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De­cod­ing the mys­tery of the Ker­ala se­rial killer, be­ing charged for the mur­ders of six mem­bers of her fam­ily

For 14 years, death ap­peared to have been stalk­ing the mem­bers of a fam­ily in the Koo­dathai vil­lage of Kozhikode district in north Ker­ala. Be­tween 2002 and 2016, six mem­bers of the Pon­na­mat­tom fam­ily suf­fered mys­te­ri­ous deaths.

In 2002, An­namma Thomas, a 57-year-old re­tired school teacher, col­lapsed and died. Six years later, her hus­band Tom Thomas, a re­tired as­sis­tant ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cer, also died. In 2011, their son Roy Thomas, a 42-yearold busi­ness­man, al­legedly com­mit­ted sui­cide. Three years later, An­namma’s brother Matthew Man­jadiyil also died, and a month af­ter that, a rel­a­tive—two-year-old Al­phine Shaju—went the same way. The last death took place in 2016, when Al­phine’s mother, Sily Shaju, also died.

All these deaths had one de­tail in com­mon—Roy’s wife Jollyamma had been present at ev­ery in­ci­dent. Though she was of­ten de­scribed as a lov­ing daugh­ter-in-law, a car­ing wife and a de­vout church-goer, in June 2019, Rojo Thomas, her hus­band’s brother, filed a po­lice com­plaint. He did not be­lieve Roy had com­mit­ted sui­cide, and also wanted an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a will al­legedly pre­pared by his fa­ther in 2008, which trans­ferred own­er­ship of the fam­ily home and 35 cents of land (about a third of an acre) to Jolly.

As a re­sult of Rojo’s com­plaint, Kozhikode ru­ral po­lice be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing and soon homed in on Jolly. When she was even­tu­ally con­fronted with the ev­i­dence, she al­legedly con­fessed, ad­mit­ting to poi­son­ing all six vic­tims with cyanide. On Oc­to­ber 5, Jolly was for

mally ar­rested, along with two oth­ers— M.S. Mathew, 44, a close rel­a­tive and man­ager of a jew­ellery store, and Prajikumar, 47, a gold­smith who sup­plied the poi­son. (Potas­sium cyanide is used as a clean­ing agent for jew­ellery.)

Jolly was born to a Catholic fam­ily in Vazhavara, Idukki district, 300 kilo­me­tres south of Kozhikode. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from school, she stud­ied at a par­al­lel col­lege (pri­vate coach­ing in­sti­tute) in Pala. One of her class­mates de­scribed her as “friendly and out­go­ing”, and that she “en­joyed spend­ing lav­ishly.” Jolly first trav­elled to Koo­dathai vil­lage to at­tend an aunt’s house­warm­ing in 1987. That was when she met Roy Thomas. They fell in love, and were mar­ried in Fe­bru­ary 1997. “Jolly was ev­ery­one’s favourite,” says Roy’s sis­ter, Ranji Thomas. “My par­ents loved her a lot. She was friendly and car­ing.”

How­ever, Roy ex­pe­ri­enced sev­eral business dif­fi­cul­ties. He first worked as a dis­trib­u­tor of ready­made gar­ments, and when that failed, tried again as a dis­trib­u­tor for engine oils. That failed too, leav­ing them fi­nan­cially de­pen­dent on his fam­ily. Al­legedly, An­namma, the fam­ily ma­tri­arch, was strict about fi­nances and al­ways main­tained fam­ily ac­counts.

In 1999, Jolly had her first son, Romo. A year later, she told her fam­ily that she wanted to join a B.Ed course and be­come a teacher. Af­ter her in-laws agreed to take care of the baby, she be­gan leav­ing home in the morn­ings and re­turn­ing at the end of the day. How­ever, the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded that she had never joined or com­pleted such a course. Where she would go re­mains a mys­tery to this day, but what is known is that around this time, she drew close to Roy’s first cousin, M.S. Mathew, who worked as a man­ager at a jew­ellery store in Thama­rassery, about 30 kilo­me­tres east of Kozhikode.

Ac­cord­ing to the po­lice, Jolly de­cided to mur­der her mother-in-law af­ter An­namma be­gan re­strict­ing her free­dom, not al­low­ing her to leave the house. In Septem­ber 2002, Jolly poi­soned a bowl of mut­ton soup with cyanide. Soon af­ter eat­ing it, An­namma died. Ex­plain­ing the death as a re­sult of her mother-in-law’s car­diac is­sues, Jolly took con­trol of the fam­ily. Soon af­ter, Jolly claimed to have got­ten a job as a guest lec­turer at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (NIT) in Kozhikode. Fam­ily mem­bers say they re­call an ID card that iden­ti­fied her as work­ing at NIT’s com­merce de­part­ment, though the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded that she had never worked at the in­sti­tute in any ca­pac­ity. Staff mem­bers at NIT say she would visit the col­lege can­teen quite reg­u­larly, though po­lice have yet to find out why. Around this time, Jolly also pre­vailed on her fa­ther-in-law to sell two acres of his land, tak­ing Rs 18 lakh from him to set­tle her hus­band’s debts. And in 2004, she and Roy had a sec­ond son, who they named Roland.

Then, tragedy struck again. In Septem­ber 2008, Tom Thomas be­came vi­o­lently ill af­ter eat­ing boiled tapi­oca, dy­ing soon af­ter. Jolly was the only per­son with him that af­ter­noon. Once again, she ex­plained the death as a re­sult of car­diac prob­lems. Po­lice sus­pect that the two suc­cess­ful mur­ders might have em­bold­ened her—be­cause three years later, in Oc­to­ber 2011, her hus­band Roy also died, af­ter eat­ing a din­ner that she had cooked for him.

That was when Roy’s un­cle, Mathew Man­jadiyil, in­sisted on a post­mortem. Con­ducted at the Kozhikode Med­i­cal Col­lege, it re­vealed the pres­ence of potas­sium cyanide in his body. Jolly’s new ex­pla­na­tion was that Roy had com­mit­ted sui­cide be­cause of debt, and she pleaded with her fam­ily not to talk about it and ‘spoil the fam­ily rep­u­ta­tion’. Though po­lice had reg­is­tered a case, they closed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion based on her state­ment. Jolly also al­legedly used her po­lit­i­cal con­tacts to bury the story, but one per­son who re­fused to ac­cept her ex­pla­na­tion was Mathew. This led to the fourth of the six mur­ders—in April 2014, Mathew col­lapsed and died af­ter drink­ing a cup of cof­fee Jolly had poi­soned with cyanide.

Around this time, Jolly be­came close to Shaju Zacharia, the son of Tom’s brother, Zacharia. A high school teacher, Shaju was the only son of a wealthy fam­ily and had two chil­dren—a son and a daugh­ter—with his wife, Sily. In May 2014, just days af­ter Mathew’s death, Jolly trav­elled to Shaju’s home in Ko­danch­ery to at­tend the holy com­mu­nion of his son. Reach­ing early in the morn­ing, she helped cook break­fast and then vol­un­teered to feed their daugh­ter, two-year-old Al­phine. Soon af­ter, Al­phine fell vi­o­lently ill, and was rushed to hos­pi­tal. Though Al­phine died two days later, on May 3, Jolly once again evaded sus­pi­cion— Al­phine was asth­matic, and had been re­ceiv­ing treat­ment since birth.

The last vic­tim was Al­phine’s mother. In Jan­uary 2016, while at a den­tal clinic with Sily, Jolly al­legedly poi­soned a glass of wa­ter and gave it to her to drink. Af­ter Sily’s death, no one raised doubts or de­manded a post-mortem. And a year later, Shaju and Jolly were mar­ried. This hasty mar­riage— along­side other sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­i­ties, such as Jolly in­her­it­ing her fam­ily’s prop­erty based on a will al­legedly made by Tom Thomas in 2008—is what led to ques­tions be­ing asked. Based on Rojo Thomas’s report, po­lice be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing the string of deaths, fi­nally con­clud­ing that these were all mur­ders. ■


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