Kerala's Cyanide Killer: How a Woman Nearly Got Away with Six Murders

Jolly’s arrest came as a shock for many as she had carefully cultivated the image of an ‘ideal woman and daughter-in-law’. She would take good care of her in-laws, maintain cordial relations with her neighbors and relatives, go to church, take her sons to Sunday schools, and gift cakes at Christmas

Kerala's Cyanide Killer: How a Woman Nearly Got Away with Six Murders
Photo by Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

Holed up in her tiny jail cell, Jolly Thomas may often rue the one conversation with her brother-in-law Rojo Thomas that eventually proved to be her undoing. It was on the day her husband, Roy Thomas, had died in 2011 when an inconsolable Jolly let on to Rojo how unfortunate she was in not being able to feed Roy the final morsel before he passed away. In September 2019, when Rojo landed at a police station to lodge a property dispute complaint against Jolly, he had ample proof to suggest she had not only fraudulently divested him of his share in the ancestral property, but also had a hand in his brother Roy’s death.

The findings of Rojo’s private investigations prodded the police to reopen the case. The inquiry into Roy’s death soon led to the reopening of five more seemingly natural deaths at House Ponnamattam and 17 years after she had claimed her first victim, Jolly the so-called Cyanide Killer was arrested in October 2019 from Koodathayi, around 30 km from Kozhikode in Kerala.

Rojo launched his private investigation in 2018, soon after learning that House Ponnamattam had been bequeathed to Jolly. Rojo was surprised that the property should go to Jolly when his sister Renji and he was alive. Rojo also knew that his father, Tom Thomas, had gifted Jolly around ₹20 lakh before his death and had assured Renji and him that House Ponnamattam would be bequeathed to them.

However, shortly after Tom died in 2008, Jolly produced his will, giving the house to Roy. When Roy died in 2011, Jolly produced another will, this time showing the property had been transferred to her name. With the ancestral link to Kerala gone, Rojo returned to the US and stayed put there until 2017, when he learned that Jolly had married his cousin Shaju Zachariah.

The deaths     

Mutton soup and froth

Annamma Thomas was the matriarch of House Ponnamattam. She ruled the family with an iron hand and solely controlled the finances of the family. On August 22, 2002, the then 57-year-old Annamma Thomas was feeling under the weather and brewed mutton soup for strength. But after taking a few spoonsful, she started frothing at her mouth. She was rushed to a hospital, where doctors declared her dead on arrival. The cause of death was attributed to cardiac arrest.

Tapioca turns lethal

In 2008, Annamma's husband Tom (66) – a retired state government employee (assistant education officer) – had a bout of vomiting and started frothing at the mouth after eating mashed tapioca. Neighbors rushed him to the hospital, but he died on the way. Tom’s death, too, was attributed to cardiac arrest.

Suicide over financial losses?

In 2011, Jolly’s 40-year-old husband Roy died. Roy was a serial entrepreneur, but a failure. He had dabbled in various sectors only to stumble from one mishap to another. Besides being the primary cause of the domestic rift, his failed career had turned him into an alcoholic. On September 9, 2011, he suffered a bout of vomiting and was rushed to a hospital; he, too, died on the way.

Roy’s death aroused the suspicion of Annamma’s brother Mathew Manjadiyil, who demanded a post-mortem examination. Mathew's doubts were shared by Roy’s brother Rojo, too. The autopsy was conducted at the Kozhikode Medical College, where the doctors found traces of cyanide in his body. Subsequently, a case was registered. However, the case was dropped after Jolly convinced the family and police that Roy had ended his life as he was riddled by debt due to his failed businesses. Her entreaties that a police investigation would shame the family sealed the fate of the probe. While Rojo returned to the US, Mathew remained unconvinced.

Curiosity killed the cat

Three years after Roy’s death, Mathew Manjadiyil (68) died in an eerie rerun of Annamma and Tom’s death. While some media houses reported he died after consuming coffee, others suggested it could have been a glass of water or alcohol. His wife was at their relative’s place when the incident took place. Nobody suspected any foul play and blamed age-related ailments for Mathew’s passing away.

Tragedy strikes

A couple of months after Mathew’s death in 2014, two-year-old Alphine Shaju, daughter of Shaju Zacharia, died on the day of the holy communion of her older brother at the village church. She reportedly choked on curry and bread. She was taken to several hospitals, but could not be saved.

Death at the dentist

Two years later, in 2016, Alphine’s mother Cily collapsed on Jolly’s lap, frothing at her mouth, when Shaju was consulting a dentist at a dentist's clinic. Jolly and her two sons had accompanied Shaju and Cily to the facility. Cily, too, had drunk water before collapsing. Though she was rushed to a hospital, it was too late.

Revelations  

Renji, too, was not convinced that her father would deprive her. But there was this second will that made Jolly the owner of House Ponnamattam. The will was a bit different from the first one Jolly had furnished though. The second one had an official stamp and signs of two witnesses, unlike the version furnished in 2008. On both occasions, Renji and Rojo had let go of the issue as the wills were produced in the aftermath of personal tragedies; the first one was when their father had died and the second after their brother’s death.

In 2017, when Jolly married Shaju, just a year after Cily’s death, Renji and Rojo got talking. Renji let on to Rojo that their neighbors said Jolly had declared her intention to marry Shaju just three months after Cily’s death. This rang the alarm bells for the siblings. Why rush through a marriage? And that too soon after a series of unfortunate deaths in the families.

In 2018, Rojo flew down to Koodathayi and started digging. He filed petitions under the Right to Information Act and demanded that the officials furnish:

1. a copy of the post-mortem report of Roy;

2. the documents Jolly produced at the Revenue Department to get the property transferred to her name.

The post-mortem report said Roy last had food at 8.30 pm. This fact contradicted Jolly’s statement that Roy had last eaten in the afternoon. After reading the report, Rojo was reminded of the conversation Jolly and he had after Roy’s death. A seemingly crestfallen Jolly had expressed remorse over not getting to feed Roy the dinner she had prepared. If Jolly had not fed Roy, then why did the autopsy report say he had had food in the evening? And for a man who did not venture out on the day of his death, where did the food come from? The small sparks of suspicion in Rojo’s mind were assuming the proportions of a raging inferno. He decided to dig deeper.

Now, Rojo began analyzing the second will threadbare. A careful perusal of the supporting documents needed for title transfer revealed that they were forged. Jolly had greased the palms of amenable officials to get the fake papers and managed to transfer the property to her name.

Rojo’s investigation not only shed light on wrongdoings but also made the police look at Roy’s death as murder as the fraudulent property transfer was now seen as the motive behind Jolly’s action. A team, under the leadership of Kozhikode Rural Superintendent of Police KG Simon, reopened Roy’s case. An investigation was also launched into the property dispute case.

While probing into Roy’s case, police also studied the five other deaths that took place in the family in the last 17 years. After studying the cases in a new light, the officials discovered a common pattern: all the victims had died after consuming food or drinks; all had frothed at the mouth; Jolly was present around all of them when they died. It was Jolly who had served the mutton soup to Annamma. The tapioca that Tom ate was prepared by Jolly. She was the only person around Roy and Mathew when they died. Jolly was an invitee to the village church when Alphine died. And she was with Cily at the dentist's clinic.

Arrests    

With Jolly emerging as the prime suspect in the six deaths that nobody knew were murders, the police moved a court seeking orders to exhume all the six bodies. On October 4, 2019, the burial vaults were opened and the next day, Jolly Thomas was arrested on charges of poisoning her husband to death. The police also arrested two men – MS Mathew, Roy’s first cousin, and P Prajikumar, a jewelry shop staff – for allegedly helping Jolly procure cyanide. Prajikumar had ready access to cyanide as it is used by jewelers as a gold cleaning agent. But Prajikumar claimed innocence. He told the police that Jolly sought cyanide to kill big rats in her house. Mathew, on the other hand, was allegedly a lover of Jolly's.

On October 11, police charged Jolly with killing Annamma, Tom, Mathew, Alphine, and Cily between 2002 and 2006. According to sources, Rojo also filed a complaint, alleging Jolly had attempted to poison him as well. During the investigation, the police said that every murder made her bolder and more courageous. She exploited her image as a dutiful daughter-in-law, loving wife, doting mother, and a caring relative to the hilt to evade suspicion and plan her next move.

Gathering scientific evidence from the mortal remains was nothing short of a nightmare as the bodies were buried years ago without embalming. This meant almost nothing was left of them except bones. Besides, it is very hard to find traces of cyanide even after a few hours of death. And in this case, Annamma’s body was exhumed after 17 years. While police were collecting evidence, they got their first breakthrough during Jolly’s interrogation. Initially, she denied all charges but with evidence mounting and the police pressing, Jolly wilted under pressure and confessed to the crimes.

Who is Jolly?  

Jolly was born into a Catholic family in the Idukki district of Kerala. She was the fifth child in the family and had five siblings. After completing school, she studied at a parallel college in Pala. One of her classmates recalled her as 'friendly and outgoing’ who 'enjoyed spending lavishly’. In 1987, Jolly first came to Koodathayi to attend a housewarming ceremony of a relative and met Roy there. After 10 years of courtship, Roy popped the ring and they got married in 1997. At the time of the marriage, Jolly told her in-laws she was a BCom graduate.

Jolly’s arrest came as a shock for many as she had carefully cultivated the image of an ‘ideal woman and daughter-in-law’. She would take good care of her in-laws, maintain cordial relations with her neighbors and relatives, go to church, take her sons to Sunday schools, and gift cakes at Christmas. She also told everyone that she worked as a guest lecturer at the premier National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Kozhikode. She showed them an ID card that identified her as an NIT's commerce department staff. Every morning for 14 years, she went out in a car and returned in the evening. This made even her haters respect her achievements and social standing.

It was Rojo who first found she was not an NIT lecturer. As part of his private investigation, Rojo contacted the NIT with Jolly's details. The authorities there said no one fitting the description of Jolly had ever worked at NIT. He passed on this information to the police. Later, the police officials confirmed the same. During interrogation, she told police she used to spend time at her friend’s beauty parlor in a nearby town. She would often visit the NIT, but only to use its canteen to have lunch. While she was ‘working in the NIT’, she often went for vacations on the pretext of attending training sessions. She reportedly went to different places, including Coimbatore, Chennai, and Bengaluru, mostly to spend time with her lovers and make shady connections.

Following Jolly’s confessions, a police team raided her house and found cyanide stored in a small bottle among old cutlery in the kitchen. When police asked her how she found out about cyanide, Jolly reportedly said that she read a lot of death and suicide-related news and developed a fair idea on poisons from that. She also learned how to handle cyanide.

Her dark side  

Reports suggest Jolly, from an early age, was adept at manipulating people to do her bidding. After marriage, she reportedly struggled with an inferiority complex as her in-laws were highly educated, whereas she was an imposter. Also, coming from an agrarian background, her father struggled to fulfill her needs. At her in-laws, she got a palatial house, shiny cars, money, fancy clothes, and good food. This made her uncomfortable about her background. Soon, she started longing for the powers Annamma had, the house, and more money. Slowly, murder became the only solution to her problems. She cherished how she eliminated people, who came in her way, and successfully got what she thought she had always deserved.

After confessing to the murders, Jolly allegedly told police she liked death and death-related news. She reportedly hated infants and had a morbid curiosity. She had a deep hatred towards girl children and even tried to poison Renji’s two-year-old daughter.

Motive  

Annamma

Jolly allegedly killed Annamma as she was the matriarch of the family and controlled the finances. She also restricted Jolly’s freedom. With her around, there was no chance Jolly could spend lavishly and lead a flashy life. According to the charge sheet, Jolly was just a pre-degree pass out. She forged BCom, MCom, UGC-NET certificates first to make her way into the family and later to eliminate her mother-in-law's suspicions. Problems first started when Annamma expressed curiosity as to why a BCom-degree holder would just sit at home, especially at a time when her husband was not earning. This was the time Jolly cooked up the NIT drama. However, deep down she knew that Annamma was too smart to be fooled forever.

Killing her freed Jolly; now nobody could poke their nose into her educational qualifications. It also gave Jolly full control of the family finances – the spacious Ponnamattam house, hectares of farmlands, and the savings Annamma and Tom made over the decades. With Annamma gone, Jolly became the matriarch of House Ponnamattam. According to sources, Annamma succumbed to Jolly’s second attempt. Around a fortnight before her death, she felt discomfort and uneasiness after consuming an Ayurvedic concoction prepared by Jolly. She was taken to a hospital in Kozhikode and tests were performed. But nothing came out of them and the family came back home. The doctors did not suspect cyanide poisoning then.

Tom

It is alleged that Jolly killed Tom for the property. “Tom sold some land and made a fixed deposit of `15 lakh in Jolly’s name. He also named her as a nominee in a life insurance policy,” a police officer told a news outlet. Jolly was happy to get the money but slowly was getting bored of taking care of an old man who reportedly became completely dependent on her after Annamma’s death. She decided to close Tom’s chapter when he told her that the couple had got their share of the property and the remainder would go to Rojo and Renji. Jolly wanted the house, too, but with Tom alive, it was impossible. So, she allegedly forged his will to transfer the property to her husband’s name and killed him.

Roy

Over the years Jolly and Roy’s relationship had soured, mostly due to Roy’s failed businesses and their dependency on the family for money. According to the FIR, the couple had frequent fights about Jolly’s friendships with other men and Roy’s superstitious beliefs. After becoming an alcoholic, Roy stopped taking Jolly and their children's responsibility. This made Jolly long for a well-to-do husband with assured income. Also, killing Roy meant all his property would become hers, and nobody could question her lifestyle.

Mathew

Mathew was insistent on getting an autopsy done on Roy. Though Jolly managed to pass Roy’s death as suicide, Mathew was not convinced. With all her plans falling into place, Jolly began seeing the grumpy old man as a thorn in her flesh. She feared he could sow seeds of doubt against her in other people’s minds. So, when she got a chance to get rid of him, she did.

Alphine and Cily

After Roy’s death, Jolly had her eyes on Shaju, a high school teacher. He was the only son of wealthy parents, making him the perfect husband material in Jolly’s eyes. Shaju being a bibliophile and an introvert added sheen to the proposition as these reduced his chances of interfering with Jolly’s affairs. There was a small hitch though. Shaju was married to Cily and the couple had two kids, a daughter Alphine and a son. She targeted Alphine first as she abhorred infants and girls.

Jolly envied Cily, for the latter had what she had always desired, a caring and wealthy husband. By allegedly bumping off Cily, she not only cleared her path to her dream life but also corrected the injustice that was meted out to her by fate.

Suspicions  

While giving his statement to the police, Rojo claimed that Jolly tried to kill Renji and him, too. Rojo reportedly told the police that his stay in the US saved him. Whenever he visited Kerala, he never stayed at House Ponnamattam and preferred staying at his in-laws' place. Renji in her statement said she once fell ill after having a medicinal potion given by Jolly. "I almost lost consciousness. I was taken to the hospital; my legs were stiff and I was given IV fluids. Maybe that is what saved me," she told news outlets. She also suspected Jolly of attempting to kill her younger daughter. Rojo also told the police that Jolly tried through her sources to persuade him not to file a case against her.

After Jolly’s alleged involvement in the murders came to light, many others came forward claiming Jolly’s hand in murders in their families. One of Roy’s aunts told the media that she suspected Jolly had a hand in at least two deaths in her family. On October 7, 2019, one Rohith M filed an FIR accusing Jolly of murdering his father. A local political functionary died in 2016 after coming home and having food. That death, too, was linked to Jolly. Later, a plumber’s family also connected his death to Jolly.

More murders in the pipeline

These apart, police found that Jolly had plans to commit more murders. She was allegedly planning to kill Shaju and marry again. This time, she wanted her friend VA Johnson, a BSNL employee, as her husband. Call records allegedly showed lengthy conversations between them, mostly at night. Some news outlets claimed Jolly had made a bid on Johnson’s wife’s life, too. Killing Shaju was beneficial for her as it would have helped her secure a government job on compassionate grounds.

Police told news outlets that Jolly planned to kill two more children in the family by feeding them cyanide-laced food. The children allegedly showed the same symptoms – seizures and breathing difficulties – but survived. Police, however, did not reveal their identities.

Bail plea and other chargesheets  

Within days of her arrest, Jolly and the two other suspects filed bail pleas. However, their petition was rejected and they were sent in judicial custody till November 2, 2019. In February 2020, Jolly allegedly attempted suicide by slitting her wrist. She was admitted to Kozhikode Medical College and later, her condition improved.

As the investigation progressed, Jolly reportedly told the police she used some other poison, and not cyanide, to kill Annamma. A news outlet claimed Jolly used poison used to kill rabid dogs to eliminate Annamma. She allegedly got the poison – Dog Kill – from a veterinary clinic. Almost two years after Jolly’s arrest, Shaju moved the court seeking a divorce from Jolly. Shaju had always claimed that he was unaware of Jolly’s alleged involvement in the six murders.

During the investigation, Shaju, too, was summoned for questioning more than five times. He was suspected to be hand-in-glove in his ex-wife’s murder. Both Shaju and his father were interrogated for hours but every time they were let off. Both of them claimed they did not know about Jolly’s wrongdoings. Shaju also claimed he married Jolly at the insistence of his and Cily’s families. Jolly also found it hard to get a lawyer. Reportedly many lawyers refused to take her case before criminal lawyer BA Aloor agreed; he also abandoned her cause later.

It has been two years since the arrest of Jolly. While the probe is ongoing, the trial – delayed by the pandemic – is set to start soon. When the case was in its nascent stages, the police had compared  Jolly to ‘Doctor Death’ Harold Shipman, a British general practitioner, who got life imprisonment for murdering 15 patients.