How two teenagers duped everyone into believing that the 3-year-old they kidnapped and strangled was alive.
Three-year-old Zunera Ahmed, strangled with a cord hours after her teenaged neighbour allegedly kidnapped her, had been dead for 19 days before the family began getting the ransom calls.All the while, her body lay on a terrace an arm’s length from her tenement home at Duncan Road in Nagpada, bundled in a bag, the stench camouflaged by a runnel down below, while cops searched every manhole and lane to find her.

The accused teen, who goes to college in south Mumbai, was aided by a friend and, the child’s parents now suspect, also by his family, who allegedly did their darnedest to throw cops off their scent with fibs and false help.

The main accused and his friend were produced in the court for juvenile offenders on Monday and sent to a detention home in Dongri.

On the Saturday of December 24, when the JJ Marg police found Zunera’s body stashed next to a water tank on the first-floor terrace of a neighbouring building — 19 days after she went missing — they detained the neighbour and his college friend, both said to be around 17, though the child’s family is contesting the age.

During interrogation, the teens admitted to every lurid detail of the stunningly grim crime: how the main accused knocked her unconscious with chloroform, how she started bleeding from her nose, how he got scared by her family’s frantic search, which drove him to throttle her with the cord of a cell phone charger, before the two of them concealed her body in plain sight and, weeks later, began making the ransom demand of Rs 1 crore. In court, they said they had been beaten up by the police before they owned up.

The crime occurred on December 5, and it wasn’t until two weeks later on December 19, that the two accused made contact with Zunera’s father Mumtaz to demand Rs 1 crore, thinking the probe was growing cold.

Mumtaz thinks the teen’s family is tangled in the crime, or at least its cover-up; his father deflected the investigators’ attention away from their tenement, he alleges. “I should have known from the start. They offered more help to look for Zunera than anyone else in the neighbourhood. I thought they were such nice people. But they were trying to hide the crime,” he told Mirror.

Backing his suspicions, the 37-year-old father said that after he returned from the vain search for his daughter on December 5, the suspect’s father approached him around midnight, seemingly helpfully, saying a ‘medicine man’ near Mahim Dargah could divine where Zunera was. “He suggested that I visit him immediately. I was so frazzled at the time I was willing to do anything to trace my daughter,” said Mumtaz, a scrapdealer.

So he set off for Mahim straight away, and when he reached around 12:30 am, the accused’s father called him up. “He asked me where I was and I told him. He said reassuringly baba would come up with something to find my daughter.” The so-called baba had nothing to offer beyond empty assurances that Zunera would return. In desperation, Mumtaz made his way to another such man in CST, before going to JJ Marg police to lodge a missing complaint. He got home by 3:30 am.

It is over these three hours that Mumtaz suspects the accused dumped the body on the terrace with the help of his parents. “When I think about it now, it all falls in place. Everyone was asleep, giving them enough time to get rid of my daughter’s body,” he said. The police are yet to pick up evidence for his claim.

Over the following days, the family extended a lot of help to trace Zunera, Mumtaz said; the suspect himself went to mosques in the area, asking them to make an announcement about his “missing sister”. “They brought us food. They also got some priests to our house to pray. The boy’s father gave me a charm to hang at my door, stating it’d bring luck, and my daughter back.”

Ransom run

Days elapsed. Then on December 19, Mumtaz got the first ransom call. The man on the other end of the line asked for Rs 1 crore for the safe return of his daughter. Mumtaz told the cops, who instructed him to engage with the kidnappers and negotiate the ransom if he gets a call back.

For three days after that, Mumtaz got a call daily, with brusque instructions to keep the money ready. But he managed to strike up negotiations. “We asked the child’s father to bargain with the accused, who eventually agreed to release the girl for Rs 28 lakh,” a police source said.

On the morning of December 23, Mumtaz got a series of 40 calls beginning before noon, with instructions on how the parley was going to transpire. Over the next five-odd hours, Mumtaz would keep going back and forth in a train, his every move dictated by the callers.

The first call at 11.25 am instructed him to be ready to depart with the bag of money. The next directed him to board a train from CST and head to Titwala, a far-north central suburb. That’s where a police team got on his tail, even as many others stationed themselves along the central line tracks to Titwala. Yet another group of cops was busy tracking all the calls being placed.

After Mumtaz boarded a train at CST, the callers asked him to get off at Mumbra, about an hour and a half away. “When I told them I had already crossed Mumbra, they asked me to get off at the next station, Diva, and take a train back towards CST.”

Mumtaz did as directed. The next call instructed him to fling the cash from the running train on the tracks between Mumbra and Kalwa. But he said he wouldn’t until he saw his daughter. They told him she was unconscious. (All this communication came to pass over many calls, all curt.)

The last call he got, at 5.11 pm, was cut short abruptly: the callers, police would later find out, had spotted the cops, switched off the phone, and abandoned the venture.

Mumtaz returned home with the cops, who had enough clues now about the teenager’s involvement. Other than circumstantial evidence, the kidnapper’s calls were traced, point after point, to locations matching with the accused’s cell phone.

The day after, on Saturday, they picked up the suspect and, later, his partner in crime. Their interrogation yielded a confession, cops said.

The duo had used three different SIM cards, cops said. “By the way they went about it, the teens seem to have taken their cues from crime shows and films,” a policeman said.

She’d have turned 4

Until they confessed in custody, Mumtaz had harboured hopes of seeing Zunera alive.

“It was her birthday on December 21. She would have turned four. Between all the ransom calls I got that day, I had been praying for her wellbeing, not knowing she was long gone.”

Mumtaz doubts the main accused is a minor: he says he got to know that the teen had flunked two years and was, therefore, around 18. Police sources said they had retrieved the boy’s birth certificate from his school and it indicates he is a few months older than 17.

On Monday, the accused were produced before the Juvenile Justice Board, which sent them to the Dongri children’s home. In the court, the main accused said he had been beaten up by the police, and the court asked for him to be sent for a medical examination.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (zone I) Manoj Kumar Sharma confirmed that the main accused was taken for a medical checkup on Monday evening. He said the police have appealed to the court to try both the accused as adults.

Commenting on Mumtaz’s allegations implicating the the boy’s parents, Sharma said, “We are questioning the parents as well. We have not found any evidence against them so far. However, they have not been given a clean chit either.”

The accused’s family was not available to comment. The house is locked, and under police watch.