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The Case of Sri Lanka’s First Serial Killer?

In 2012, we became unwilling witnesses to a series of murders and rapes, in the misty villages of Kotakethana and Kahawatte, in the district of Ratnapura. The victims were all women, and the perpetrator remained frighteningly elusive.

This wasn’t the first time that women were brutally killed in the same area, nor was it to be the last. Similar murders dated back to 2008  –  little did we know at the time that these would continue until 2015.

Although several arrests were made over the years, the courts are yet to convict anyone for these murders. Where two cases are concerned, the police were able to pinpoint specific motives the remaining deaths however remained a mystery.

What’s more, the similarities in the gruesome murders led many to speculate that the murders could be linked, and/or could have been the work of a prolific serial killer, although police initially denied a connection between the murders.  

Finally, a suspect arrested in 2011 confessed to three killings. However, when it was discovered that he had a history of psychological trauma, and when his arrest did not put an end to the killings which continued on until 2015, people in the area were left baffled and alarmed.

Following the last murder in September 2015,  police have finally singled out the most potential suspect, who was arrested based on DNA evidence. The suspect is currently being tried for at least seven of the murders.

The murders, and resulting police investigations, have filled many news reports over the years, most of which are currently scattered across the cybersphere. With the assistance of the Police Media Spokesperson and Kahawatte Police OIC Rohan Olugalla, we’ve compiled a timeline of the murders and events that followed, to add better perspective to what might just become the story of Sri Lanka’s first (and hopefully last) convicted serial killer.

  • July 21, 2008 The body of Sellama Mariyamma (56), in Kahawatta is found by village residents. The Judicial Medical Officer’s conclusion is that she had been raped and strangled to death. One suspect is arrested, but the case is postponed in November 2014.
  • November 19, 2008  – Ariyawathie (52) living in Kotakethana, Kahawatta, is killed while on her way to her sister’s residence, and her body buried near the Kotakethana lake. Four suspects are arrested.
  • June 4, 2010  – Baby Nona (48) is attacked by an unidentified individual while bathing in a nearby stream. She is raped and strangled to death, and her body is dumped in the river. One suspect is arrested and remanded.
  • December 21, 2010  – Heen Menika (88) from Dimbulawala is attacked and killed. She is raped and her body displays deep wounds made by a sharp instrument.

All the victims were single elderly women who lived alone. They were all raped and brutally attacked by a sharp weapon and their bodies were dumped near or in the Kotakethana lake. In early 2011, a suspect was arrested, and he confessed to three killings. Investigations and medical opinions however suggested a history of psychological trauma.

Furthermore, this arrest did not put an end to the mysterious killings, which resumed in April 2011. This time around, the killer had changed his modus operandi, and torched all his victims.

  • January 24, 2011 – Police arrest a 29 year old coconut plucker, who confesses to three murders. He is produced before courts, and later referred to mental health specialists, while being held in remand.
  • April 23, 2011  – Karunawathie (66) of Niladura, Kahawatta, is attacked. Her body is dragged from the scene of the crime, onto a bed, and set ablaze.
  • May 20, 2011  – Heen Menika (82) is killed while she is asleep. Her body is torched and the murderer escapes through an open window. One suspect is arrested and later released on bail.
  • June 06, 2011  – The four suspects arrested for the second murder are released due to lack of evidence.
  • June 07, 2011 One suspect is arrested and put in remand custody. The case gets postponed in November 2014.
  • June 20, 2011  – Jayanthi Menika (54), also from Niladura, is attacked while returning from the weekly market. She is sexually assaulted before being murdered.
2012 saw a drastic escalation in the amount of murders, and a change in the perpetrator’s methods.

In the year 2012 Kahawatta reported three double murders. This is the point where the murders escalated to a drastic level, and a change was noted in the perpetrator’s methods and behaviour.

  • January 31, 2012  – Nayana Nilmini (52) is found murdered in her house, and her daughter’s body is found two days later, several kilometers away in a forest area. Kavindya Sellahewa (19) and her mother’s decomposed bodies are found stripped naked, with marks made by a sharp instrument on the body, neck, and head of each woman.
  • March 07, 2012  – Four suspects are arrested by the police. One suspect is later revealed to be coordinating secretary to Minister John Seneviratne. The arrests instigate riots in the area, where villagers set fire to the houses of the arrested suspects.
  • March 11, 2012 – Media reports suggest involvement of a narcotics racket, which may have led to the mother-daughter double murder.
  • May 31, 2012  – Two sisters, Sethunge Dayawathie (51) and Sethunge Tilakawathie (58), are found dead in their home, which has been burnt down. At this point, police are unsure if the women were murdered, or if their deaths were the result of an accidental fire.
  • July 19, 2012– Premawathie Hewagamage (63), and her daughter Pushpa Kumari (32), are killed with a sharp weapon. The bodies are dragged to a bed and set on fire.
  • October 31, 2012  – U. D. Chandrawathie (66) from Warapitiya, Kotakethana, a village in Kahawatta, is found murdered in her home. She is found dead in the compound of her house, with wounds on her body bearing the mark of a sharp weapon.

No murders or attempts are recorded in the year 2013. Yet, the only murder to occur in 2014, was not the work of the suspected serial killer. Another suspect was arrested, and the murder was revealed to be the result of a feud between two Kovils in the area.

  • October 22, 2014– The body of J. Thilakarani (31), who was living with a cohabiting partner, is recovered from the Kotakethana lake. Initially, the cohabiting partner was suspected for the killing, but later a neighbour was arrested in connection with an issue related to the Kovil. The reason for murder had been a feud between two neighbouring Kovils.
  • November 18, 2014  – One of the suspects arrested in connection with the murder and later released on bail, is found dead in his home. The 50 year old suspect had committed suicide after consuming poison.
  • April 06, 2015  – The body of Chandrani Swarnalatha (39) is found caught in some tree branches bent down over the Kotakethana lake. The autopsy examination of the remains reveal that the cause of death is blunt force trauma to the head. Her 18 year old son, who was arrested for the crime, confessed to killing her over a feud with her.
  • March 10, 2015  – Genetech Molecular Diagnostic Research Institute (GMDRI) presents the information of a common DNA profile they uncovered after compiling data from all crime scenes. Biological samples taken from vaginal swabs and a betel spit had confirmed that a particular individual had been present at four crime scenes with six murders. Yet, an individual with a matching DNA profile is not found.
  • May 28, 2015  – Three suspects, including Minister Seneviratne’s coordinating secretary, are acquitted following the negative DNA comparison test results. The release of the suspects again initiates riots in the village.  
  • September 28, 2015  – The mutilated body of Nadan Papu (48) is found in a tea estate in Opatha, Kahawatta. According to the Judicial Medical Officer who conducts the post mortem examination, the cause of death is internal haemorrhaging in the brain, and five serious stab wounds to the body. The autopsy also adds that she had been assaulted by a heavy object which caused the internal haemorrhaging.
  • December 11, 2015  – Neil Lakshman (35) is arrested for the last murder that occurred in the area. Biological samples taken from the suspect match the common DNA profile that was found by the GMDRI. If found guilty by the courts, the suspect will be the first serial killer to be arrested in Sri Lanka.
  • December 29, 2015  – Court directs suspect Neil Lakshman to psychiatric assessment, and also orders that he be held in remand till January 12, 2016.
GMDRI’s common DNA profile led to the arrest of Neil Lakshman, who if found guilty by courts, will be the first serial killer to be arrested in Sri Lanka. Image Credit: alternet.org

The suspect is being tried for the murders of seven different women, and since court proceedings are still ongoing, do watch out for updates in Roar’s Weekly News Roundup.

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