A small town in the hills of North Kerala in India gained instant notoriety after news emerged that a 45-year-old homemaker was arrested for the spine chilling murder of six close family members over a period of 14 years. Local and national press went into a tizzy and even the world media reported the news in detail.
The police say the alleged serial killer, Jolly Joseph, poisoned close family members using lethal cyanide at routine intervals between 2002 and 2016. Surprisingly, no trace of the serial murders caught up with her. As per the police, she killed her husband and parents-in-law and then eliminated the wife and child of an alleged paramour, in order to marry him.
There's shock and disbelief even as the general public and media have lapped up the police version of the killings. The police say they have a confession. The police have also arrested two of the serial killer's alleged accomplices. Here's a look at the major questions, some of which don't have clear answers yet.
Who is Jolly Koodathai?
The good-looking and educated mother of two hails from a wealthy family that grows cardamom in the hill district of Idukki in central Kerala. She got married to Roy Thomas, the son of retired government official Tom Thomas, who lived in Koodathai, near Kozhikode, in north Kerala. Jolly has two children -- a 21 year-old son and a another child who is still in school.
Who did she kill?
According to the confession extracted by the police, Jolly killed her mother-in-law in 2002. The confession says she mixed lethal cyanide in mutton soup served to the elderly woman one evening. The next victim was her father-in-law. He was served boiled tapioca laced with cyanide. Next to die was Roy Thomas, her 40year-old husband. Roy was served rice poisoned with cyanide and died soon in the bathroom. This happened in 2011. The fourth victim was Roy's uncle, who had apparently raised doubts about the mysterious deaths in the family. The fifth and sixth victims were the wife and daughter of Shaju Zacharias, who Jolly married in 2017. The mother-child duo were eliminated in 2014 and 2016, well ahead of their marriage in 2017.
Is the plot believable?
The police have confessions that enabled them to stitch together the sequence of events. They also arrested two accomplices -- a jewellery salesman and an artisan who supplied cyanide to the serial killer. However, the police story is porous. Did Jolly acted alone? How could she fly under the radar for so long? What was the real motive? Why didn't the police investigate the third death, even though a post-mortem had revealed that the victim died of cyanide poisoning?
Reports citing investigators say Jolly's motive was financial freedom in the beginning. Then she wanted to lean on to a man she trusted, hence eliminated his wife and child in order to marry him. However, local residents said that though the family was well off, they weren't wealthy.
Was she involved in two more mysterious deaths?
What connects the dots for the police is strong circumstantial evidence. Jolly was present at the death scene of all of her victims. According to newer reports Jolly is also suspected of having a role in the mysterious deaths of two people. They were young men from the same family, the cousins of Jolly's husband. While the police haven't formally tied Jolly to the deaths, media reports say the dairy of one of the dead boys has her name in it with incriminating notes.
Living double life to perfection
It remains to be seen if the police can piece together significant evidence to punish Jolly, but it's clear that she lived a dangerous double life. Jolly made everyone, including her husbands and close family members, believe that she was a professor at a reputed technology college. She made her accomplices make fake calls posing as her students in order to win trust in the family. She even carried fake exam sheets to relatives' homes to make them believe that she was a lecturer.
Hyper religiosity to cloak real self?
As per local reports Jolly lived a pious life for all to see. A regular at Sunday mass, she was also an active participant in other church activities. "She would often visit the cemetery where Roy and his family members were buried, to put flowers and light candles on their graves ... She got uneasy if she ever missed a Sunday Mass," vouches her second husband. "She got uneasy if she ever missed a Sunday Mass.
A consummate psychopath?
The serial killer's success owed to her consummate ability to play the dual game, psychologists have said. Even as the psychopath in her went ahead with calculated murders, she maintained an affable social persona. When her husband's murder raised doubts she could easily deflect the arrows of suspicion aimed at her. When she realised that someone was really in her trail she had no hesitation in eliminating them. Police say she killed her husband after he questioned her illicit affairs.
Will prosecution win a conviction?
It's doubtful if Jolly would be convicted on all counts as most crucial pieces of evidence have been overrun by time. Only one body was subjected to post-mortem examination but the finding, though crucial, was not acted upon. In all the other murders the police have only circumstantial evidence against her. Dovetailing strong pieces of evidence into the messy murder timeline will be a huge challenge for the police.