A police team left for Maharashtra on Friday to secure the custody of a 48-year-old man suspected to be a member of a gang of burglars who broke into a house at Pettah in Thiruvananthapuram and at Perungalathur in Chennai in November 2009.

The police identified the suspect as Baba Sahib Somanath Pimply, the second-in-command of the gang. He was recently arrested by the Aurangabad police in connection with a similar burglary there.

The police had arrested one of the main suspects in the case, Rahul alias Vikas Gopinath Chawan, in December last from the remote village of Shrirampur, near Asok Nagar, in Ahmednagar district.

In both the cases, the burglars had broken into the house at night and gagged and tied their victims to the bed before escaping with the booty in the family car. They had conducted a religious rite, with coconuts and incense sticks, and ritually consumed liquor offered to their deity as sacrament before taking the victims hostage. They also severed telephone landlines and damaged the mobile phones of the victims before robbing them at knifepoint. In both cases, the burglars chose moonless night to carry out the operation. Investigators said the gang members belonged to a community with peculiar tribal practices. During the burglary, they communicated with each other by making seemingly unintelligible sounds.

The police are yet to arrest the kingpin of the gang, Shaila alias Vijay. Investigators said Shaila's gang was behind similar burglaries at houses in Kannur, Kozhikode, Uduppi in Karnataka and Vasai, near Thane, in Maharasthra in 2009.

The police said one Govinda Bhai Pimply originally headed the Asok Nagar gang, which profited chiefly from illicit distillation and burglary. Govinda was shot dead by the police in 2005 after he was named an accused in a rape-and-murder case, committed during a burglary in Mulki, near Mangalore, in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka.

The gangsters altered their method of operation after his death and refrained from harming their victims, fearing severe police retribution.

The city police got the first clue of the identity of the culprits from a soiled jewellery purchase receipt they found in the car which the burglars had stolen from Thiruvananthapuram and abandoned in Kochi.

A jewellery shop here had issued the receipt a day before the burglary. The police got the images of two of the suspects from the shop's security camera recording. (They later identified them from Maharashtra police records.)

The shop was conducting a raffle for its customers at the time and one of the suspects registered his name for the draw, giving the shop an address in Maharashtra.

Subsequently, the Chennai police found a plastic cover in the car the culprits had stolen from the house they burgled at Perungalathoor. The cover carried the motif of a garment shop they had visited in Kochi before travelling to Chennai. City Police Commissioner M.R. Ajith Kumar is supervising the case.