Five suspected bank robbers die at the hands of police at Velachery

Five men suspected to be involved in two recent bank robberies in the city were gunned down by the police at a Velachery apartment in the small hours of Thursday. But rather than bringing the curtains down on the daring heists that shook the city, the “encounter” itself looks set to move centre-stage, with the police claim of firing in self-defence controverted by physical evidence on display at the site.

Acting on a tip-off from a person who had seen the CCTV camera grab of one of the suspects released on Wednesday, the police said, a 14-member team raided a Tamil Nadu Housing Board Colony apartment on Netaji Street in Velachery around 1 a.m. on Thursday.

All the five suspects, estimated to be 30-35 years old, were killed in what the police claim was a gun battle. They have been identified as Vinod Kumar, Chandrika Ray, Vinay Prasad, Abhay Kumar, and Harish Kumar. Four of them hailed from Bihar and one from West Bengal. They were suspected of being behind the daylight robberies at the Bank of Baroda branch in Perungudi on January 23 and the Indian Overseas Bank branch at Keelkattalai on February 20.

“Around midnight we got specific information that the man whose image was circulated by us was spotted in Vandikaran Street in Velachery. Around 1 a.m., our team knocked at the door of the flat he had rented along with the four others. As soon as they saw our men, they started firing from the windows,” Commissioner of Police J.K. Tripathy told a crowded news conference on Thursday.

“We asked them to surrender because it is a thickly-populated area and we did not want innocent people to be caught in the crossfire. But when they did not stop, we broke open the door and returned fire in self-defence,” Mr. Tripathy said, adding that all the five men were later declared “brought dead” at the Government Royapettah Hospital. Two police inspectors who sustained light injuries in the shootout, Ravi and Christian Jayasil, were admitted to the same hospital.

Unanswered questions

Though Mr. Tripathy said the police broke open the front door to gain entry into the one-bedroom flat, reporters of The Hindu who visited the site found no visible signs of the door being damaged or broken. The wall behind the window grill through which the police said the initial exchange of fire had taken place had only two visible bullet holes on it, that too at the same height, and a TV set that would have been in the line of fire survived the gun battle intact. The window grill itself showed no signs of having been hit by bullets, suggesting both the police and the men inside who allegedly fired shots through it were excellent marksmen.

Entry into the house was barred by the police — since a judicial probe is on — but from the windows it was possible to see the floor soaked in blood with clothes strewn around. However, none of the walls appeared to be bloodstained.

“We found five pistols, two revolvers and magazines, Rs. 14 lakh in cash, voter ID cards, a driving license and cell phones on them,” Mr. Tripathy said. “Employees of the two banks were able to indentify the five men from the photographs of their corpses.”

The account given by the residents of the colony also casts doubts on the police version of the “encounter”. Yesodha Nagappan, who lives in the house opposite, recalled: “A team of policemen arrived at 10 p.m. Immediately, the men living in that flat closed the windows and switched off the lights.” According to her, the policemen spent nearly two hours trying to bring the men out of their house. “We do not know what happened after that. We were instructed not to come out of our house. We watched from the grille gate for a while and then went back to our room,” she said. Minutes later, they heard loud noises. Her elder daughter, a college student, said it was the sound of gunfire.

Udaya Suryan, who lives next door, said he did not hear a thing and was surprised to see police in his neighbourhood when he woke up at 4.30 a.m. “When I looked out to see what was happening, policemen asked us to switch off the lights and stay indoors,” Suryan said.