A decade later, Karnataka girl’s rape and murder remains a mystery, as court acquits lone accused

Despite 3 agencies probing the case, Additional Sessions and Special Court for POCSO Offences acquits Santhosh Rao for want of evidence.

ByBellie Thomas

Published Jun 17, 2023 | 3:17 PMUpdatedJun 17, 2023 | 3:18 PM

The sensational rape and murder case of Saujanya, the prime accused Santhosh Rao (Left)

More than a decade after a 17-year-old girl was raped and murdered, justice still eludes — despite a public outcry, a series of protests and probes by the local police, the Crime Investigation Department (CID), and the CBI.

On Friday, 16 June, the 50th Additional Sessions and Special Court for POCSO Offences acquitted the lone accused, Santhosh Rao, arrested for raping and murdering the PUC student in the Dakshina Kannada district.

The incident happened in October 2012.

The girl, a resident of Ujjire in Belthangady, was pursuing her second PUC at the local SDM College when she went missing on 10 October, 2012. The police suspected that the victim had been raped and murdered after finding her body dumped near a forested area at Pangala in Dharamasthala.

Her father Chandrappa Gowda, a PWD contractor, filed a missing complaint with the Belthangady police station after she had gone incommunicado. The girl was heading home after college when she went missing.

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The Ujjire raoe and murder case sparked widespread protests in Coastal Karnataka, forcing the state government to hand over the probe to the CID.

However, the protesters and several organisations expressed their lack of trust in the CID probe as influential and powerful people were said to be involved in the case. They demanded a CBI probe.

In November 2013, the state government handed the case over to the CBI.

The CBI filed a fresh FIR and chargesheet before the 17th Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) that transferred the case, directing the Principal District Court to hand it over to a POCSO Special Court, CBI sources told South First.

Dissatisfied by the CBI probe, the girl’s father demanded a re-probe by the same agency in 2018. But a single bench of the high court’s Justice K Somashekar dismissed his petition.

On Friday, Special Judge CB Santhosh of the CBI court acquitted Santhosh Rao, citing a lack of evidence.

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The crime trail

On 10 October, 2012, the girl’s body clad in her college uniform, was found behind bushes alongside the road to Pangala. Her bag was lying nearby. The police suspected that she had been raped and murdered. Her hands were tied with her shawl and there was mud on her legs, indicating a struggle.

Her uniform was torn and preliminary investigations revealed that she had been strangled to death after a sexual assault. The gold chain and earrings found intact on her body ruled out the murder-for-gain possibility.

The police concluded that the student had alighted from a bus at Netravati bus stand and was heading home when she was dragged into the forested area by at least four to six men. The police arrived at the number after analysing the signs of struggle found at the scene. Investigators suspected that the incident was a case of gangrape and murder.

The girl was the youngest daughter of her parents.

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Massive uproar over case

The incident led to a massive uproar in various colleges in and around Dakshina Kannada. Students’ organisations and civil society groups, the ABVP,  DYFI, and SFI staged protests in Belthangady, seeking justice for the girl.

The Belthangady police arrested Santhosh Rao from Bajagoli. He had been sitting alone near Gommata Betta before local residents thrashed him and handed over the suspect to the police, a day after the girl’s body was found.

The police said three people, Dheeraj Jain, Uday Jain, and Malik Jain witnessed the residents apprehending Rao. Later, the police learnt that Rao was mentally unsound and he alone could not have committed the crime. Investigators suspected the involvement of more people, but the probe headed towards a dead end.

However, the then Superintendent of Police Abhishek Goyal concluded that Rao alone had committed the crime. He took the statements of a psychiatrist and Rao’s father to supplement his argument.

Additionally, Rao had led the police to the crime scene. The officer asserted that mentally unstable people, too, could commit such crimes.

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Family suspects police version

However, the girl’s father was not convinced. Several others, too, felt that Rao was trying to shield the other accused by feigning mental illness. Additionally, several people told the police they had seen Rao buying three food packets from a restaurant.

He was also spotted with two others, which made the people suspect that he was not a lone wolf.

The witnesses, Dheeraj, Uday and Malik, too, had seen him with others. It was then that the girl’s family sought a CID probe.

Meanwhile, the case started turning political with Shree Eesha Vittaldas Swamiji of the Kemar matha calling for a fresh probe. He said that he would file a public interest litigation for a probe into all unnatural deaths in Dharmasthala.

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The then MLA Vasanth Banegra appealed to the members of the public to stop spreading rumours, and messages accusing the Congress government of shielding the culprits. It was then that the case was handed over to the CID.

Even as the CID started its probe, the girl’s family approached the Child Rights’ Commission and alleged that she was murdered at a different spot and the body was later dumped in the area where the police claimed the crime had been committed.

“The victim’s family was dissatisfied with the investigation,” a senior police officer privy to the case told South First.

A series of protests, rallies, and demonstrations at the Mysore Bank Circle in Bengaluru followed. Attempts to gherao the chief minister’s residence were also made.

CBI takes over the probe

On 6 November, 2013, the then home minister KJ George announced the government’s decision to hand over the case to the CBI,

The CBI’s charge sheet named Santhosh Rao as the prime accused and also named Dheeraj, Uday, and Malik Jain as witnesses.

However, the high court stayed the CBI probe after the three eyewitnesses filed a petition. They challenged the CBI court order disallowing further probe, saying the charge sheet had already been filed.

In April 2017, the CBI special court in Bengaluru granted bail to Rao, a resident of Bajagoli in Karkala, who was arrested on 11 October, 2012. He was lodged in the Mangaluru prison.

In January 2021, Chandrappa Gowda moved the high court requesting it to order a CBI re-investigation into the case. A bench of Justice K Somashekar turned down his plea.

The high court observed that the probe was carried out by the Belthangady local police, the CID as well as the CBI, which even filed the charge sheet.

On Friday, the acquittal of Santhish Rao meant there is no closure for the family — they will have to live with the fact that nobody killed their daughter.