Shimla: Much before forensics could gather all evidence from the murder spot, the Himachal Pradesh police had tracked down IIT-Delhi student Pragati Tibberwal’s killer. They did it with help from the popular social networking forum — Facebook.
In a news story published by the Indian Express on March 6, Hemlata Verma reports when the police arrived last Saturday at the crime scene— room 26 of Hotel Rashik on Shimla’s Cart Road — they found a dead girl, an answer sheet of a Bachelor of Architecture paper of IIT-Roorkee and a tissue-paper box that had the name ‘Pragati’ scribbled on it. There was also a laptop, but the police could not access it for almost four hours till forensics had collected the evidence it needed.
The police got the first lead from the hotel register. The couple had checked in under the name Gaurav Verma. The address given was Mankapur in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, which later was confirmed to be of Verma’s hometown. The next lead was the IIT-Roorkee answer sheet — also written by one Gaurav Verma.
While waiting for forensics to clear the room, investigating officer and Additional Superintendent of Police Madan Lal asked one of the hotel guests to access the IIT-Roorkee website.
Once they confirmed Verma’s course and year, the police floated the information on Facebook, rummaged through the namesakes till they came across the right Gaurav Verma. They found Verma’s Internet signature, checked his friend list and came upon the face that matched the dead girl’s. Her name was Pragati Tibberwal, and she was a student of textile engineering in IIT-Delhi, the police found.
Within hours, Superintendent of Police, Shimla, R M Sharma had contacted the administration of both IITs and found out about the two’s family and friends.
After forensics gave the green signal, the police accessed Pragati’s laptop. The information confirmed their hardening suspicion of Verma. A photograph of Pragati and Gaurav was the screensaver of the machine.
Officers then started calling his friends and also began to monitor the route of Verma’s cellphone — the number was provided by the institute. They found one friend was located close to Verma. They called up this person, and it turned out the friend was travelling on a train from Roorkee to Bhatinda and had seen Verma on it.
The police arrested him from the train while it was near Jagadhari, Haryana — in the early hours of February 28, less than two days after the crime was committed on the afternoon of February 26.
Gaurav Verma told police that the couple had checked in on the morning of February 26. Later that afternoon, they had a fight after Pragati confided in him about her previous relationships.
Verma told the police he strangled her around 1.30 pm while she was sleeping; then made a trip to Mall Road to buy a knife. He came back, slashed her wrists, hit her with an empty beer bottle and also stabbed her, he said. He too slit his wrists and lay down thinking he would be dead soon. The police said he was inebriated at that time.
But Verma awoke around 3.00 am, panicked and fled the hotel. He then took a taxi to Chandigarh where he tried to kill himself by drinking phenol. But he could not gulp down the toxic liquid, he told the police. Verma then left for Roorkee, from where he took a train to Bhatinda. He intended to jump in the middle of ongoing protests by Dera Sacha Sauda followers, who were up in arms against the administration after it registered a fresh case of murder against Dera chief Baba Gurmeet Ram Raheem. Verma had hoped to be killed by the mob as he had “lost the courage to commit suicide”, the police said.
Superintendent of police RM Sharma said, “We keep ourselves up to date about technology and its usages. Our knowledge helped us establish the relationship between the accused and the victim, and crack this case.”
The story was originally published in The Indian Express, March 6, 2010 with the by-line of Hemlata Verma