Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

Pol plot unmasked

Serial killer: “When he was finally arrested on August 11, one of the first things senior police officers noted about Pol was his eerily confident, almost supercilious nature.” Santosh Pol being investigated in Wai town, Satara district. — Photo: Prashant Nakwe  

A white tiled building with a sloping red roof greets visitors at the small village of Dhom in the Wai taluka of Maharashtra’s Satara district. It serves as the local school. As the day breaks for lunch, children gather on the first floor balcony, talking happily and looking out into the distance. Behind the building, and the village itself, are undulating green hills, touched by a hint of sunlight that has burst through an otherwise overcast sky. Dhom is a quiet village and save for the children in the school, there aren’t too many people around.

Roughly in between these two comforting sights, a little way past the school, a narrow lane between houses leads towards a raised compound in which there is a small hut and an adjoining shed, a low wall separating them from a row of houses directly behind. The letters S.G. Pol are painted on the door of the house and just about five feet away, in a corner, is a depression recently caused by the uprooting of a fig tree that lies discarded. Mingled with the soil here are specks of white and blue, discarded surgical masks and gloves, unmistakably marking out a crime scene. It is, in fact, the site from which police recently recovered the skeletal remains, from 13 years ago, of the first victim of Santosh Gulabrao Pol, the man now known by the media-created sobriquet ‘Dr. Death’. A group of local residents point out the spot and recoil almost instinctively, for the image, set in the normal rhythm of everyday life around it, is haunting, a freshly opened wound that has cleaved through their version of reality.

Murders most foul

Between 2003 and 2016, Santosh Pol, operating as a fake doctor, carried out six known murders of five women and a man. Two bodies were recovered from the compound of his home in Dhom and four more were found buried in a farmhouse that his family owned a short distance away from the village. When he was finally arrested on August 11, one of the first things senior police officers noted about Pol was his eerily confident, almost supercilious nature. A wall between him and his interrogators that refused to crack under pressure. Even after he confessed to killing six people, media reports carried quotes from a note he had written from prison to the police superintendent, congratulating him for finally cracking the case. “If you ask me why I am doing all this, then the question should be asked to the corrupt officials from the (police) department and the dormant society between 2003 and 2016,” the note read.

"If you ask me why I am doing all this, then the question should be asked to the corrupt officials from the (police) department and the dormant society between 2003 and 2016," Santosh Pol told the police superintendent.
How then did society turn a blind eye to Pol’s crimes when, by his own tacit admission in the note, they should not have gone unnoticed? Among the residents of Dhom, there is an uncomfortable silence when the obvious question is asked: how did Pol kill and bury two women virtually in plain sight of his neighbours? Some say that the crimes were committed when there were heavy rains, others say that there could have been any number of reasons why he was digging a pit near his house. Most agree that as a doctor and respected community person, a member of the village gram panchayat from 2005 to 2010, they would never have suspected anything untoward.

A small way down the road from the main village, police guard the now infamous farmhouse, a linear, narrow piece of land that houses two long sheds immediately behind each other. From about 2006, Pol ran a poultry rearing business here and used to bring victims by cover of night. When JCB excavators were sometimes called to dig up large pits on the perimeter, the operators too assumed that it was because of Pol’s wish to plant more trees on his property. Some of the pits still remain uncovered.

Man who wanted to be a doctor

Santosh Pol grew up in Mumbai where his father Gulabrao worked as a BEST bus conductor. Pol has an elder sister and younger brother. While he was still young his family moved back to their native Dhom where they started a small business. According to the local police, Pol finished his schooling in Wai, after which he took admission in the Gauri Shankar Medical College in Satara town where he completed a bachelor’s degree in Electropathy Medicine and Surgery in 1994.

Electropathy is a derivative of homoeopathy that relies on remedies from non-poisonous plants. Several colleges from 1986 used to offer this course, including many in Maharashtra. Around 1994, however, it was de-recognised as a valid form of medical practice and most of these colleges were shut down. Pol was probably not allowed to legally work as a medical professional but he got a job at a local hospital as a ward attendant or helper. What is clear though is that degree or not, Pol ardently wanted to be a doctor and wanted the respect and authority that such a position affords someone. He was described by people who worked with him, most notably by a Dr. Vidhadhar Ghotwadekar in whose hospital Pol held his last job, as having “outstanding medical understanding”. According to other staff who worked with him, Pol, of his own volition, used to read about allopathic medicines and drugs and the source material for them.

Just before the turn of the century, Pol left his job in the hospital and decided to go into private practice in the villages surrounding Wai. In the years that followed, his subsequent rise to a position of eminence would play out as if it were a particularly cynical parody on every bad news article you may have read about India’s medical system — from bogus colleges and degrees to the lack of qualified doctors outside big cities.

In villages outside the main taluk headquarters, Maharashtra police often work with a local informer called a Police Patil. Vasant Naikwade has been the Patil for Dhom village for 15 years but often shares the same sense of bewildered surprise as other residents when speaking about Pol. As we try and follow the trail of Pol’s various medical practices, he asks: “Do you think he will be remembered as the next Raman Raghav?”

The allusion to the infamous Bombay serial killer of the ’60s, recently the subject of a Bollywood film, is jarring in this case because Wai has an altogether different tonal association with the film industry. Set on the banks of the river Krishna and featuring lush green fields, hills and picturesque temples, it has been one of Bollywood’s favoured shooting locations for portraying an idealised version of small-town India. Over 300 movies have been shot here, including blockbusters such as Gangajal (2003), Swades (2004) and Omkara (2006).

Piecing together the puzzle

Across these verdant expanses now are small clues that build up to a larger story. A small room by the roadside in the village of Renavale is where Pol is said to have opened his first clinic for a few months. Of the gathered villagers, one pipes up to say that they had asked him to leave several years earlier. “We asked him to show his medical certificate and display it on the board of his clinic but he refused to do that,” he says.

And so the trail leads upward, to the village of Man and then to a more remote village called Udaoli. It was here in 2003 that Pol came across his first victim, Surekha Chikane, a 30-year-old housewife. Her husband Lakshman Chikane recalls that at the time of the incident, Pol had actually been running a clinic in the village for two or three years. “Nobody really asked if he was a qualified doctor or not. The nearest hospital is in Wai town, which is 20 kilometres from here, and nobody had the time or the money then to go all the way down. They were just happy to have a doctor around,” he explains. Moreover, Chikane adds, Pol used to charge a nominal fee for treatment. “He would take Rs.15-Rs.20 to give an injection. People here thought he was like a god.”

On May 15, 2003, Surekha, who was one of Pol’s patients, said she was going along with him to Wai for an eye check-up. She never returned, and police now suspect that Pol took her to his home in Dhom village and murdered her by hitting her on the head with a heavy object. According to her husband, Surekha was wearing a fair amount of gold jewellery that day, a possible reason for why he may have killed her. “We suspected him back then too because we were unsure about what kind of doctor he was,” he says. A missing complaint report was filed and Pol was even summoned, whereupon Lakshman recalls that a strange interaction took place between Pol and the police: “He came in and spoke very confidently, even in English sometimes. And rather than treating him as a suspect, a police officer even went and brought juice for him.”

After Surekha’s family raised suspicions about him in Udaoli, Pol decided to shift his clinic to his house in Dhom, though by 2003 he had started to live in an apartment building in Wai. In 2004 he married Seema and the couple have two sons and a daughter.

Pol’s clinic proved to be moderately successful in Dhom and his return as a doctor gave him a new status there, which allowed him to be elected to the gram panchayat in 2005. One of his patients, Vanita Gaikwad, 43, lived in one of the houses opposite the lane from his own house. One of Pol’s tactics to get more patients was to scare women into believing that they might have HIV and in 2006 this was how she approached Pol. His motives for killing her are as yet unclear though police suspect, once again, that he was after the gold she was wearing.

Pol’s third victim Janabai Pol, murdered in August 2010, was actually a relative with whom he interacted fairly regularly. According to her family members, Janabai trusted him to negotiate the sale of a portion of land that belonged to her family. The relationship turned sour though when it was discovered that Pol had cheated her family out of a substantial portion of the deal. According to Janabai’s youngest daughter Pallavi, Pol was a regular visitor to the house and had one day said that he and Janabai had to go to Wai market for some urgent work. She never returned. “When she didn’t turn up for two days and we started getting frantic, he actually turned up here to comfort us and was crying with us. He then encouraged us to go to the police station with him and file a report,” says Pallavi.

‘Doctor saheb’ turns crusader

By 2007, though he continued to return to his village to serve on the gram panchayat, Pol had shifted base completely to Wai, where he found a job working in a 35-bed hospital run by Dr. Ghotwadekar. Currently admitted in a Pune hospital ostensibly with a serious condition, Dr. Ghotwadekar had, in the days immediately following Pol’s arrest, given several interviews to local papers that reveal a somewhat confused working relationship. While lauding his medical understanding despite the lack of a valid medical degree, he said Pol worked as a helper in the ICU and was quick to arrange all the medicines and chemicals whenever an operation was taking place. He, however, went on to say that he had problems with Pol in later years because the latter encouraged hospital employees to go on strike and threatened several people with anti-corruption cases.

Whatever Pol’s official position was, staff patients soon came to refer to him as ‘doctor saheb’ and he actually had full control of the hospital’s ICU at night. When he first made contact with Sandip Patil, the officer who took over as Superintendent of Police in Satara in June this year, Patil says he referred to himself as a person of authority ( adhikari) at the hospital.

Somewhere along the way, possibly after he moved to Wai, Pol became deeply involved with the Maharashtra Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB), beginning a second career as a social crusader. According to Patil, Pol was involved in 51 cases filed with the anti-corruption bureau, seven as a direct complainant against the police, and the rest as an instigator with other departments, encouraging people to file complaints.

“It is sometimes easy to file a case with the ACB,” Patil concedes, though what Pol essentially seems to have done is become a master of entrapment. Of promising people bribes and then capturing them red-handed. This may have initially started as a way to blackmail policemen who followed up on missing person’s complaints involving him but it soon added to an aura about him, reason investigators.

The unravelling of Santosh Pol, respected doctor and dedicated social crusader, gathered pace toward the end of 2015 when the pattern of his killings became more frantic. He was allegedly having an affair with Salma Shaikh, 30, a nurse who worked for a few months at the Ghotwadekar hospital. She used to accompany Pol as a nurse to the home of Nathmal Bhandari, a 63-year-old gold merchant undergoing physiotherapy. For reasons as yet unclear, both relationships turned sour and he murdered both, Bhandari in December 2015 and Shaikh in January 2016 by injecting them with a drug called scoline, a muscle relaxant that induces short-term paralysis, that police now say he stole from Dr. Ghotwadekar’s hospital. Both were buried in his farmhouse.

Finally on June 16, Pol murdered Mangala Jedhe, an Anganwadi worker who had allegedly known him for a few years and suspected his involvement in some of the murders. The exact nature of their relationship remains unclear but Jedhe’s disappearance created something of a storm in Wai with her family organising protests aided by workers from the local Congress since she was president of a political organisation called the Maharashtra Purva Prathmik Shikshika Sevika Sangh. One of the protests was even attended by former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.

Sensing the unrest and wanting to get out ahead of the narrative, Pol wrote a letter to Patil, who had just joined as SP. “He claimed in the letter that he was using Jedhe to bust a counterfeit gold racket and that he had already carried out a similar operation in Pune. He even tried to claim that Jedhe had stolen some gold from him,” Patil says.

When police investigated Jedhe’s call records, they found that the last call to her number was from Pol and so they decided to call him in as a suspect. Patil says that Pol first evaded them and then took the rather extreme step of calling local media to his farmhouse to proclaim that the investigating officer in the case had assaulted him. Patil says he knew then that something was fishy and the subsequent investigation, leading to the uncovering of the bodies, was from there on a formality.

The story isn’t over

Pol may have given a confession but police officials in Wai, unsurprisingly, are not ready to take him at his word, indicating that there may be more revelations down the road. His letters to the SP, they say, more than displays of hubris, could be a way to make the police complacent and keep them from finding other bodies. There is talk of the remains of a seventh body being recovered from the farmhouse, and police are also investigating the death of a ward attendant, who worked at the Ghotwadekar hospital as the same time as Pol, under suspicious circumstances.

All this complicates the all-important question of motive. Was it simply, in some cases, to steal some gold jewellery? To cover up his tracks by eliminating people in the know? Or is at all more calculated — the result of an accumulated contempt for society and the law by a man who so easily defied their strictures? Each new discovery complicates the story. We haven’t heard the last of it yet.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 6:31:21 PM |

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