The perfect murder that wasn’t: A scam that shook Nashik

A man ostensibly killed in a road accident in Nashik had bought insurance worth ₹4 crore in recent years. His family believed he was murdered by his business partner and pursued the case. The police now suspect he wanted to fabricate his own death but ended up dead. Did a partner-in-crime turn on him?

December 30, 2022 02:02 am | Updated 01:22 pm IST

Charusheela Ashok Bhalerao and her daughter Rishika at their residence in Deolali,  Nashik.

Charusheela Ashok Bhalerao and her daughter Rishika at their residence in Deolali, Nashik. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

The clue to his crime was hidden in plain sight, written on his T-shirt — ‘this is never that’. Much like the famous Korean streetwear brand that found its way to his wardrobe, Mangesh Savkar looks every bit casual and unlikely to pull off a sophisticated crime involving murders and fraud. A dealer of pre-owned bikes and cars, Savkar was recently arrested by Nashik Police for executing a ₹4-crore insurance fraud by killing his close friend and business partner, Ashok Suresh Bhalerao.

However, with his arrest and confession to the crime, the case has turned on its head — it was Bhalerao who, along with Savkar, had initially planned to stage his own murder to pocket insurance money worth ₹4 crore, but got killed for real. What happened next is a series of twists and turns straight out of a potboiler.

Plotting a scam

On the morning of September 1, 2021, Ashok Bhalerao left his Deolali Cantonment home in Nashik to go to Mumbai for a prospective car deal. Savkar had asked him to come back only when the deal was over. Bhalerao did as was asked of him. He then took the last bus and reached Nashik around 2.30-3 a.m. After getting off at Indira Nagar bus stop, he walked towards his friend Kiran Sirsat’s pre-owned car showroom for a night halt.

Meanwhile, at his Deolali home, his wife and the rest of the family were fast asleep. The sedate hill station where they live is known for housing one of the oldest cantonments in the country. The Bhalerao family lives in military quarters allotted to Ashok Bhalerao’s younger brother Satish.

Around 6 a.m., a phone call from the Mumbai Naka Police Station woke them up. They were told that Ashok Bhalerao, the eldest among four brothers, had suffered severe injuries in a road accident near Indira Nagar jogging track. After reaching the civil hospital, they were told the 46-year-old had died on the spot. “At 3.25 a.m. on September 2, 2021, we received a call about a man lying in a pool of blood near the jogging track. Soon, a team was rushed to the spot and the victim was shifted to the civil hospital,” Sub-Inspector Chetan Shriwant, who is investigating the case, said. Doctors said he was brought dead and shifted the body to the morgue for autopsy. “It took some time to contact the family as his mobile phone was missing and the correspondence address on ID cards was different,” he added.

Based on a complaint lodged by the family, the police registered a case against unidentified persons for causing death in a hit-and-run incident.

Fifteen months later…

Nestled in the lush green cantonment area, a 30-minute drive from Nashik city, the Bhaleraos’ modest house bears a weary look. A lone marigold string that has long gone dry dangles loosely from the outside wall. It somewhat resembles the household’s predicament — how the once chirpy family is now listlessly carrying on with life. On a December morning, the deceased’s wife and teenage daughter struggle to express their emotions.

Ms. Charushila is worried about her daughter Rishika’s education and their dwindling finances. After Bhalerao’s death, they are fully dependent on his three brothers. “I lost my husband because of Mangesh’s greed. We treated him like a family member but he betrayed us,” she said.

Mangesh Savkar (second from right) and five others who have been arrested for plotting and killing Ashok Bhalerao. 

Mangesh Savkar (second from right) and five others who have been arrested for plotting and killing Ashok Bhalerao.  | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Both Ashok Bhalerao and Mangesh Savkar had worked together in a cooperative bank in Nashik before starting the dealership of pre-owned bikes and cars. While their business was slowly picking up, Savkar once suggested to Bhalerao that he should buy life insurance policies. According to the police, between 2019 and 2020, Bhalerao bought seven to eight policies worth ₹4 crore and named Ms. Charushila as the nominee.

Recalling the fateful day, his brother Mr. Satish said, “When we first got a phone call from the police, we thought he was injured. It was only after reaching the hospital that we came to know he had already succumbed to his injuries.”

As days went by, there was little headway in the investigations. The police were unable to identify the vehicle or those involved in the accident until December 8 this year when one of the brothers, Deepak, approached them to re-investigate the case.

Mr. Deepak believed his brother’s death was a well-planned murder. His suspicion grew stronger when one day Savkar handed over an insurance policy to the family. Just a day before, ₹16 lakh had landed in Ashok Bhalerao’s bank account out of nowhere.

“If it was an insurance claim, the money would have been credited to the nominee’s account and that too after proper documentation. It’s never deposited into the deceased person’s account. That’s when we asked the police for a re-investigation,” Mr. Deepak said.

The police went through Savkar’s account statements and found huge deposits and multiple transactions with one particular bank account. It was the account holder’s name that took the Bhaleraos by surprise — Charushila Ashok Bhalerao.

“This is the most bizarre case of my career. Savkar killed his business partner for insurance money and made us all believe it was a road accident.”Chetan ShriwantSub-Inspector

The family knew something was terribly wrong. Things weren’t adding up because Ms. Charushila, a high school dropout who got married at a very young age, didn’t have any bank account.

Then who was this other Charushila? The family got the answer following a local court’s order to reopen the case.

Based on a fresh complaint by Mr. Deepak, the police altered the FIR and added Sections 302 (murder), 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 279 (rash driving), 337 and 338 (causing hurt by act endangering life), in addition to the already invoked 304-A (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code. Savkar and five others, including a woman named Rajini, who impersonated Ms. Charushila, have been taken into custody. “This is the most bizarre case of my career,” says Sub-Inspector Shriwant. “Savkar killed his business partner for insurance money and made us all believe it was a road accident,” he said.

More surprises in store

Everyone was in for more surprises when new details of the case emerged and it was found that Ashok Bhalerao was also a part of the initial plan.

A senior officer associated with the investigation of the case said the two business partners had hatched a plan sometime between 2018 and 2019, and started buying insurance policies to claim the money by faking Bhalerao’s death. They then legally changed Rajini’s name to Charushila and even got a gazette notification published to that effect. Rajini, now with her new identity as Charushila, also got a new Aadhaar card, voter ID and a marriage certificate. All this was done, the police said, to claim the insurance money without involving the real Charushila and the rest of the family.

Soon, the gang started looking for a person or a body that resembled Ashok Bhalerao’s physical attributes. “When they couldn’t find anything for months, out of desperation, they killed one unidentified person, placed the body in the middle of a road and ran a vehicle over it to make it look like an accident,” the officer said. However, they later realised that the body didn’t match Bhalerao’s height and skin complexion. “So, they dumped it on the road and started a fresh hunt,” the officer added. The police, however, are yet to identify the body. “Although the body of a beggar was recovered at the time, it couldn’t be identified. After Savkar’s confession, we are re-investigating that case as well,” he said.

As the search for a look-alike went on for months with no results, Savkar was losing patience. He decided to kill his business partner for real and hatched a new plan with the help of the five others, including his brother-in-law Pranav and Rajini, the officer said.

On September 1, 2021, Savkar sent Bhalerao to Mumbai as per the plan to examine a car.

Piecing together the events of the fateful night, Mr. Shriwant said, “When Ashok got off the bus at Indira Nagar and started walking towards his friend’s showroom, he saw Pranav standing there. Before he could ask anything, another person hit Ashok on the head with an iron rod from behind. Savkar was watching this from a distance, sitting inside a car along with another friend Deepak Bharadkar.” After hitting him with the rod, Pranav and the other person dragged an unconscious Bhalerao to the middle of the road and signalled Savkar, who then ran his car over him, Mr. Shriwant added.

“Some surveillance cameras did capture the vehicle, but the registration plate was not visible as they had turned on the high beam. It was difficult to identify the vehicle or the occupants inside it,” said the Sub-Inspector.

Until August-September this year, Savkar and Charushila alias Rajini visited the Mumbai Naka Police Station many times to enquire about Bhalerao’s pending blood alcohol test report from the forensic laboratory, a crucial document required to claim the insurance money. They completed all legal formalities and swindled the firms, the police said. While the actual amount was ₹4 crore, Savkar told his associates that he managed to claim only ₹1 crore and shared the bounty with them. “Since he was the one managing Rajini’s bank account, others were not aware of the huge deposits. As soon as the insurance payout landed in that account, he transferred them into his personal account,” Mr. Shriwant added.

He said things started falling apart when Rajini suspected Savkar’s intentions and got the account statement from her bank — it was easy for her as she was the account holder — and confronted him. “He was not ready to share the actual bounty with everyone. So, Rajini insisted he provide some financial support to Ashok’s family. She felt it was only because of Ashok they were able to get the money,” the officer said.

“People are calling my husband a ‘mastermind’, but he was never part of their plan.”Charushila Ashok Bhalerao Wife of the deceased

Savkar finally gave in to Rajini’s requests and deposited ₹16 lakh into Ashok Bhalerao’s bank account early December and handed over a policy document to the family, who then approached the police, the officer added.

No one is able to discern what pricked the conscience of either Rajini or Savkar after the elaborate crime. When Savkar was finally taken into police custody on December 13, a country-made pistol with ‘USA ARMY’ engraved on it and live bullets were seized from his possession. He confessed to the crime and shared the details of the entire scam with the police.

However, Bhalerao’s family has one little problem with Savkar’s confession. They insist Ashok Bhalerao was only a business partner and wasn’t aware of the alleged activities. “People are calling my husband a ‘mastermind’, but he was never part of their plan. My husband could have never schemed such a thing,” Ms. Charushila said.

A veteran insurance officer, requesting anonymity, said the insurance industry has evolved a robust claims management system with multiple checks before rewarding claimants with the proceeds. But sporadically some instances of this kind do crop up. “The vigilance wing, in coordination with the State police, is working out a system to nip the problem in the bud. In this case, the court will freeze the bank accounts, including Ashok’s,” he said.

‘This was never that’

That Savkar managed to breach the claims management system didn’t surprise those who knew him. In fact, the police came to know later that at some point in his career Savkar had also worked as an insurance claims investigator and knew how to game the system. He had done it before — and not just once.

During interrogation, he told the police that he had bought six to seven life insurance policies worth ₹2.6 crore between 2018 and 2019 in his wife’s name and claimed the money by submitting forged death certificates. “All but one of the claims got rejected, and he managed to get only ₹10 lakh,” the officer added. Suspected of being hand in glove with her husband, she has been absconding ever since Savkar was nabbed, the police officer said, adding that he faked her death not just once but on multiple occasions.

“Now, officially his wife is dead.”

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