I wish to share some of my reminiscences of a murder inquiry I handled in 1970 to stress on the importance of fingerprints in the investigation of crimes. I was then the Officer-in-Charge of the Crimes Branch at the Matugama Police Station. It was during the National New Year period, when most of the people [...]

Sunday Times 2

Victim unknown, killer unknown: Fingerprints to the fore


I wish to share some of my reminiscences of a murder inquiry I handled in 1970 to stress on the importance of fingerprints in the investigation of crimes. I was then the Officer-in-Charge of the Crimes Branch at the Matugama Police Station.

It was during the National New Year period, when most of the people working in urban areas would return to their villages to be with their kith and kin. Delgoda was a quiet village in the Thebuwana Police area in the Kalutura District. Winding its way, the Kalu Ganga ran through this village to the sea. A gravel road ran along the bank of the river. Youths played soft ball cricket at a few open patches of uncultivated land along the road.

On the day after the National New Year, boatman Pulis Silva was fishing in the Kalu Ganga. He felt a heavy catch on his fishing rod and he had pulled it out of the water. To his surprise, it was part of a human body. On a closer look, he found that it was a piece of flesh from the stomach region and the navel was clearly visible on it. Frightened by the catch, he raised an alarm and called the villagers in the vicinity.

Pulis Silva rushed to the Thebuwana Police Station and informed Sub Inspector Lawrence Amarasena (who later became a Deputy Inspector General), the officer-in-charge at that time. Mr. Amarasena had already obtained leave to visit his parents for the New Year. He had, however, instructed his sergeant to record the complaint and inform the ASP about the case.

The ASP (the late Mr. Samaradivakara) who was in charge of the Matugama Police Division at that time, ordered me to proceed to Thebuwana Police Station immediately, and start investigations into the murder where the victim was “unknown” and the killer also was “unknown”. It turned out be a challenging task to trace the identity of the deceased and to get at the killer as well. I set out on the investigation with a sergeant from my Crime Branch. I visited the spot where the body part had been fished out. There were two constables guarding the spot. I got several boatmen to search the banks of the river for any more body parts. They found the left arm that had been severed from the elbow. I immediately took the fingerprints from the severed hand using glass strips. The fingerprint impressions taken carefully were immediately sent to the Registrar of Fingerprints (RF) in Colombo. A positive identification of finger prints was reported by the RF as those of Thomas Silva from Delgoda. He happened to be a criminal who had been convicted in Kalutura Courts on a number of occasions for violence-related cases.

The head of the victim was never recovered, as the body had been cut into pieces and taken up the river before buried in a sand dune. The right hand and the right leg too came floating down the river later. Some parts had been eaten up by monitors in the river.

Having established the identity of the victim through the fingerprints, our next task was to trace the family members of the victim and summon them for the post-mortem examination. With ease, we were able to trace the wife of the victim as a few days before the body part was found by Pulis Silva, she had made an entry at the Thebuwana Police, stating that her husband had gone missing.

She was present at the post-mortem examination. Recalling she had removed a thorn from the sole of her husband’s foot two or three days prior to his disappearance, she pointed to a healed injury. Our next task was to find the killer. When the Information Book maintained at the police station was thoroughly scrutinized, we found a clue to work on. A person known as Siripala of the same village had made a complaint against Thomas Silva. This was seven days prior to the discovery of the body parts.

In his complaint, Siripala had said that due to constant threats from Thomas Silva, he and his family were leaving the village. This was unusual because however serious the threat is, villagers would not leave the village. Inquiries revealed that the families of Thomas Silva and Siripala were not on good terms. They also revealed that during the previous National New year period, a member of Siripala’s family had been murdered and the case was pending in courts. This raised further suspicions that Siripala’s family was involved in the murder. When we passed Siripala’s house, we found that his boat had been washed clean and kept leaning upright against the outside wall of their house. (This village frequently went under water when there was heavy rain, and every house in the village had a boat for them to get about during floods).

After the post-mortem examination was over, a verdict of homicide was pronounced. Acting on the available clues my sergeant and I disguised ourselves as two people visiting relatives in the next village. We were clad in sarongs and shirts. We got onto two bicycles and set out along the gravel road by the river. We found there some youngsters playing soft ball cricket in an open area opposite the spot where the body part was found. We spoke to them and inquired as to whether there had been a fight in the area recently. A few boys said, “Ovu Mame, Thomas Silva Mama bicycalen Enakota Vipulasena Aiyagen Ehavuva, ‘Tho Geta Kapannada Methenta Vela Inne’. And just then, Vipulasena had stabbed Thomas Silva who fell on the road with the bicycle.”

The boys said that on seeing this they had run away to their homes. The statements of three eye witnesses were recorded at the police station and now we had firm evidence to arrest Vipulasena.

My sergeant and I set out in a jeep driven by a police driver in search of Vipulasena, who had been identified as a son of Siripala. At that time, police officers carried no arms when they were on normal duty. When we visited Siripala’s house we found it locked. We were informed by neighbours that one of the daughters of Siripala was married and residing in Hadigalla Colony in the Sinharaja Forest range, and that the entire family had gone to visit her. Immediately, we set out to Hadigalla Colony in search of Vipulasena. When we reached Hadigalla Colony, it was around 9.p.m.and on hearing the sound of the jeep, Siripala and all four sons who were in the house came out into the compound. I felt that if we go to arrest the accused or even ask for Vipulasena, we would never come back alive, leave alone the arresting of the suspect.

I had to immediately think of a plan to arrest him. I remembered that Siripala, before leaving the village, had made a complaint against Thomas Silva at the Thebuwana Police Station. I promptly asked him as to why he had left his village without giving the chance for Thebuwana Police to inquire into his complaint, and casually asked him to be present the following day at Thebuwana Police Station at 10.a.m. When I said this, I noticed some anxiety on his and his sons’ faces. He reacted by saying they would not be able to come to the station the following day as the first bus leaves Hadigalle only at 10.a.m. I thought the golden opportunity of arresting them had come, and I immediately jumped at the idea and suggested to them that I could give them a lift to Tebuwana if they so desired. Siripala and his four sons agreed. I took them to my stronghold, the Matugama Police Station, and using the personnel there all five were separately interrogated and they spilt the beans.

Their statements were recorded and Vipulasena’s Kris knife, and the two Manna knives used by the other four suspects in cutting the body were recovered. The Kris knife and the Manna knives were sent for fingerprint identification. All five of them were indicted by the Attorney General in Kalutura Assizes. Half-way through the hearing, the suspects through their lawyer Bala Tampoe pleaded “guilty of homicide not amounting to murder in the course of a sudden fight.” The court accepted the “plea” and Wipulasena was sentenced to eight years of rigorous imprisonment while the other four including Siripala were sentenced a punishment of 5 years of rigourous Imprisonment.

P.S:- The convicts names were changed to prevent identification as they are presently living in the village peacefully, having served their jail terms.

(The writer is a Retired Deputy Inspector General of Police)

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