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Bhandara triple rape-murder: Will truth be buried under botched forensic investigation?

Despite the manifest savagery and higher body count, the sexual assault and murder of three minor girls in Lakhani village of Bhandara district has failed to elicit outrage akin to the nationwide indignation after the December 16 gang rape and killing of a young woman in Delhi. But what MiD DAY has now discovered raises concerns that the apparent laxity on part of police officials and the local civil hospital in conducting the preliminary investigation may have irreparably damaged the prospects of uncovering the true facts of the matter.


The three bodies were found floating in this well on February 16, at a villager's farm near National Highway 6 in Bhandara

The bodies of the three girls, all siblings, were found in a village well on February 16. An initial post-mortem suggested they had been raped and sodomised before being thrown into the water hole. However, this newspaper has learnt that the autopsies were performed by a panel of doctors who were not forensic experts, and that they had not preserved any samples for diatom test (to conclusively establish whether or not the victims were alive when they were tossed into the well).

It gets worse. Crucial clues like fingernail clippings and hair samples (routinely collected in any sexual assault or rape case) of the deceased were not compiled by the doctors who conducted the post-mortem. The nail clippings may have held DNA samples of the accused. Interestingly, neither the police nor the civil surgeon saw it fit to send the autopsy reports to the department of forensic medicine, Government Medical College – barely 60 km away from the civil hospital – or to Indira Gandhi Medical College, both in Nagpur. They also did not rope in forensic experts for advice before and during the autopsy.

Trip to Mumbai
These shocking facts came to light when MiD DAY learnt that Lakhani police had come to the department of forensic medicine, Grant Medical College in Mumbai two days ago, with bone samples of the three girls, for conducting a diatom test. However, instead of sending dry bones, the specimens were put in a jar containing a solution of sodium chloride (salt and water), which is not the usual practice. Sources at Forensic Science Laboratory, Nagpur confirmed not getting the nail clippings and hair samples along with the viscera and clothes sent for examination.

Dr RB Chande, civil surgeon, Bhandara Rural Hospital, admitted to MiD DAY that no forensic expert was part of the team of doctors who conducted the autopsy. “A panel of five doctors including Dr Bhavesh Gulhane (D Ortho), Dr CS Khobragade (DGO-gynaecologist), Dr Aparna Rangari (MBBS), Dr Pradeep Anand (ENT) and Dr Praveen Padole (physician) performed the post-mortem that started at 1 pm on February 17 and lasted till 6 pm, as directed by the police. Dr Gulhane was on post-mortem duty that day and, as per the wishes of the cops, the other doctors were roped in. The entire autopsy process was captured on video, as advised by the police,” he said.

When asked the reason for not preserving the samples (diatom) as per norms, Dr Chande gave a startling reply. “I have never heard of diatom test before. We implicitly followed the directions of the police,” he said. For not involving forensic experts, in his defence, Chande said, “The superintendent of police wanted us to perform the autopsy fast. Initially, cops directed us to send the team of medical officers to the rural hospital at Lakhani village itself. I had even agreed to this. But later the SP informed us that the autopsy would be conducted at Bhandara, and we obeyed the instructions.”

‘No pressure’
Both special inspector general of police (Nagpur Range) Rajendra Singh and superintendent of police (Bhandara district) Aarti Singh denied putting any pressure on the civil surgeon. “If the civil surgeon did not have forensic experts to conduct the autopsy, he should have given this in writing to us. He is the medical authority and he should have suggested the alternative. The police cannot decide who would conduct the autopsy,” Aarti Singh said.

Police surgeon SM Patil, said, “If the rural doctors had any doubts or found the case to be too sensitive, they should have referred the matter to the medical college in Nagpur or at least consulted the experts at the government medical college.”

The doctors who carried out the autopsy could find evidence of sexual (natural and unnatural) assault on all three bodies. But they could not determine the exact cause of death and had preserved the viscera samples for: chemical analysis to ascertain if the victims were drugged or poisoned before or during the act; for the histopathology test to establish whether or not they had any ailments; and for the diatom test to confirm if they were alive when thrown into the well. Even vaginal swabs were collected and sent for testing, but the civil surgeon is not very optimistic about the outcome.

The three sisters went missing in the afternoon of February 14. For the next 48 hours, their mother and grandfather kept searching for them. The family had approached the police in the evening of February 14, but their lethargic response ensured no headway was made in the case. On February 16, their bodies were found in the well two-and-a-half kilometres from their house, in the farm of a villager near National Highway 6. The deceased were fully clothed. Only during autopsy did the episode of sexual assault come to light.

A fact worth noting is that the medical officers who conducted the autopsy did not visit the scene of crime before or after the post-mortem. Also, no scientist from the Forensic Science Laboratory, Nagpur came to the spot for investigation. The victims’ clothes were completely drenched and it is unclear whether the police have taken any precautions to preserve the same for DNA.

No headway
Cops have so far questioned over 200 villagers, hoping for a breakthrough in the case. SP Aarti Singh said, “Though we have quizzed a large number of local residents, only 15 of them are under suspicion. But until we come to know the exact cause of death of the girls, we will keep probing the case from all possible angles. The test reports should give us a definite direction. All three girls were raped and sexually assaulted before their death.”

Following our conversation with the superintendent of police, according to sources, cops approached Dr P Dixit, professor and head, department of forensic medicine and toxicology, Government Medical College, Nagpur seeking intervention for a second opinion. Video CD and photographs taken during autopsy were also handed over to the experts. When contacted Dr Dixit confirmed the development to MiD DAY and said, “We have asked the police to submit us all the relevant findings from reports (viscera, DNA profiling, diatom etc) and then we would give our opinion to them.”

Sources from the medical college even hinted that the video shoot during the autopsy has not been done professionally and, hence, they will have to rely on reports of scientific tests for reaching a conclusion. The mortal remains of the victims have been buried in their village. According to the police, the locals have a custom of not cremating children’s bodies. “However, we reserve the right to exhume the corpses for a second autopsy if required,” the SP said. Also, forensic experts at the medical college hinted that in case they are unable to arrive at an inference on the basis of the video footage, still photos and test reports, they will definitely demand that the three bodies be disinterred.

Unanswered questions
1) Why did police not register the missing complaint on Feb 14?
2) Why did cops not summon scientists from FSL, Nagpur for crime scene investigation on Feb 16, after the bodies were found in the well (FSL team inspected the spot after 10 days)?
3) Why did police not insist that the autopsies be done at Government Medical College, Nagpur and instead got them done at Bhandara General hospital?
4) Why did the civil surgeon at Bhandara not seek advice from forensic experts of Government Medical College before and after post-mortem?
5) Why did the doctors who conducted the autopsies not declare the cause of death?
6) Why were the diatom test samples sent to Grant Medical College, Mumbai when the same could have been done at the medical college in Nagpur?
7) Why did police not get a second opinion on the revelations (sexual assault) with other forensic experts while filing a case?
8) Was the videographer trained to shoot such complex autopsies? Who directed him on the angles and which body parts to shoot?

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