Mystery of Dharmasthala: Eleven years and many probes later, no trace of Soujanya’s killer

Seventeen-year-old Soujanya was raped and killed in Dharmasthala in 2012, creating shockwaves in the famous temple town and the entire coastal belt of Karnataka. The lone accused in the case was recently acquitted, and the family of the girl struggles with no sense of closure to their traumatic loss. The Hindu meets the family and looks at how the investigation was botched up at various stages.

Updated - July 28, 2023 03:10 pm IST

Published - July 28, 2023 08:00 am IST

The site where the last rites of Soujanya were performed at Pangala in Dharmasthala.

The site where the last rites of Soujanya were performed at Pangala in Dharmasthala. | Photo Credit: MANJUNATH H.S.

On a day of incessant rains, not unusual in coastal Karnataka, Kusumavathi points to a tree in the backyard of her house where her daughter Soujanya was laid to rest 11 years ago. “The sapling we planted at the place we buried her has grown into a tree, giving so much shade. While nature has done its bit, investigating agencies have failed us,” says the mother who lost her teenage daughter to a crime she cannot reconcile with.

In Dharmasthala, a famous pilgrim centre at the foothills of the Western Ghats that draws lakhs every day, the mother of Soujanya, who was 17 when she was raped and murdered in 2012, still awaits justice. As the case was botched up at the inception of the investigation by the local police and a doctor who performed the autopsy, the hope for justice anytime in future is thin.

After 11 years of investigations by multiple agencies, a Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) special court recently acquitted the lone accused, Santosh Rao. The court categorically stated while pronouncing the verdict on June 16, 2023, that there is no evidence against Santhosh. 

The case was first probed by local police before it was taken up by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 2013. It was later handed over to the CBI in the same year after a massive public outcry in the entire coastal Karnataka region. But eventually no one has been convicted in the case.

Kusumavathi now has one question that keeps haunting her, and she poses it to any reporter who meets her, “Who then raped and killed my daughter?”

The road connecting Ujire and Dharmasthala from where Soujanya is said to have gone missing.

The road connecting Ujire and Dharmasthala from where Soujanya is said to have gone missing. | Photo Credit: MANJUNATH H.S.

Long search with a tragic end

It was around 7 p.m. on October 9, 2012, that the family members of Soujanya, accompanied by a group of worried locals, began a frantic search for the pre-university student. It was yet another day of heavy rains, and they believed that she had gone missing while returning from college.

Soujanya, studying at Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara College in Ujire, had alighted from a government bus near the Netravati river bank between 4 p.m. and 4.15 p.m., about 3 km from her residence. Multiple witnesses had confirmed the same, including her maternal uncle Vittal Gowda who ran a hotel at that time near the river bank where lakhs of pilgrims take a holy dip every day. The girl cheerfully waved to his uncle after getting off the bus, according to the statement records attached to the CBI chargesheet.

Kusumavathi phoned her friends when Soujanya did not arrive home and later alerted her husband and other family members, following which the frantic search began. Soujanya’s father filed a missing complaint around 10.30 p.m. at the local police station.

As there was no police station in Dharmasthala, despite the population of the area being more than 9,000 and lakhs of people visiting the holy place every day, the father filed a complaint at Belthangady police station, located about 12 km from his residence. It is only after this rape case that the State government set up a police station, under intense public pressure. Until then there was only a makeshift police outpost.

It was the next morning that the family and police found the teenager’s body, with clothes torn and undergarments missing, inside a jungle located across a gushing stream in front of Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara Yoga and Nature Cure Hospital at Mannasanka. The news spread, setting off a massive uproar in Belthangady taluk.

The suspect appears

A day after the body of Soujanya was found in the woods, a suspect was brought into the picture. Santhosh was caught by Mallik Jain, Ashrith Jain, Ravi Poojary, Shivappa Malekudiya, and Gopalkrishna Gowda, all working under Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara Temple Trust run by D. Veerendra Heggade.

He was picked up from the Bahubali entry point near Manjunatheshwara shrine while he was sitting there at around 7 p.m. Santhosh, who hails from Karkala in Udupi district, was working in a hotel at Sringeri in Chikkanagakuru district. While his father was a retired government teacher, his mother was a retired Public Works Department employee.

According to his advocate, Santhosh, who used to visit the shrine regularly, had arrived at Dharmasthala only on October 11, 2012, and he had a bus ticket which was, however, not produced by the local police. Santhosh, who is now acquitted, was handed over to the police late at night on the day he was caught, but not before being beaten up badly by the public.

Soujanya’s maternal uncle Vittal Gowda points to the place where the body of his niece was found in Dharmasthala.

Soujanya’s maternal uncle Vittal Gowda points to the place where the body of his niece was found in Dharmasthala. | Photo Credit: MANJUNATH H.S.

Gaping holes in initial probe

The 50th Additional City and Sessions Judge, Children’s Court, while passing the verdict on June 16 this year, 11 years after the incident, made scathing comments on how the investigation was botched up at the very start.

“The investigation was not properly conducted in the golden hour. The doctor (who also did the autopsy) who collected the vaginal swab virtually demolished the entire case of the prosecution at the inception.”

The court further said, “This is a fit case to place before the acquittal committee for initiating needful action against the erring officials.” The local police, CID and eventually CBI probed the case to charge Santhosh with rape and murder, although there was no evidence to prove the charges, the court observed.

Documents reveal that the CBI failed to look into gaps in the statements of Mallik Jain, Poojary and Gowda. While Mallik Jain gave his statement to the CBI on Aug 8, 2014, Poojary and Gowda’s statements were recorded by local police on October 12, 2012.

Basic discrepancies in their statements had been overlooked. For instance, while Mallik Jain stated that Santhosh was sitting in the dark at 7 p.m. on October 11, 2012, when they were returning home from Bahubali hillock, Poojary and Gowda stated that he was hiding from them. Mallik Jain, nowhere in his statement, talked about Santosh telling them, “I have not done anything; please leave me”, but the other two stated this to the local police.

Further, Mallik Jain said that at the time of locals handing him over to the police, there were no personnel attached to the police outpost, and those who took the suspect belonged to the anti-Naxal squad. Not a word of the anti-Naxal squad was mentioned by the other two. The Belthangady police also told the CBI in their statement that no anti-Naxal squad was deployed at that time in the area. In fact, the local police had not recorded the statement of Mallik Jain, which was done by the CBI at a later stage.

More importantly, of the three whose statements were recorded, two died in 2013 and 2014. The CBI, however, did not inquire into the alleged suicide of Poojary on April 8, 2013, barely six months after his statement was recorded.

The CBI has also not met the family members of Gowda, who reportedly died in 2014. Soujanya’s uncle Vittal Gowda, talking to The Hindu, said, “The deceased witnesses knew many things, and I strongly suspect they were murders. Despite urging the CBI to probe the same, nothing was done. In 2017, L. Additional City Civil and Sessions Judge B.S. Rekha also asked the CBI why the agency did not probe Poojary’ unnatural death.”

The 50th Additional City Civil and Sessions Judge pointed at these lapses. The judge had directed the CBI to summon the trio for enquiry. However, they secured a stay from the Karnataka High Court in 2015. The High Court also quashed further investigation ordered by the sessions judge.

Evidence botched up 

The local police, who first began the investigation, failed to recover the black umbrella and undergarments of the victim. Kusumavathi says that the police came to her house and collected an undergarment of her daughter and showed it as recovered material.

Court documents show that the clothes of the victim were not stained with mud, and the bag and books were not wet despite all the witnesses stating that there was heavy rain on the day of the incident.

The court had observed in 2017 that much evidence showed that the crime was not committed at that particular spot, hinting that the body was placed after committing the crime. Vittal Gowda said he and others on the day of the disappearance even searched the area where her body was found the next day.

The local police also did not recover surveillance camera footage from where the accused was picked up by Mallik and others, despite CCTV being operational at the time of the incident. Other crucial pieces of evidence, too, appear to have been ignored.

For instance, hairs found in the punche recovered from Santhosh and recorded as item no 18 for the DNA profile stated it as belonging to two different individuals of male sex. Also, a DNA expert, Dr. Vinod J Lakkappa, who is prosecution witness 18, said no blood samples of the accused were found in the nail clippings of the deceased rape victim. This means his injuries were only caused by public beating and not by the young victim of rape and murder.

The final opinion of Forensic Science Laboratory, Bengaluru, said, “Soil found adhering to the clothes, soil found in the vaginal swab of victim and sample soil from the crime scene are similar. The soil was not found on the clothes of the accused.” Also, to destroy evidence, the private part of the girl was filled with mud, the CBI court observed. Vittal Gowda said much was done to “fix” Santhosh.

The court was scathing in its comments on how the autopsy was botched up. “Dr. Adam, who conducted the autopsy, did not collect the viscera from the body, and he has not properly collected the vaginal swab, which made the DNA expert not carry out a proper investigation.”

The court also observed, based on the evidence, that the crime has the involvement of more than one person, and a single person cannot place the body at the spot located across a stream that was in full spate. The local police had claimed that the accused had set up a hut at the scene of the crime, but the same was not included at the time of the spot inquest, and locals who found the body also did not see any hut.

Also, curiously, forensic expert Dr. Rupali, who conducted a forensic psychological assessment report of the accused, “travelled back in time” to prepare a report. While CBI presented salient features of the case to Dr. Rupali on March 26, 2015, for the requirement of a psychological assessment report, the report attached in the chargesheet shows that she had already prepared the report on March 15, 2015. The conclusion of this report said, “On the basis of forensic psychological assessment and behavioural analysis interview it has been inferred that Santosh Rao appears deceptive in his statements. And also, he appears to have involvement in the rape and murder of Soujanya.”

Questions unanswered

Soujanya’s family has been raising questions on why police and authorities at so many levels went out of their way to protect whoever were the real culprits in the case. They have been pointing fingers at the powerful relatives and associates of Mr. Heggade. However, multiple agencies have given a clean chit to Heggade and his younger brother’ son Nishchal Jain, at whom the family had pointed fingers. The evidence presented by Mr. Heggade showed that Nishchal was not present in the country when this incident occurred.

Mallik Jain, talking to The Hindu, reiterated, “We were subjected to brain mapping, polygraph test, and DNA tests by the CID and the CBI, and they could not find any evidence to link me, Dhiraj and Uday, to the case.” He said some locals with mala fide intentions are targeting Heggade and those associated with him. To a question on inconsistencies in the statement of his and Ravi Poojary, he said “You should ask Poojary and CBI and not me.”

At the end of 11 long years of waiting, there is no answer to Kusumavathi’s question: “Who then raped and killed my daughter?”

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