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Footage clue to engineer murder

Mumbai, Feb. 1: A middle-aged man has emerged as a suspect in the murder of a software engineer who disappeared from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus last month after CCTV footage showed him walking just ahead of the young woman, pulling her strolley bag.

Police sources said one person who resembles the man in the footage had been detained in Hyderabad and was being questioned.

Esther Anuhya, a software engineer from Machilipatnam employed with Tata Consultancy Services at Goregaon in the western suburbs, disappeared from the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (LTT) shortly after arriving by the Visakhapatnam-LTT Express from Vijayawada on January 5. The 23-year-old was returning from a Christmas vacation in her hometown but never reached the YWCA hostel in Andheri where she was staying.

Her severely burnt and decomposed body was found 11 days later on January 16 from a marshy land adjoining the Eastern Express Highway in Bhandup, which does not fall on the way from the terminus to Andheri.

The police had initially detained four auto drivers who pick up passengers from the terminus, but they were let off for lack of evidence. Investigators have now zeroed in on the middle-aged man with a French-cut beard after the CCTV footage from the terminus showed him walking just a couple of steps ahead of Esther.

The sources said teams from Mumbai police and the Government Railway Police, Mumbai, had reached the Andhra Pradesh capital and questioning the man in connection with the murder.

Police officials said the footage showed Esther making a call while the man, dressed in a white shirt and blue denims, pulled her trolley bag. They said Esther might have known the man. Her father said he did not know him.

The police also suspect that Esther made the call from the man’s mobile as call records show she had not made any at the terminus from the two cellphones she was carrying. The police are now questioning Esther’s friends and colleagues to trace the man’s identity.

Earlier, Esther’s father Jonathan S. Prasad, a retired professor, had blamed Mumbai police’s tardy probe into her disappearance for her murder and had also met Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. The crime branch of Mumbai police later began a parallel investigation.

Esther had last spoken to her father around 9pm on January 4 when the train, which left Vijayawada at 8am, reached Solapur. She told her father the train had reached Solapur and that she would call him once she reached Mumbai. The train arrived at the scheduled time — 5am — but there was no call from her. She did not reach her hostel either.

Her post-mortem report, which showed several marks on her body, indicated that she was beaten up with a blunt object. The report also showed injuries in her private parts, but JJ Hospital doctors could not conclusively say if she had been sexually assaulted. The vaginal swab and viscera samples were sent to a forensic lab on January 17.

The murder has led to a public interest petition, with an advocate, Abha Singh, filing a petition in Bombay High Court demanding action against the police for dereliction of duty.

The petition says Esther’s uncle, Arun Kumar, had visited MIDC police in Andheri to lodge a missing complaint on January 5 but was asked to go to Kurla railway police station since the girl disappeared from the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, which falls under Kurla railway police.

The railway police also refused to lodge a complaint and asked him to register the complaint at Vijayawada railway police station since the girl had started her journey from Vijayawada station.

The Kurla police station finally registered the complaint on January 8 when it was established that Esther had got off at the terminus.

Even after a case was lodged, the police failed to trace her. It was Esther’s cousins who found her body when they searched the Eastern Express Highway on January 16.

The petition also alleges criminal negligence by the railways since CCTV cameras did not cover the entire station.