Transcript: The Curry Murder | Singapore

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On the 9th of January 1987, an informant walked into a police station in Singapore with a shocking story. The man told detective Alagamalai [Algah-malay] that he knew about a gruesome murder that took place three years before. According to the informer, Ayakanno Marimuthu, a live-in caretaker at the Public Utilities Board holiday chalets in Changi, was killed and dismembered. His killers disposed of his body by cutting him up into bite-size pieces and using his flesh to make a curry dish.

The detective was disgusted by the story, and thought the informer had a vivid imagination. But the story was so shocking, he could not get it out of his mind. He decided to talk to his superiors in the Crime Investigation Department. They, too, were sceptical but realised it would be irresponsible NOT to follow up, and Detective Alagamalai was given the go-ahead to open an investigation. Singapore is known for its low crime rate, and police intended to keep things safe.

In this case with many twists and turns, investigators had to keep an open mind. The mystery of the caretaker’s alleged death made some people wonder if there ever was a murder in the first place…

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When Singapore detective Alagamalai learnt about an alleged murder that took place three years prior, he found the grisly details hard to stomach. He later recalled his first impressions:

“I was disgusted and couldn’t believe what he was telling me was the truth then. I listened with disbelief as he told me that three men had killed an Indian caretaker in an Orchard Road church in 1984 and had disposed of the body by chopping it up and cooking it with curry and rice.”

It didn’t take the detective long to locate a missing persons’ report. According to the statement, Ayakanno Marimuthu’s wife, Nagaratha Vally Ramiah reported him missing on the 18th of December 1984. According to Nagaratha, her husband, then 37 years old, travelled to Genting Highlands in Malaysia on the 12th of December and never returned.

By the time detective Alagmalai caught up with her, Nagaratha was working at the Foochow Methodist Church on Racecourse Road. Her three teenage children lived with her at the time. She confirmed the information she had given police in 1984 and said that her husband was still missing. She claimed that she had not heard from him or seen him in three years.

At a loss, the detective went back to his informer – a hawker who often supplied him with tips. He tried to get as much information as possible. How did the hawker come to know about this story in the first place? It was clear that the hawker had nothing to do with the murder, and he told police everything he knew. He claimed that he had overheard a man boasting about the murder in a bar – the man, was Nagaratha’s brother.

To kick off the investigation, police needed to confirm if Ayakanno ever left Singapore for Malaysia or not. He was hardly getting by on his caretaker’s salary, and a sudden trip seemed out of place. The trip was reportedly to a casino because he wanted to gamble. He had borrowed $600 from his employer to pay for his kids’ schoolbooks and used it for that purpose. He was broke, so something didn’t quite add up with this story. Also, he had applied for leave starting on December 21st, so why would he travel to Malaysia ten days before?

His investigation led detective Alagmalai to 30 witnesses, but no one could say for sure what had happened to Ayakanno Marimuthu. However, with background information about the victim, investigators learnt about his complicated relationship with his in-laws. One of which was a butcher – his wife’s brother, Balakrishna Ramiah.

On the 23rd of March 1987, CID launched a special operation to detain suspects. The raids kicked off at 2am, and five police teams arrived at different locations simultaneously: a flat in Jurong East, the caretakers’ quarters at the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church and holiday chalets on Netheravon Road. By 8am, police had six suspects in custody. All of them were Ayakanno’s closest relatives: his wife, his mother-in-law, his three brothers-in-law and his sister-in-law.

Nagaratha’s eldest brother, Balakrishna Ramiah worked as a mutton butcher at a shop on Commonwealth Avenue, while Rathakrishnana Ramaya was the caretaker at holiday chalets on Netheravon Road. Another brother, Shanmugam Chandra, was a caretaker at the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church. Their mother Kamachi Krishnasamy was a housewife and Mary Maunee, who was married to Rathakrishnana, worked in a factory.

All of the suspects vehemently denied any involvement in Ayakanno’s murder, and insisted that he left on his own accord, telling them he was going to Malaysia. After two days of relentless interrogation, one of them cracked. Police never revealed who it was that decided to speak up. Either way, this person revealed the gruesome details of what happened to their missing relative. 

According to the person, Ayakanno ’s three brothers-in-law lured him to the caretaker’s quarters at the Presbyterian Church on the afternoon on December 12th 1984. They had spent the day together, and most assumed that they drank heavily. That night, Ayakanno was bludgeoned in the kitchen with an iron rod and his brothers-in-law dismembered his body.

Together, they cooked the remains, the flesh as well as crushed pieces of bone, with chilli, spices and rice, making nasi briyani, a curried rice dish, typically made with chicken or lamb. They used a large aluminium pot to cook the curry. Once his remains were disguised in the curry, they scooped it into black plastic bags and went about disposing it across town, in various public trash cans.

Director of the CID, Assistant Commissioner Jagjit Singh [Jug-yeet], said the case was… 

"…one of the most unusual and bizarre murder cases handled and solved by [the] police – unusual because the remains of the body have never been found and the deceased had not even been reported to have been murdered; bizarre because of the manner in which the body was disposed of".

But why would this family band together to commit such a heinous crime? A newspaper report of the murder in March 1987 claimed that Ayakanno was a violent drunk who was both physically and emotionally abusive towards his wife. A spokesman for the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church said the husband and wife were a hardworking pair. He confirmed that Ayakanno was rather temperamental, but after each outburst he calmed down and apologised to his wife. 

Four days after the arrests, on March 27th 1987, Nagaratha and her three brothers were charged with the murder of Ayakanno Marimuthu. Their mother and Ayakanno ’s sister-in-law were charged the following day with abetting the murder. The six were brought to court where they stood to answer for their deeds.

The hearing only lasted a couple of minutes – 12 to be exact – and prosecution declared that there was insufficient evidence to proceed. There was no body, no murder weapon and the cooking pot believed to have been used in making the curry was never located. There was also not enough evidence to prove that Ayakannu did NOT go to Malaysia.

District Judge, Zainol Abeedin, discharged all of the accused. This kept the case open. An acquittal, on the other hand, would have meant they could never be charged with the same crime again. The prosecutor made a public statement, saying that they will continue to investigate the matter, and that charges would be made in future.  

After the hearing, Nagaratha, her mother and sister-in-law were released, but Nagaratha’s three brothers were detained. They remained in Changi prison under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions Act). They appealed their detention from the start but was not freed until June 1991 – four years after they were arrested. They were released without any conditions.

Due to the gruesome details of the case, it became a media sensation. The so-called "Curry Murder" was adapted for television as an episode of the drama series Doctor Justice and aired in Singapore in 1995. An article about the episode featured in The Straits Times, and angered Nagaratha’s family. They sued the newspaper, claiming that the article implied they were guilty of murder. The court ruled in favour of the newspaper, stating that they only used facts in the article. A secondary suit against producers of the TV show, was also dismissed. 

In this case, one has to consider three possible theories. Firstly, giving the accused the benefit of the doubt: Ayakanno ’s wife was telling the truth and he did actually go to Malaysia and that he disappeared there – either by choice or maybe he was a victim of foul play. The second theory is that the police informer was right, and that Ayakanno was in fact killed by his wife’s brothers, because he was an abusive husband to their sister.

The third theory is that the entire case was a hoax – an urban legend that made its way to the streets of Singapore, and that was then reported to police as an actual crime. To this day, the case remains a mystery, and no one knows for sure what happened to Ayakanno Marimuthu – or do they? There was no body, no murder weapon, no witnesses. Was this perhaps the perfect murder, making authorities doubt whether a crime was even committed at all…

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