Jolly, Sociopath, the black widow killer: Unravelling Kerala cyanide murders

Kochi: For 14 years, death appeared to have been stalking the members of a family in the Koodathai village of Kozhikode district in north Kerala. Between 2002 and 2016, six members of the Ponnamattom family suffered mysterious deaths.

In 2002, Annamma Thomas, a 57-year-old retired school teacher, collapsed and died. Six years later, her husband Tom Thomas, a retired assistant education officer, also died. In 2011, their son Roy Thomas, a 42-year-old businessman, allegedly committed suicide. Three years later, Annamma’s brother Matthew Manjadiyil also died, and a month after that, a relative- two-year-old Alphine Shaju -went the same way. The last death took place in 2016, when Alphine’s mother, Sily Shaju, also died.

All these deaths had one detail in common- Roy’s wife Jollyamma had been present at every incident. Though she was often described as a loving daughter-in-law, a caring wife and a devout church-goer, in June 2019, Rojo Thomas, her husband’s brother, filed a police complaint. He did not believe Roy had committed suicide, and also wanted an investigation into a will allegedly prepared by his father in 2008, which transferred ownership of the family home and 35 cents of land (about a third of an acre) to Jolly.

As a result of Rojo’s complaint, Kozhikode rural police began investigating and soon homed in on Jolly. When she was eventually confronted with the evidence, she allegedly confessed, admitting to poisoning all six victims with cyanide. On October 5, Jolly was formally arrested, along with two others- M.S. Mathew, 44, a close relative and manager of a jewellery store, and Prajikumar, 47, a goldsmith who supplied the poison. (Potassium cyanide is used as a cleaning agent for jewellery.)

Jolly was born to a Catholic family in Vazhavara, Idukki district, 300 kilometres south of Kozhikode. After graduating from school, she studied at a parallel college (private coaching institute) in Pala. One of her classmates described her as “friendly and outgoing”, and that she “enjoyed spending lavishly.” Jolly first travelled to Koodathai village to attend an aunt’s housewarming in 1987. That was when she met Roy Thomas. They fell in love, and were married in February 1997. “Jolly was everyone’s favourite,” says Roy’s sister, Ranji Thomas. “My parents loved her a lot. She was friendly and caring.”

However, Roy experienced several business difficulties. He first worked as a distributor of readymade garments, and when that failed, tried again as a distributor for engine oils. That failed too, leaving them financially dependent on his family. Allegedly, Annamma, the family matriarch, was strict about finances and always maintained family accounts.

In 1999, Jolly had her first son, Romo. A year later, she told her family that she wanted to join a B.Ed course and become a teacher. After her in-laws agreed to take care of the baby, she began leaving home in the mornings and returning at the end of the day. However, the police investigation concluded that she had never joined or completed such a course. Where she would go remains a mystery to this day, but what is known is that around this time, she drew close to Roy’s first cousin, M.S. Mathew, who worked as a manager at a jewellery store in Thamarassery, about 30 kilometres east of Kozhikode.

According to the police, Jolly decided to murder her mother-in-law after Annamma began restricting her freedom, not allowing her to leave the house. In September 2002, Jolly poisoned a bowl of mutton soup with cyanide. Soon after eating it, Annamma died. Explaining the death as a result of her mother-in-law’s cardiac issues, Jolly took control of the family.

Soon after, Jolly claimed to have gotten a job as a guest lecturer at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Kozhikode. Family members say they recall an ID card that identified her as working at NIT’s commerce department, though the police investigation concluded that she had never worked at the institute in any capacity. Staff members at NIT say she would visit the college canteen quite regularly, though police have yet to find out why. Around this time, Jolly also prevailed on her father-in-law to sell two acres of his land, taking Rs 18 lakh from him to settle her husband’s debts. And in 2004, she and Roy had a second son, who they named Roland.

Then, tragedy struck again. In September 2008, Tom Thomas became violently ill after eating boiled tapioca, dying soon after. Jolly was the only person with him that afternoon. Once again, she explained the death as a result of cardiac problems. Police suspect that the two successful murders might have emboldened her- because three years later, in October 2011, her husband Roy also died, after eating a dinner that she had cooked for him.

That was when Roy’s uncle, Mathew Manjadiyil, insisted on a post-mortem. Conducted at the Kozhikode Medical College, it revealed the presence of potassium cyanide in his body. Jolly’s new explanation was that Roy had committed suicide because of debt, and she pleaded with her family not to talk about it and ‘spoil the family reputation’. Though police had registered a case, they closed the investigation based on her statement. Jolly also allegedly used her political contacts to bury the story, but one person who refused to accept her explanation was Mathew. This led to the fourth of the six murders-in April 2014, Mathew collapsed and died after drinking a cup of coffee Jolly had poisoned with cyanide.

Around this time, Jolly became close to Shaju Zacharia, the son of Tom’s brother, Zacharia. A high school teacher, Shaju was the only son of a wealthy family and had two children- a son and a daughter -with his wife, Sily. In May 2014, just days after Mathew’s death, Jolly travelled to Shaju’s home in Kodanchery to attend the holy communion of his son. Reaching early in the morning, she helped cook breakfast and then volunteered to feed their daughter, two-year-old Alphine. Soon after, Alphine fell violently ill, and was rushed to hospital. Though Alphine died two days later, on May 3, Jolly once again evaded suspicion- Alphine was asthmatic, and had been receiving treatment since birth.

The last victim was Alphine’s mother. In January 2016, while at a dental clinic with Sily, Jolly allegedly poisoned a glass of water and gave it to her to drink. After Sily’s death, no one raised doubts or demanded a post-mortem. And a year later, Shaju and Jolly were married. This hasty marriage- alongside other suspicious activities, such as Jolly inheriting her family’s property based on a will allegedly made by Tom Thomas in 2008- is what led to questions being asked. Based on Rojo Thomas’s report, police began investigating the string of deaths, finally concluding that these were all murders.