Curious case of missing US national and dead sadhu
Weeks after US national was reported missing in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, sadhu suspected to have killed him dies in police custody
What's become of Justin Alexander Shetler? The 35-year-old US national was last seen on September 3 trekking through the Parvati valley in Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh, and reported missing on October 3. Even more mysterious is that the self-proclaimed sadhu, Satyanarayan Rawat, who allegedly accompanied Shetler on the trek, and who was arrested on October 15 on charges of abduction and murder, was found dead in his cell last week.
Rawat was found hanging from the police lock-up grill by the drawstring of his loincloth. With the death of the prime suspect, the police are groping in the dark for answers to Shetler’s mysterious disappearance. A search for Shetler, launched on October 5, is on.
Satyanarayan Rawat, the self-proclaimed sadhu accused of his murder
Spotted by trekkers
Shelter, who arrived in India this summer, undertook a trek between Khirganga — a pilgrimage spot — and Mantalai lake (the source of Parvati river) in the Parvati valley around August 24. The trek back and forth usually takes around 10 days.
He was last spotted, alone, on September 3 by a trekking group heading west of the lake, barely an hour after Rawat passed by the spot. The sadhu, however, had claimed that although Shetler had begun the trek with him, he later set off on his own ahead. Rawat told the police that he had not seen him en route, and that he had returned alone to the caves he resided in around Mantalai.
The search team tracing Shetler’s known trail through Parvati Valley in Himachal
But according to the Manikaran police in Kullu, which is probing the disappearance, Rawat was last spotted hiking through the mountains with Shetler. The US national also reportedly met him in the caves prior to the trek.
Padam Chand, superintendent of police, Kullu district, said Rawat had not yielded any vital clue during his questioning. “He admitted that Justin had undertaken the trek with him and a porter-cum-cook, Anil Singh (currently helping the police with the search). Singh, a resident of Uttarakhand, was asked by them to walk ahead, and told that they would join him on September 5. The baba claimed that Justin walked ahead of him, and that since it had turned dark on that day, he didn’t seem him en route."
Discrepancies in Rawat’s claims and his failure to register a missing person complaint raised the police’s suspicions, said Chand.
Rawat, who hailed from Nepal, was arrested on the basis of a complaint by Shelter’s mother, Suzie Reeb (55), who has been camping in Manali, Himachal Pradesh since October 3. He was produced before the local magistrate court and sent to Manikaran police’s custody till October 24. Inspector Bhupender Jamwal of Manikaran police station told mid-day over the phone that Rawat “barely spoke” during his questioning. “The cell he was in had no other inmate at the time of his death."
During a pit-stop in Dharamsala earlier this year, among Justin’s many sojourns
The police, according to Chand, 'were not convinced' by Rawat’s answers. Jamwal said around 7 pm on October 21, on-duty head constable Raj Kumar stepped out to answer the call of nature. “When he returned, he found Rawat hanging from the lock-up grill by his langot drawstring."
The SP said Kumar has been suspended, a judicial probe ordered into Rawat’s death, the post-mortem examination report from the district hospital in Kullu is awaited, and the investigation of the Shelter case has been transferred from the Manikaran police to the Kullu police.
Rawat, who was in his mid-40s, told the police that he taught yoga and had left his house in Nepal as a child.
The manner of his death has sparked suspicion among Shetler’s family of custodial torture. What’s also raised an alarm is that after taking him down, the police took Rawat to the district hospital, 16 km away. He was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.
Jamwar went silent on being asked why no doctor from the neighbourhood was called in, instead. No one has come forward to claim Rawat’s body.
No man's land
Shetler’s last whereabouts, according to the SP, was traced to “a no man’s land” between Thakur Kuan, 34 km from Khirganga, and a broken bridge close by. “It usually takes three days to reach the place.”
A search party for Shelter, comprising family members and experienced trekkers, fanned out on October 5 and found some of his belongings close to the Parvati river. “We suspect he fell into the river, which has high currents, but we haven’t got any intimation from any police station of a body being washed ashore,” said Chand.
Jonnathan Skeels, a friend of the Shetler family, told mid-day from Manali, Himachal Pradesh, that Shelter’s personal belongings — a flute fashioned into a walking stick, a scarf and a headband, among others — were found on October 16. All three items are seen on the photograph, reportedly Shetler’s last, taken by the trekking group near Mantalai on September 3, said Skeels.
The search team scoured trails from the caves near Mantalai, where Shetler reportedly spent a considerable amount of time before his trek, to Thakur Kuan (34 km from Khirganga). “The police now have a dedicated search team on the trail and have augmented it with a rapid water search and rescue team to look into the river,” said Skeels.
An avid traveller
Before arriving in India in July, Shetler from California, US, spent quite a few months helping build a school in quake-ravaged Nepal. A travel writer and frequent aid worker, he bought a Royal Enfield in India soon after his arrival, and rode to the Parvati valley in early August. He wanted to cross the Leh-Ladakh pass on his bike before the onset of winter.
Going by his Facebook post uploaded on August 16, Shetler was quite taken with Rawat and impressed by his ‘ascetic powers’.
Lost weight drastically
The trekkers who saw Shetler on September 3 claimed that he had not eaten in two days, and looked severely underweight and exhausted.
He allegedly refused an invitation to join the group, saying he wanted to get back to his things, and to a spot that provided good Internet connectivity to edit his latest video as well as rest. Thakur Kuan to Khirganga is a two-three-day-long hike. Shetler needed to travel an additional 10 km into the Parvati valley, where his bike was parked.
He was due to be back in mid-to-late September. When he failed to establish contact with his mother and his girlfriend over a large period of time — as he was wont to do — a lookout for him began.
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