At around 7 a.m. on January 9, sanitation workers Anjaiah and Shankaraiah climbed into their tractor trolley to drive to Bheemla thanda (hamlet) in Venkatapur village in Telangana. The air was cool and the drive pleasant. The mud road is flanked by a freshwater tank and lush green paddy fields. On their way, the workers noticed a two-litre plastic bottle of petrol on the side of the water tank. As they picked it up, an acrid smell hit their nostrils. The source of the smell turned out to be a burnt car lying by the wayside in a ditch. The workers moved closer and found a charred body lying in the driver’s seat. They immediately rang up the village sarpanch, Lachcha Goud, who rushed to the spot and alerted the police. Within minutes, the whole village had descended on the spot, and began making wild guesses about the victim’s identity, Goud recalled. As news spread about the unidentified body in the village in Tekmal mandal in Medak district, 115 km north of Hyderabad, Superintendent of Police (SP) Rohini Priyadarshini went to the crime scene.
Barring the legs, the whole body was charred. Residents of the village told the police that the vehicle appeared to belong to Pathloth Dharma, 44, from Bheemla thanda. Their suspicions were strengthened when the police, while searching the area, found a bag containing photocopies of identity cards — an Aadhaar card, a driving license and a Secretariat employee card — all in the name of Dharma, who worked as an Assistant Section Officer (ASO) in the Vigilance Commission of the Telangana Secretariat in Hyderabad.
As word about the employee identification card reached the thanda, Dharma’s wife Neela came running to the spot. To the police, she seemed distraught. “Neela confirmed that the victim was her husband. We then began to wonder if this was an accident or a case of homicide,” said the SP. With no clarity on the circumstances leading to the victim’s death, the police registered a case of suspicious death under Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The body was given to the family after doctors at the Medak Government Hospital performed a post-mortem. The next day, Dharma’s family members performed the final rites at their agricultural field.
While Dharma’s family members seemed to be struggling to cope with the sudden loss, the police were puzzled about the victim’s legs. Dharma and most of his family members were fair-skinned people, while the victim’s legs, which were not burnt, suggested that he was dark-skinned. Also, the rough skin and strong muscles suggested that he had done a lot of manual work, whereas Dharma’s was a white-collared job.
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Neela insisted that the victim was her husband. She claimed that the scars on his legs were the results of an earlier injury. Initially, the police explored the possibility of the death having been caused by an accident. The victim, they thought, must have lost control of the car in the darkness. There could have been sparks as the car hit a pole. But the petrol bottle suggested that there was a greater likelihood of Dharma having been murdered and the car being set on fire.
Dharma’s family members told the police that it was unlikely that anyone would have a serious motive to kill him. Investigators secured the call data record of Dharma’s mobile phone. The last call received by him was from his nephew, Jeevan, at 9.21 p.m. on January 8. The police picked up Jeevan and another nephew, Tejavath Srinivas. They found nothing incriminating against Jeevan. Srinivas, too, gave them convincing answers to all their questions. He told the police that he used to speak to his maternal uncle regularly on the phone about family matters.
As analysis of the calls continued, a lone call from a person, who was not on Dharma’s contact list, attracted their attention, investigators said. The call was received at around 11.30 a.m. on January 7. The location of the tower indicated that the call had been made from Chegunta of Medak district, nearly 60 km west of the crime scene.
The call was made from the phone of a tea stall owner, who was apparently shocked when a squad of policemen turned up at his place in Chegunta. He said he did not know Dharma, nor had he called him. He said a customer had approached him on January 7, asking him whether he could make a call from his phone. He gave the man his phone, he told the police.
The tea stall owner said he would be able to recognise the man if he saw him again. When shown photos of Dharma and his family members, the tea stall owner recognised Srinivas but not Dharma, much to the surprise of the police. The police again picked up Srinivas, who feigned innocence. However, on repeated questioning, Srinivas made a startling admission: neither had he killed his uncle, nor was the charred body his uncle’s. With this disclosure, it became clear to the police that Dharma was, in fact, alive. But this finding triggered more questions. Who then was the victim? Who killed him? And why?
Dharma tried to evade the police, but was finally caught on January 17. After interrogating him, SP Priyadarshini announced that the ASO had attempted to fake his own death by killing another man. The victim was identified as Babu Maroti Galgayi of Nanded in Maharashtra. Babu, a labourer, used to take the train daily to Nizamabad and return home at night.
Dharma, who hailed from a lower middle-class family, began his career as a government school teacher. A few years later, he cleared the Group-II examination and was selected as an ASO. In 2016, he bought a pre-owned flat in Kukatpally, a suburb of Hyderabad, and got it renovated. He borrowed ₹50 lakh for this, according to the remand report. As his monthly salary was insufficient to both return loans and for his regular expenses, Dharma entered stock market trading.
“In the beginning, he made good gains. But later, he suffered huge losses,” the SP said at a media conference. Dharma secured money from chit funds to continue online trading. He lost money again and was soon neck-deep in debt. “To come out of this debt trap, he hatched a plot to fake his death and claim insurance,” the SP said. The ASO purchased nearly 25 insurance policies worth ₹7.4 crore. His plan was to murder someone and create the belief that he had been killed. His family members would then claim insurance by presenting his death certificate. Dharma planned to then join them elsewhere with a different identity, according to the remand report.
Different crime, similar modus operandi
Based on the ASO’s confession, the police changed the case from suspicious death to murder by invoking Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. As the investigators started reconstructing the crime scene, they found that more stunning facts came to the fore. Dharma’s modus operandi, they found, was similar to that of Dheeravath Raju, who had committed an offence of a much larger scale in Nalgonda district in 2021.
In 2021, a woman had approached Wadapally police of Nalgonda, raising doubts over the death of her 42-year-old son, D. Kotireddy. The man had been found dead beside the divider on the Narketpally-Addanki highway. It appeared to be a hit-and-run case, but the woman complained that she had noticed injuries on the back and temple of her son’s head. As the autopsy report was not precise about the cause of death, the police sent a questionnaire to a team of forensic doctors who said that it could be a case of homicide.
The spot of death was close to a wine shop where the victim had worked. On being questioned, the wine shop owner and others gave clues about the movement of some persons in the area prior to the incident. The police picked up one suspect, Raju. “On interrogation, we found that he and his accomplices had committed four murders from 2013 onwards for insurance,” Miryalaguda Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Y. Venkateshwara Rao recalled.
According to the DSP, Raju worked as an agent with a private insurance company. There, he learned how people get insurance benefits in the event of the demise of the policy holder. “Some 10 years ago, he managed to take an insurance policy in the name of a dead person, and by colluding with the insurance company investigator, claimed the sum by offering some money to the dead person’s wife,” Rao explained.
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Having tasted success, Raju started identifying men who were sick or addicted to liquor, so that they could be easily lured. “He convinced family members of such persons to take insurance policies and he paid the premium,” Rao said. Raju kept a watch on Kotireddy and learned that his wife was having an affair with someone. He convinced the woman and her partner to join his conspiracy, according to the remand report filed by the Wadapally police of Nalgonda in court. He paid the premium for three personal accident policies of ₹45 lakh, ₹50 lakh and ₹25 lakh in 2020. On February 24, 2021, he and his associates offered Kotireddy liquor and then murdered him and dumped his body beside the divider, the remand report stated. “They drove a tractor over the body to make it look like a road accident,” Rao explained.
A plan gone wrong
Unlike Raju, Dharma did not seek the help of any outsider. “As debts mounted, he told his family members at one stage that he would kill himself so that his wife gets a job,” said Medak DSP Saidulu, who supervised the investigation. Later, the family decided that it was better to kill someone else to fake Dharma’s death, the police said.
“The ASO began visiting bus stands and railway stations in Hyderabad to find people who look like him,” said Saidulu. In December 2022, Dharma found a labourer named Anjaiah in the Nampally railway station. He offered Anjaiah a job in his field in the thanda for a salary of ₹30,000 a month. The worker agreed.
The ASO then purchased a pre-owned compact sedan in the third week of December. Saidulu said Dharma and Srinivas picked up Anjaiah from the Nampally railway station on January 7. The ASO gave Anjaiah an advance sum of ₹5,000. On the way, Anjaiah repeatedly asked Dharma if they had reached the field. Irritated by his queries, Dharma asked the worker if he was drunk. Anjaiah admitted that he had consumed some liquor. Dharma was worried that this would spoil his plan. “He had heard that insurance claims are rejected if the autopsy report finds traces of alcohol in the body,” Saidulu said. Instead of going to the thanda, Dharma and Srinivas decided to go to Nizamabad and execute their plan the next day. In Nizamabad, they checked into a lodge. They also took back the money from Anjaiah, afraid that he would use it to drink liquor again.
However, Anjaiah still managed to step out and drink some liquor at a wine shop with his own money, said Saidulu. However, he lost his way to the lodge. Anjaiah sought the help of a passer-by, who said it would be better for him to return to Hyderabad by catching a train at the local railway station instead of wasting time finding the lodge. Anjaiah returned to Hyderabad, while Dharma waited impatiently for him at the lodge.
Upset over the turn of events, Dharma went to Nizamabad railway station in search of a new target. He found Babu, a daily-wage earner. Dharma offered him a job with a daily pay of ₹1,000 and Babu accepted the offer. The only thing that bothered Dharma, who was bald, was Babu’s head of thick hair. “So, Dharma took Babu to Basara by bus and got him tonsured there,” the DSP said. On being asked why Babu agreed to this, the police said he was probably desperate for a job.
From there, Dharma rang up Srinivas and asked him to come to Basara too. The duo then began driving towards Bheemla thanda along with Babu. On the way, they bought toddy and made Babu get drunk until he was semi-unconscious. The police believe that Dharma did not think of the possibility of alcohol being detected in the body in the post-mortem report and spoiling his plans; he wanted to kill Babu at any cost and simply hoped that his plan would work.
The two men reached the outskirts of Venkatapur around midnight. They woke up Babu, made him sit in the front passenger seat, and locked the car doors after sprinkling petrol inside the vehicle. Keeping the gear shift in neutral, they pushed the car into the ditch. The vehicle hit the pole. Dharma then shattered the rear window glass. When the frightened worker tried to scramble out, Dharma hit his head with an axe. After ensuring that Babu was dead, the men pushed him onto the driver’s seat and set the car on fire, the DSP said. Dharma and his nephew were arrested on January 17. The ASO’s wife Neela, sister Sundha and son were arrested the next day for participating in the conspiracy.
The murder has left the residents of Bheemla thanda disturbed. Dharma, whom the residents described as a mild-mannered man, was the only one in the thanda to have landed a government job. “We had hoped that he would help at least one person from each of these 26 houses secure a government job. Instead, he has landed in prison,” said Tukaram, a private security guard from the thanda. Their only role model has brought them disgrace, all thanks to his greed.