A Calcutta Murderer Slinks From Depths of Depravity

Times Staff Writer

He strikes only when Calcutta sleeps.

His victims are street people, Calcutta's helpless beggars, lunatics and rickshaw pullers who share their muddy concrete beds with the city's rats, garbage and disease. And his is the perfect murder weapon in a crumbling city of broken streets--an anonymous, 50-pound concrete slab that is always taken from near his sleeping victims.

He has killed seven people in the past three months, crushing their skulls with a single blow. London had its Jack the Ripper; Boston, its infamous Strangler, and Los Angeles, its Hillside Strangler and terrifying Night Stalker. Now, Calcutta, a 300-year-old city long synonymous with the horrors of life and death, is being stalked and spooked by a serial murderer, barbaric even by local standards.

They call him, simply, the Stoneman.

"We are going back to the Stone Age," declared Rachhpal Singh, deputy commissioner of Calcutta's beleaguered police department. "Killing each other with stones shows what kind of progress we have made here."

Belatedly, public outcry for justice has grown in this city of 6 million people to the point where "Stoneman" has become as much a household name as "Gandhi."

Singh concedes that his police department is no closer to solving the "Stoneman Mystery," as the local press is calling it, than it was when the killer first struck June 4.

"We are nowhere on this case yet," he said. "We haven't a clue."

Indeed, the only physical evidence the Stoneman has left behind at each murder scene is the concrete slab he has used to crush his victims' skulls. And reliable police sources admitted that until the most recent killing, on a lonely street corner in downtown Calcutta, detectives had not even thought to keep the murder weapons.

What is more, the police do not even know the exact names of six of the seven victims, who, like most of the more than 50,000 homeless flooding Calcutta's streets from nearby states in recent years in search of work and a better life, are as anonymous as the city's cracked sidewalks and potholed streets.

"In the first three or four murders, we did not have an idea that it might be methodical or the work of a single person," Singh said. "And initially, yes, I do admit some lack of concern because these victims were, after all, just pavement dwellers."

To be fair, Calcutta's citizenry also was largely unconcerned when the spate of slayings began.

The Stoneman's first victim, after all, was a woman who had made her living by selling moonshine on the street. His second victim, a beggar who also called the sidewalk his home, was not killed until July 4, exactly one month after the first.

"Apart from the pavement dwellers themselves, no one was bothered much about it," said Sanjoy Basak, a local police reporter for the Calcutta newspaper, The Telegraph, who has covered the Stoneman murders since they began. "Pavement dwellers don't even have voting rights here, so nothing was really done."

In fact, it was not until 5 a.m. on Sept. 8, when the Stoneman claimed his seventh and most recent victim, who is described only as "male, approximately 35 years old, beggar-lunatic type" in the official police report, that officials were forced to take notice.

The beggar was crushed to death on Old Court House Street, just a block from police headquarters.

"We are under tremendous pressure right now from the public," Deputy Commissioner Singh said. "The Stoneman has become a household discussion. And Calcutta is a most peculiar place. It is like a small village. Anything happening here gets the attention of each and everyone simultaneously.

"And the people here are very intelligent. They go through the newspaper very seriously. Now, they want this case solved."

Facing such pressure, the police last month launched a massive, two-phase operation, first, to protect the sidewalk dwellers, and, second, to capture the Stoneman.

Police patrols have been stepped up throughout central Calcutta, where all the murders have taken place. Hundreds of suspects described by police as "lunatics" and "maniacs" have been swept up in a citywide dragnet. Undercover agents have even been posing as street people, pretending to sleep under blankets that hide their service revolvers.

Human-Rights Protests

The crackdown has brought loud protests from human-rights groups, which insist that the police are beating defenseless street people and torturing unlikely suspects who could not possibly be the Stoneman.

The dragnet did yield one possible suspect. Police picked up a "lunatic" named Mohammad Akram near a sidewalk dweller who claimed he had been attacked by the Stoneman. Later, though, the victim admitted that he never really saw anyone aim a stone at his head, and police found only a tiny cut on his ear that they concluded was a rat bite.

The suspect himself is emaciated and incapable of even lifting the typical concrete block used by the killer. And, perhaps the only man left in the police department who believes Akram may be the Stoneman is Calcutta's chief of detectives, Prasun Mukherjee.

Defending the Police

In an interview last month, Mukherjee insisted that the police are doing their best to catch the mass murderer.

"You must understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime case for us," he said. "There has been nothing like it in all of India. But I am confident that we will catch him."

Mukherjee also asserted that there are no departmental politics involved in the Stoneman case. Other observers, among them several Calcutta policemen, are not so sure. In addition to the apparently sloppy police work in the beginning, the police department seems to be competing within itself to solve the case, dividing into two distinct factions under Mukherjee and Deputy Commissioner Singh.

On Sept. 18, it was announced that Mukherjee alone would be in charge of the case, making it clear that Singh, who had developed intricate theories and psychological profiles of the killer, would no longer be involved.

Psychotic Profile

Singh, for example, is known to believe that Akram is not the Stoneman. Rather, he believes that the killer is most likely psychotic but highly intelligent and probably acting out of deep hatred for the city's beggars and street people.

"There may be some motive of hatred against all these beggars and madmen and lunatics," Singh said in an interview. "But to me, he seems to be an intelligent person. He conceals himself. His weapon is untraceable. And he has been so brazen as to strike twice in exactly the same spot."

But Singh also is known to have rankled his superiors, in part by coining the nickname "Stoneman," during a press conference several weeks ago. "I'm paying for it now," he said.

Mukherjee also has his theories.

"This man also could be a tantrik-- a death sorcerer of some kind," Mukherjee said. "There are some precedents for that."

Killer in Bombay

Indeed, the only other serial murderer on record in India is Raman Raghav, a religious fanatic who claimed 42 victims in Bombay in the late 1960s before police caught him.

Raghav also victimized only impoverished street people and only at night while they slept, but his murder weapon was an iron bar. Bombay police first arrested him in 1966 and held him for two years, during which he confessed nothing. The murders stopped during his incarceration, but, with no other proof, the police released him and the killings began anew.

After a rearrest several months later, Raghav admitted that he had, indeed, "been true to the voice of the sun god" in performing all 42 ritual murders, and he led police to his iron bar.

Despite the precedent and public announcements to the contrary, though, Mukherjee said his department has not yet enlisted the aid of Bombay detectives, nor has he contacted police in other countries that have faced serial killers.

"I have been reading up on Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Slasher and the Boston Strangler," he said. "And there are no real similarities. But keep in mind that Jack the Ripper still hasn't been identified, and that was going on in London in 1888."

Street People Unite

Meanwhile, the street people of the city said they are finding, as they always have, their own means of survival.

"We are all staying in groups now," Shankar Malik, a sidewalk dweller who sweeps the wards at a local hospital, told passing journalists on a recent morning, as they accompanied one of the new midnight police patrols through Calcutta's eerie downtown streets. "And we sleep in shifts now. Some are always awake and standing guard, so if the Stoneman comes, we can tackle him."

Asked why he and the dozen or so friends sleeping around him continue to live on the streets despite the risk, Malik said they had all left the adjacent Indian state of Bihar because there was no land for them to farm, and now they find themselves in a city with no shelter where they can sleep.

"You see, these people have no choices," said N.C. Bhattacharya, the police officer in charge of Calcutta's downtown station house, as he guided the journalists around rat-infested garbage heaps and row after row of sleeping humanity.

"And so many of them could not make the choice, even if they had it. They are just lunatics and madmen, you know. So many lunatics in Calcutta. Just like this Stoneman we are searching for. Lunatics. All of them, lunatics."

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