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Stink of drugs, murder & money in techie suicide

The suicide of Pawan Kumar Anjaiah, a 26-year-old technology worker from Bangalore, from an apparent drug overdose in New Jersey got America’s attention last month.

That he was last seen in the company of an attractive blonde — also 26, a former teacher and a sometime worker at a gentlemen’s club — and is accused of murdering her practically guaranteed the headlines. Sex, drugs, murder and suicide make for juicy fare.

So far, this is what has been reported and independently confirmed by this correspondent through interviews with the police, a prosecutor and US reporters: Anjaiah, a software engineer with the New Jersey-based Cognizant Solutions, was on a temporary assignment and on an H-1B visa. He came to the US in March 2011 and was to return to India this month.

Almost three weeks ago, Delaware police, under whose jurisdiction he lived, issued an arrest warrant for him. They wanted him for murder and released a photograph of him from a store surveillance video.

Anjaiah was found dead by the police at 1.30am on June 19 after he failed to check out of a motel. The Delaware police never had the chance to talk to him.

Detectives now speculate that Anjaiah somehow befriended Danielle Mehlman (news reports indicate they first connected on an online dating site) and was seen with her in a Delaware beach resort town, Dewey Beach, the night before. They had drinks with another couple, who were puzzled by the relationship between Anjaiah and Mehlman. They later checked into a motel, according to video surveillance.

Hours later, on June 18, Mehlman was discovered murdered with multiple stab wounds and Delaware police issued the arrest warrant for Anjaiah.

On June 19, in a motel room in Belleville, New Jersey, Anjaiah was found dead and according to Kathleen Carter, a spokesperson for the New Jersey prosecutor’s office, it was a suicide by “drug overdose”.

Results are not yet in to show what the alleged drugs were. The three-page suicide note will not be made public anytime soon, either.

In India, Anjaiah’s family went public saying their son could not have murdered anyone, or killed himself, or taken drugs. The coverage has been largely sympathetic, in keeping with the loss the family has suffered.

The focus has moved to returning his body for the last rites. The latest news reports say that the external affairs ministry is flying the body back to Bangalore at a cost of $8,000. Cognizant did not return this reporter’s calls for comment.

The grief-stricken family are understandably anxious to clear Anjaiah’s name. They are shocked at the allegations and say he was framed, robbed and murdered. For evidence, they offer up the last phone conversation he had with them, in which he said he was carrying about Rs 10 lakh and was going to buy a car.

Many Indian newspapers have reported that the case against Anjaiah is largely “circumstantial”. However, prosecutors and legal experts say that most murder cases are circumstantial because eyewitnesses are never there, people do not confess to their crimes and there are very few clues, if any.

It is up to skilled prosecutors and detectives to piece together what probably happened. According to US law, a prosecutor has only to be able to prove the case to a jury of 12 men and women. Defendants get a fair trial but not a perfect trial, experts say.

The police, local and state, need to have evidence — enough of it to show to a judge that the “suspect” probably did it. They don’t have to prove their case but they have to show enough evidence to get an arrest warrant, which they did. They charged Anjaiah with first-degree murder and possession of a deadly weapon.

They were confident enough to believe that the charges would stick and that they had their man, a stance they are sticking to. They are diligently working on what they call “an ongoing criminal investigation”.

They are not releasing any information yet but they will have to, at some point, make public all the documents. Further complicating the case is that Anjaiah has no legal representation in the country and it seems doubtful that Cognizant will step up to defend him in court or even publicly. So they have no one to speak for him.

Mehlman leaves behind a four-year-old son, whom she failed to retrieve from her former boyfriend James Russen’s custody. Her family and friends are asking for justice and a resolution in her death.

So, all things considered, there could be a case against Anjaiah. Here is some of what the prosecution will say happened. According to a Delaware newspaper, hours before she died, Mehlman and Anjaiah were at a nightspot, Jimmy’s Grill.

They were drinking with another couple, Dan Caputo and his fiancee Cheri Duvall, who later told the reporter that everything seemed fine between the couple and Mehlman was showing them some jewellery given to her by Anjaiah. It was a gold necklace and two bracelets.

Mehlman also said that Anjaiah was “not her boyfriend” and she “doesn’t have sex with him because she doesn’t love him” but “he likes to buy me things”.

She also said in front of Anjaiah that she already had a boyfriend and showed them some texts from him, one in particular that said: “Where are you? I want to see you.”

The couple got the impression that Anjaiah and Mehlman had met recently, perhaps a week ago, and they did not quite understand why Mehlman was with him when he was clearly not her boyfriend.

The couple added that Mehlman was not drunk but very chatty. She ended the conversation with them saying Anjaiah was going to buy her a “Coach bag” and invited them along. (Coach is an expensive brand). They declined to go with them.

Two days later, the couple saw the news of the murder on television and recognised the picture of Anjaiah. They later talked to the authorities and reporters.

Prosecutors will say that perhaps Anjaiah confronted Mehlman later about the things she talked to the other couple about; maybe they fought about that, about sex, about gifts and then the unthinkable happened. The police are not saying if they have a weapon or even what caused the wounds on her body.

Next morning, at 7am, a taxi driver, later identified as Allen, told authorities that four miles from the Atlantic Oceanside Motel, where Mehlman was killed, he picked up a man with two plastic bags filled with clothing.

He would later identify the man as Anjaiah and say he dropped him off at Anjaiah’s last known address. He tried to talk to the man about how he was at the location in the middle of nowhere but he would get vague answers about a car breaking down.

The taxi driver added that Anjaiah looked nervous, unshaven and dishevelled and had waved a fistful of notes at him, paying him the $344 fare without a tip.

No one knows why Anjaiah landed up in New Jersey. Perhaps he thought about going to Cognizant’s head office there for help and advice and in the end lost his nerve.

Perhaps they will say that he meant to run away to India and made it as far as New Jersey before he decided he couldn’t go through with it. They might see the suicide as a concrete sign of his guilt.

In the eyes of the law, Anjaiah is still a suspect. While this is true, it is equally true that under US law, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty.