh SK.
DySP Umesh says that the CBI probe began with the premise that James was innocent. For a whole year, the CBI team investigated Umesh’s connection to Ananth and his parents – Rudra Narayana Mishra, a retired ACP from Odisha, and Basanthi Devi Narayana Mishra, a retired DCP from Odisha.
“The CBI strongly believed that I had planted evidence and coerced a confession from James. They checked my financials, my CDR, my movements were tracked. For a whole year, I was constantly watched and investigated. It was disheartening. I had an air-tight case. I had solid evidence. And yet, I was the one being treated as a suspect,” Umesh said.
The second CBI probe
After the year, when the investigation went nowhere, the probe was handed over to a second CBI team. This was when the investigators finally began looking at James as the prime suspect. “There was no other line of inquiry that the CBI could have done. All the evidence led to James. Finally, they decided to get the samples and evidence checked at the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Hyderabad. The results were the same. They found that the CDR James had sent to Dindayal was fake,” DySP Umesh said.
In August 2015, the CBI filed a chargesheet in the case and named James as the prime accused. “I was finally validated. The CBI’s chargesheet looks exactly like the one I had submitted to the session court. They used the same witnesses. I still remember taking Munavar Ali (the neighbour) to the jail. We had lined up 22 people. He identified James as the man he had seen on the day of the murder. The CBI also named him as a witness. After five years, everything in the case was still the same,” DySP Umesh says.
On Wednesday, the CBI court found James guilty of murdering Payal and sentenced him to life imprisonment. “This was a case that could have destroyed everything for me. But I stood by my word and I had faith in the CBI. Today, I am relieved,” DySP Umesh says.