Gold heist, Chennai edition: A daring daylight robbery

A daring daylight robbery, botched up implementation and patchy unravelling of the crime — the recent heist at the heart of Chennai had all the hallmarks of a plot inspired by OTT shows. While police mopped up the investigation and claimed to have recovered all the loot, their hot pursuit did take them through some unexpected twists and turns

August 21, 2022 01:20 am | Updated 05:58 pm IST

The police have recovered all the gold jewellery and arrested the accused persons. They want to ensure a speedy trial. 

The police have recovered all the gold jewellery and arrested the accused persons. They want to ensure a speedy trial.  | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

A gang of three — a low-ranking staff member of a loan company, a small-time businessman, and a seller of plantain leaves — sat outside a tea shop after an hour-long workout in a gym at Villivakkam in Chennai on a sunny morning three years ago. An auto driver soon joined them as the conversation picked up. While sipping the tea, one of them wondered aloud about how long he could lead a life with his meagre earnings. Another replied that they should loot a bank and settle down with the wealth. He might have meant it in jest, but somehow that idea caught on. Three years later, it resulted in a bank robbery in a very crowded part of town, in broad daylight.

In retrospect, had they planned it well it might not have been one of the heists to be cracked by the police within a week.

1.50 p.m: Murugan walks in with a cold drink carton and pours out the juice for Suresh and Vijayalakshmi. Suresh sips it and becomes dizzy. Vijayalakshmi refuses it. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

1.50 p.m: Murugan walks in with a cold drink carton and pours out the juice for Suresh and Vijayalakshmi. Suresh sips it and becomes dizzy. Vijayalakshmi refuses it. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2 p.m.: The gang pushes the security guard to a room on the second floor of the building and ties him with a rope. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2 p.m.: The gang pushes the security guard to a room on the second floor of the building and ties him with a rope. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2.10 p.m.: Murugan and two associates barge in. They brandish a knife at Vijayalakshmi ; push her into bathroom after snatching the keys of the vault. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2.10 p.m.: Murugan and two associates barge in. They brandish a knife at Vijayalakshmi ; push her into bathroom after snatching the keys of the vault. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2.15 p.m.: Murugan cuts the wires of the alarm and security camera system’s digital video recorder even as Suresh puts up a fight. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2.15 p.m.: Murugan cuts the wires of the alarm and security camera system’s digital video recorder even as Suresh puts up a fight. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2.20 p.m.: One thief opens grill gate of the strong room; another opens the vault. They stuff the jewels in bags, lock up Suresh and Vijayalakshmi in strong room and flee. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

2.20 p.m.: One thief opens grill gate of the strong room; another opens the vault. They stuff the jewels in bags, lock up Suresh and Vijayalakshmi in strong room and flee. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

On August 13, a Saturday afternoon, the friends struck at a two-storey building housing a branch of Fed Bank Financial Services, a subsidiary of Federal Bank, on Razak Garden Road at Arumbakkam. The branch offers loans against gold jewellery. It has a strong room with lockers for the custody of the pledged jewellery. Only three staff members — K. Suresh, 30, a branch manager; Vijayalakshmi, 30, a customer service executive; and Murugan, 30, a relationship executive, along with Saravanan, a security guard at the gate — were on duty that day.

Murugan had worked at the Padi branch for a week and reported for duty at the Arumbakkam branch at 9.40 a.m. Suresh and Vijayalakshmi were already present. That day, as it emerged from the police investigation, Murugan was frequently stepping out of the office. At 1.30 p.m., he went out again under the pretext of collecting the mobile phone from a service centre. Half-an-hour later, he returned with a bottle of a ready-to-drink beverage and poured it into two cups for his colleagues. While Vijayalakshmi turned him down, Suresh sipped it and felt mildly giddy soon after.

At 2.10 p.m., Murugan brought in two unidentified persons. One of them brandished a foot-long knife at Vijayalakshmi, who was standing near the strong room, and threatened to slash her neck if she shouted. He pushed her to the wash-room. Then Suresh warned Murugan not to betray the organisation he was working for. Murugan went on to sever the cables of the CCTV recorder and the security alarm system with a small knife. One of his accomplices snatched a bunch of keys for the strong room and a mobile phone from Suresh’s pocket. Then, Murugan and his associate opened the main grill of the strong room, and the vault. The trio took the jewellery stored in 481 covers from the locker and stuffed them in four shoulder bags.

Brandished weapons

They brandished weapons at the staff and pushed Suresh and Vijayalakshmi behind the grill of the strong room and locked the main door. They took the keys along while leaving the place with the booty. A few minutes later, a customer, named Davidson, walked in and heard the staff screaming from behind the grill in the strong room. He alerted the police. The strong room was opened with another key from the Anna Nagar branch. The guard Saravanan was found lying on the terrace, gagged and his hands and legs tied. The burglars tied him up before committing the crime. Suresh lodged a complaint with the Arumbakkam police. A case was registered under Sections 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement) and 397 (robbery or dacoity with attempt to cause death or grievous hurt), read with 120 B (criminal conspiracy), of the Indian Penal Code. The police said 31.700 kg of gold jewellery, worth over ₹15 crore, was looted by the trio who fled on two bikes.

Staff questioned

As special police teams questioned the bank staff and gathered information, they concluded that Murugan was the main perpetrator. He was one of the four who had planned the crime three years ago at the tea shop.

Greater Chennai Police Commissioner Shankar Jiwal said, “The general challenge we face in any crime of this scale is to first locate the accused. In this case, it was a bit easy for us, given that one of them was an employee. We immediately profiled him and checked his social media accounts. His Instagram profile is full of pictures shot in a gym. Immediately, we have an anchoring point to launch into our investigation. The CCTV follow-up gave us an idea of the physical features of the three burglars. Teams were put together accordingly. Each team was given individual tasks and individual profiles. Family interrogation was handled by a separate team. Some teams went to bus stops and railway stations, and all exit points were under our surveillance.”

The investigation, though, did not pan out in a linear fashion, from identification to the arrest of the thieves. They were a lot of twists and turns and an unexpected revelation of the role of a policeman.

Trailing the thieves

After looting the bank, Murugan, M. Santhosh, 30, of Bharathi Nagar of Villivakkam, and V. Balaji, who sells plantain leaves, carried the jewellery on two bikes to Manapakkam. The trio had planned the heist, along with Surya Prakash, 28, an auto driver, at the tea shop. At Manapakkam, Senthil Kumaran, 38, a sub-contractor of a leading housing company, and Surya Prakash joined them. They left one bike behind and transferred the booty into a car and a bike. They proceeded to a lodge at Pallavaram where they tried to melt the jewellery. Srivatsan, a gold smith, and his associate from Coimbatore Sriram brought a small machine to melt the jewellery.

They tried to melt the gold in a lodge. As a lot of smoke came out, they panicked and stopped. Only 100-200 grams had been melted. Then they split. Santhosh took a major portion of the booty towards Tiruvannamalai. Surya Prakash headed to Villupuram. He dumped his part (8.827 kg) in a bush near the rail track at Kundalapuliyur in Villupuram district.

In the meantime, investigators questioned Murugan’s wife. She spilled the beans. Exactly 24 hours later, Balaji, whose Yamaha bike was used for transporting the loot, was traced. A gold bracelet was recovered from him.

After a phone call analysis, the police found that Santhosh had changed his SIM card and tried to call his contacts. Pings from the cellphone tower alerted the police to his presence near Acharapakkam on a bus bound for Chennai. He was caught by a special team, led by Deputy Commissioner of Police, Anna Nagar, C. Vijayakumar, when he landed near St. Thomas Mount at 3.40 p.m. Sunday. A total of 15.951 kg of gold was recovered from him.

Santhosh had visited the house of his relative at Acharapakkam, the police found while analysing his call records. During interrogation, he revealed that he had stayed at the house of Amalraj, a police inspector of Acharapakkam in Melmaruvathur, and left a portion of the loot with him. The wife of the inspector handed it over to the investigation officer days later, saying their guest must have left it behind by mistake.

It was on Thursday that the police revealed that Murugan had been arrested. They found 222 empty covers and 373 grams of gold on his person. Surya Prakash was arrested with 8.827 kg and Senthil Kumaran was arrested with a few grams of gold, a jewel melting machine and a car. The next day, Amalraj was arrested for receiving and concealing the gold knowing well that it was part of the loot. Another two-and-a-half kg of gold jewellery was recovered from him. In total, 6 kg of gold jewellery was recovered from him. Subsequently, goldsmith Srivatsan was arrested in Coimbatore for helping the gang in their attempt to melt the gold.

Murugan’s wife told the police that on August 11, he had told her that he would likely commit the crime and she need not worry about it and he would get away with it because he was planning it out. He told her that he knew how to get rid of the gold and nothing would happen to them. He had told her that the police would recover half the loot; if they did, they would not go after him, and their family could move to Andhra Pradesh and live prosperously with the rest of the loot.

Mr. Vijayakumar, the Deputy Commissioner, said, “The accused gave many contradictory statements initially. Later they confessed to their roles.”

Police officers said the accused thought that gold jewellery worth ₹30 crore had been stored in the strong room and hoped that they could spend the money from half of the booty on legal expenses and bribing the police and keep the rest. If they surrendered in court, they would come out easily with the help of lawyers by spending the money from booty. They wanted to get easy money and were convinced that they could escape, the officers said.

Additional Commissioner of Police T.S. Anbu said, “We have recovered all the gold jewellery after a thorough investigation. The city police have completed the task by arresting almost all the accused. Next we will ensure a quick trial.”

Inadequate systems

The police pointed to inadequacies in the security system of banks in the city. They said banks and financial institutions should follow the guidelines issued by the Reserve Bank of India. Murugan knew how to switch off the alarm. It seems there had been a server issue during the heist that caused the delay in sending an alarm to the firm’s headquarters.

Mr. Jiwal said, “The security systems in such financial institutions are vulnerable. Banks and financial institutions should have a proper security system and safety audit. We will flag the issue and insist that the security systems be audited. Also, staff verification should be done properly.”

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