Koodathai/Kodanchery: When the dead are buried without embalming, after about five to six months pretty much all you would find is bones. So, when the Kerala police exhumed six bodies this month, 17 years after the first of them, Annamma Thomas, had died, they knew they were up against one of their most challenging cases yet. Even now, they are not entirely sure of being able to get forensic evidence that will prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt. But try they must.
The goal is to find poison in the remains of bodies; in particular, cyanide. The greater goal: to bring to book Jolly Joseph, a 47-year-old mother of two, who is now a suspect of killing six members of her family.
'It just happened'
"That Friday night (the night the bodies were exhumed), she told me 'pattipoyi Bava' (it just happened)," recalls Mohammed Bava, who has been neighbours with Jolly for decades.
Bava was among the first to get suspicious of Jolly over the years when he witnessed so many dying similar deaths.
The deaths spanned 14 years, the gaps between them getting shorter as Jolly was allegedly getting bolder that she could get away with … well, murder... as one after another was signed away without a post-mortem. Only in her husband Roy Thomas's death in 2011 was a post-mortem done - it did indicate signs of cyanide but wasn't investigated further.
Tombstone number 148 at St Mary's Forane church in Kodenchery, Kozhikode bears the name of the littlest of the lot. It reads: Alphine, born 03.09.2012 died 03.05.2014.
Nobody found anything suspicious in little Alphine's death. After all, what could possibly be a motive for killing a little child? Everyone believed the toddler died after she choked on food in May 2014; until October 4, 2019 when her body was exhumed as another among the spate of suspect killings – it was easy enough to extricate. Her body was just a tiny bunch of bones tied in a cloth and placed next to her mother Sili's body. when Sili died in 2016, she was buried in the same place with her baby.
These were the last two of the victims in this gruesome story of serial murders that has gripped Kerala today. Since they are the most recent of the deaths, there is greater hope that identification of the remains and possibility of finding cyanide is easier. When Sili died and had to be buried in the same place, the grave diggers had simply put together Alphine's bones and tied them up in a bundle in a piece of cloth, to make place for Sili's body.
When Sili's body was exhumed, police found some remains – bones, hair, teeth, even fluid. All of which has been taken for forensic examination.
Ten kilometres away from Alphine and Sili's grave, at the Koodathai Lourde Matha church cemetery, four more bodies were exhumed the same day: Annamma Thomas, her husband Tom Thomas, their son Roy Thomas and Annamma's brother Mathew MM. All of them died between 2002 and 2016. The cause of death was believed to be natural until Jolly Joseph, Roy's former wife, was accused of murdering Roy and suspected to have killed five others.
"We had to be very sure. A woman was involved here. A woman in the family who gave everyone the impression that she was a hundred per cent clean character," says Bava, of the allegations.
Koodathai is a sleepy hamlet about 30 kilometres from Kozhikode town, a neighbourhood abounding with banana plantations, where you can hear crickets chirping even during the day. It would have been difficult to miss if something went wrong in a neighbour's house. At the time, neighbours felt there was nothing unusual in the Thomas family, including in the deaths of their beloved ‘Annamma teacher and Tom sir”. It was unfortunate, but not unusual.
The first to die was Annamma Thomas, Jolly's 57-year-old mother-in-law, a retired schoolteacher, in 2002. The matriarch who held the family together for years, she enjoyed great goodwill in the community. Many, like Bava, called her “Ammachi” ('mother' in Malayalam). She used to help out with the children's homework in the locality, a churchgoer and do-gooder.
"We went to them if we wanted to fill out some forms, needed some help understanding certain procedures. We have known them for decades. Very helpful," says 75-year-old Abu Backer Kutty.
Kutty and his family, like every other neighbour, are still coming to terms with what they are hearing.
"We have always gone to each other's houses during functions. Annamma was my teacher in primary school. I would go to school with her sometimes. Even after teacher and Tom sir died, Jolly would come sometimes. Give us cake during Christmas. Nobody had any doubt about her ever," says Riyas VK, Kutty's son.
On a balmy August evening, Annamma took ill right after drinking mutton soup she had made for herself and died a few minutes later, frothing at the mouth.
Since she had been hospitalised a few weeks earlier to similar food-poisoning complaints, nobody thought much of it. The neighbourhood came together in the family's grief, condoled with the children.
Police now suspect it was Jolly's second attempt at her mother-in-law's life –that Annamma's previous hospitalisation for nearly 15 days for food-poisoning just weeks before her death was probably a first murder attempt gone wrong. They say she was probably killed for handling the family's financial affairs with an iron-grip.
Six years later, Jolly's father-in-law Tom Thomas, a retired state government employee, died similarly, after eating a tapioca dish prepared by his marumakal (daughter-in-law). Since he just collapsed suddenly, and the eldest marumakal said it was a heart attack, people just explained it away as age-related.
Nobody thought of asking for a post-mortem.
Jolly was the society's text-book definition of the ideal woman. She maintained good relationships with family and neighbours, was a loving daughter-in-law, went to church regularly, dropped and picked up her two sons to and from Sunday school and distributed cakes at Christmas.
"If there was a wedding nearby, Jolly would drive us there. We would discuss about our kids, about families," says Baby Fathima, who lives next door. She is still wonderstruck about how she, like everyone else, had been conned into believing that Jolly was a lecturer. Jolly had apparently told everyone that she was a lecturer at the National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode. She displayed a fake ID card to all and sundry. Her in-laws were both involved in education and nobody questioned that she wasn't in the same field either.
For more than a decade, she left home every morning in her car like lakhs of other working women. Where she went every day is a mystery that is still getting unravelled. Some witnesses have told the police she was often seen at the NIT's canteen, but the institute has said she has never been on their rolls, not even on a temporary basis.
"All this while, I had no idea she was lying," says Fathima, the first one to be called when Tom died suddenly.
"We heard a noise, she (Jolly) was shouting for help. We rushed there to see her sitting next to the body of Tom sir. He had collapsed, with foam from the mouth. Jolly looked exhausted, confused and did not seem to be in a condition to drive him to the hospital. Others who rushed there, took him to the hospital. But he died," says Fathima, of the fateful day in 2008.
The third victim, three years after Tom, was Jolly's own husband – Roy Thomas. He had had dinner, took ill, went to the bathroom and retched to death. It was then, in September 2011, that the red flags first came up – people weren't that generous as to put it off to food poisoning. Roy's brother Rojo flew down from the United States, while Roy's uncle Mathew demanded a post-mortem.
The post-mortem report went to Jolly, the surviving widow. The presence of cyanide made her change her story. Until then, she had told her family it was probably a heart-attack – but now medical evidence suggested otherwise.
She now told the family that Roy had probably committed suicide because of financial troubles. Police say she pleaded with all of them to not take the case forward, as it would just mean more trouble for her by way of running around to the courts while fending for her two sons alone.
Rojo left it to her as her choice and went back. The police closed the case as suicide. But Mathew, Annamma's brother, was not convinced. He would constantly ask about where Roy got access to cyanide.
In 2014, Mathew died under circumstances similar to the previous three – allegedly due to cyanide mixed with either water or alcohol. His death was put down to age. When so many others had died of a heart-attack, it was not startling. The one constant in all the four deaths – Jolly was present every time.
Jolly was also a distant relative of Mathew's before she married his nephew. A native of Kattapana in Idukki district, it was at a house-warming function of Mathew's new home in Koodathai that she had gone as a guest to, way back in 1987. That is when she met Roy, whom she later married in 1996.
Fathima, whose house abuts Jolly's, now has strangers visiting her almost every day, asking what kind of a woman Jolly was. Those passing by stop at the now-infamous Ponnamattam house, children cycle around to see police presence at the place round the clock. "How was she with you all?" they all want to know, she says.
When Jolly was taken to her home and other places in Koodathai last week by the police as part of their evidence-gathering exercise, hundreds collected, climbing up compound walls to catch a glimpse of the woman, booing and shouting at her.
Jolly's new family, and the last kiss
Months after Mathew died, Jolly attended the holy communion of her husband's cousin Shaju Zakariah's son. When the function was in progress, Shaju's one-and-half-year-old daughter Alphine choked on something she ate. She was rushed to two different hospitals, put on ventilator for a couple of days, but eventually died.
Shaju's wife Sili died in 2016, collapsing suddenly on Jolly's lap after the two had accompanied Shaju to a dentist for a routine consultation. Sili's uncle Xavier, who is taking care of her son now, says he did not think anything amiss at the time.
"Jolly got close to the family only months before Alphine's death. She had taken Sili to several places as a friend, once to a store for some health tonics. Months before Sili died, she had collapsed once similarly. We doubt if she was poisoned then. She was hospitalised but recovered later. The day she died, they were returning from a wedding," he says.
Xavier says that Sili's brother, who had rushed to the dental clinic when he was first informed about Sili collapsing, found Sili lying cold with her head on Jolly's lap.
While the thirst to take over Roy's family property could have been a possible motive for the first three killings, the fourth one – of Mathew – could have been driven by the fact that he was deeply suspicious of her and kept asking questions about how Roy got hold of cyanide.
However, there was no logical motive for Sili and Alphine's murders, if indeed they are established as murders. Until Jolly and Shaju married in 2017, exactly 13 months after Sili's death. A year of mourning for Sili, and a month later, they were married.
Shaju is the son of Tom's brother Zakariah.
A picture that remains etched in Xavier's mind is that of Jolly bending over Sili's body, when the priest called upon Shaju to bestow his dead wife with a last kiss. Jolly joined Shaju in the kiss – even at the time, it had looked unusual, for someone not in the immediate family to do this.
Xavier says the extended family hadn't been comfortable with the idea of the two marrying. But they got around it.
"We were not happy with the marriage, but we didn't mind. The two were in a similar situation. Their spouses died. They knew each other, were good friends. What is the harm, we thought? But looking back, we can connect the dots," he says.
The unusual bequest
After the wedding, Jolly's first marital family became more suspicious. Especially because they were given the image of a will signed by Tom that bequeathed their family home, the Ponnamattam house, to Jolly.
Roy's brother Rojo Thomas and sister Renji Wilson found this unusual – not only because it kept the other two children out of the will, but also because it left the property to the daughter-in-law, instead of the son. They had been in touch with Bava over the years on what exactly had been happening. While Rojo lives in the US, Renji lives with her husband and three kids in Ernakulam, more than 170 km from the family home.
Was Roy suspicious of the will too? We will never know; he cannot speak now.
But immediately after Roy died, the same will appeared with a seal and two witness signatures, Rojo has allegedly told the police. The will, suspected to be forged, is one of the documents given by Rojo to the police as part of the second complaint he has begun pursuing now (the first case was about Roy's suspicious death).
While all six murders are being treated as suspect, unnatural deaths, it is only in Roy's death that the police have arrested Jolly. Investigators say they had been working on this probe for nearly two months, questioning and taking statements from nearly 200 people, before actually taking Jolly into custody.
Rojo has been called back to India now to join the investigation. He had also applied under the Right to Information Act separately for a copy of the post-mortem report of his brother's death – only after that did he find contradictions in Jolly's story and the actual medical position.
"Rojo got a copy of the post-mortem report which said there was undigested food in the body when he died, along with presence of cyanide. On the contrary, Jolly had maintained all along that she was only going to prepare dinner when Roy took ill and went to the bathroom, and later collapsed. She repeated the same, when we asked again," says Bava.
It was also Rojo who found out that her claim of working at NIT was a farce.
"She was given around Rs 18 lakh when Appachan (Roy's father Tom) was alive. So, he (Tom) had told Rojo that the house would be given to him (Rojo). But when she sent the will saying it was given to her, we didn't argue. When we saw the will again in 2011, we smelled something wrong. We kept watch on her financial dealings, where she went, who visited her including visitors like MS Mathew," says Bava.
MS Mathew, who was arrested with Jolly, is the second accused in the case. He is also Roy's first cousin. He worked at a jewellery store and is accused of getting cyanide for Jolly. Mathew is believed to have received the cyanide from one Praji Kumar, a goldsmith, who is also under arrest now as the third accused.
"Mathew visited their home even when Roy was alive. Roy wasn't very fond of this. Towards the end he did say how unhappy he was. He may have had doubts about Jolly's activities. She was the one who called several friends of mine and Roy's to inform that he is dead. That was unusual too," Bava said.
It was in June this year that Rojo filed that second complaint with the crime branch.
A day before she was arrested, Jolly allegedly confessed to her elder son (who is studying at a college in Shimla but had come down for a visit) and a couple of neighbours that she was behind the deaths.
"Police had been frequenting the place. We thought it's related to the property issue. On Friday, when the bodies were being exhumed, I was returning from the mosque. I saw Jolly chechi (elder sister) on the verandah of their house. I asked if everything was fine, if her son had had lunch. She said he was sleeping and then asked, would we take care of him if need be, later? She sounded worried. I reassured her that she didn't have to worry if she hadn't done anything wrong. She said ‘circumstantial evidence is all against me, I may have to go for 14 days at least’," says Saidu VK, a neighbour.
"The case is going to go ahead legally. We do not know what the court is going to say. But we got our answers for the questions we have had for so long," says Renji Wilson.
The case now rests solely on the post-mortem report of Roy Thomas – which is the only autopsy among the six deaths that has been done. So, to prove any of the other deaths as unnatural, so many years since, will undoubtedly be an uphill task.
But police say there may have been more killings; that Jolly had attempted to kill two more children and would have killed many more if she wasn't arrested. There are no complaints in these, and the identity of the possible victims has been protected.
Since the arrest, though, the son of a local Congress leader has come forward with a formal complaint – alleging her hand in the politician’s death. That investigation is yet to take off. "She eliminated anyone who got in her way. Rojo and Renji wouldn't eat at her place when they came to Koodathai. We were scared," says Bava.
But none of these cases has witnesses so far. The possibility of finding anything chemically or forensically is meagre too.
Since Jolly's arrest, Renji too has wondered aloud whether she may have just been saved from death herself. She recalls an incident in 2003, when she was still in her maternal home, a year after her mother had died.
"There was a bottle of arishtam (an Ayurvedic drink) at home, used for low-blood levels (haemoglobin). After I drank that, I felt giddy, my legs were stiff. I managed to get to the bedroom. I almost lost consciousness. I was taken to the hospital; my legs were stiff and I was given IV fluids. Maybe that is what saved me," she told News24, a Malayalam channel, last week, adding that she thought nothing of it at the time.
Today, in the backdrop of the varied 'coincidences', she says her mother Annamma too had had her doubts, just before she died. "Amma saw a likeness in her symptoms which led to her hospitalisation once and in the symptoms that led to her death. She told me she was feeling the same thing, that there was something common," Renji says.
Are these imagined after-thoughts? Can a case stand on statements like these that are being made 15 years after what were only considered natural deaths?
Former Chief Chemical Examiner in Kerala KG Sivadasan points out that there has been no case so far where traces of cyanide have been found in a buried person's bones.
"Cyanide metabolises into a compound called aminothiazoline carboxylic acid (ATCA). There is no case so far where ATCA was found in bones. Pesticides (if used to kill) have been found even if the bodies are one or two years old. But studies have said research needs to be done on whether you can detect cyanide in bones. There isn't such a facility in India at least," says Sivadasan.
Exhuming bodies is itself a procedure that occurs in rare cases, and the nature of a volatile poison like cyanide is that it does not leave a trace for long.
"We have not had a case where we had to deal with bodies this old," says KK Mohanan, former Joint Director of the Kerala Police Academy who also worked in the Forensics Science Laboratory for 23 years. He adds, "The only hope is, if one can find bone marrow in the remains. The investigating officer then (at the time of the deaths) should have done something. Now it's too late. It is only a slight possibility now, and more of a challenge for the medical fraternity to find a way to establish this."
What exists in the case at present is circumstantial evidence. After launching the investigation in August and based on the statements of the many that have been collated, Kozhikode Rural SP and investigating officer KG Simon said that they found discrepancies in about 50 statements of Jolly's – among them, her claims of her job at the NIT, her claims of Roy's heart attack. and later suicide.
The police do not see the murders as circumstantial, but murders for different reasons, one thing leading to another. Simon calls it a case to be studied like that of Harold Shipman, the British doctor who got the sobriquet ‘Dr Death’ after being accused of about 15 serial murders. But the defence advocate pins hopes on the complexity of proving this.
"The prosecution does not have a case here," says BA Aloor, who took on the case to represent Jolly after many others refused. "They need to prove whose bodies those are, find cyanide from bodies so old. Even if Jolly is accused of murder, they need to establish intent, motive." he says.
Jolly currently has no family visiting her, not even her two sons. After giving his statement to the police last week, her elder son Romo said, "Those who make mistakes will be punished. Truth and justice will prevail. I cannot break down now. I need to stay strong. I have a younger brother. I need to take care of him.”
Shaju has distanced himself, moving out of the family home, saying he was as much in the dark about her past or her character as the others. Jolly's maternal family, her siblings and parents, have disowned her.
Perhaps the worst-affected are the two 15-year-old boys – Jolly's younger son and Shaju-Sili's son.
Both are studying in class X, an important year academically. They were classmates until recently. Both are in the care of extended family members. Both will be subject to piercing eyes, unasked questions, and much gossip. What they are going through is unimaginable. One lives with the fact that his mother and sister are dead, and his stepmother may have killed them. The other lives with the fact that his mother is in jail, suspected of having killed six people, including his father.