Mumbai: In a case that could have been straight out of a movie depicting gangsters and their bloated egos, four youth from Malad (East) were stripped naked, their throats slit and bodies set on fire because one of them dared to stare at a local criminal and his hoodlums.
On Saturday evening, one of the victims, Bharat Kudle (27) and his friend Pradeep Dhuri alias Sachin, both of whom work for a firm dealing in water purifiers, went to a doctor's clinic in Shivaji Nagar behind Ramesh Hotel in Malad (East) to collect the payment for maintenance work undertaken on a purifier.
According to the Kurar police, around 7.30 pm, when Kudle went inside the clinic to collect the payment, Dhuri was waiting for him outside.
He was watching three people consuming alcohol across the road when one of them took offence at his 'staring' and asked him to stop. "In typical gunda language, the men told him 'Kya ghurta hai be, bahut tashan hai kya tereko?'" said a police source.
Unaware that the men were actually Uday Pathak, a local criminal and history sheeter who was externed by the Mumbai Police, and his cronies, Dhuri retorted in equally crude language.
One of the gang members threw a bottle at Dhuri for this and Kudle, who had come out of the clinic on hearing the commotion, jumped to his friend's rescue.
With both sides unwilling to cede ground, the slanging match quickly escalated into a fistfight, prompting Kudle and Dhuri to call their friends for support.
And, soon enough, a group of 10 of Kudle's friends including the other three victims, Chetan Dhule (24), Dinesh Ahire (26), and Ganesh Karanje (24) reached Kurar Village and subjected Pathak and the other two to a sound thrashing.
Unwilling to be outdone, Pathak made a few calls himself and called in an army of 20-odd gang members armed with chains and other crude weaponry.
"When the boys saw the armed men beating a few of them up and snatching their mobile phones all of them fled the spot. Only Bharat couldn't manage to escape and had to face their wrath alone," said Riyaz Sheikh, a friend of the victims.
The men took turns at beating up Kudle and then, around 12.30 am, decided that they wanted to teach the other boys a lesson as well. After going through his phone, they made Kudle call Dhule, a banjo player, to discuss a fictitious show he had bagged for him.
When Dhule reached the spot they had agreed to meet at, he was picked up in an SUV by Pathak's cronies and kidnapped. The accused then called up Ahire and told him that Kudle and Dhule were drunk and were lying unconscious near Tanaji Nagar in Malad (East).
The unsuspecting Ahire, who was having dinner, reached there and was nabbed by the gang as well. Ahire was then made to call Karanje and he was kidnapped as well.
"All four were rounded up by the accused by 12.45 am. Their phones were switched off by the men and we wouldn't have known of their kidnapping had Chetan Singhade, who was involved in the scuffle with Pathak's men, not seen Karanje being shuffled into an SUV.
He informed us and we reached the police station to lodge a complaint in the wee hours of Sunday," said Pravin Pawar, another friend of the victims.
Worried at not hearing from the four men until Sunday evening and alarmed at the alleged police apathy, the victims' families and friends launched a manhunt for them. The four were finally found in the forests of Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
"The men were lying naked with deep cuts on their throats. The bodies were drenched in petrol and were partially charred. The accused must have left after setting the bodies on fire and the rain must have doused them," said Ramrao Pawar, additional commissioner of police (north region).
According to Pawar, the cause of the murders was the fight near the doctor's clinic. "We have registered a case of kidnapping and murder against 10 accused persons, including Pathak. We suspect that the accused might have brought the victims to the forest in a car.
They might have then slit the throats of each of the victims after making them strip so that they could not escape. After killing the men, the accused smashed the faces of the victims with huge rocks and then set them on fire.
"The main accused, Uday Pathak, is a history sheeter with many cases against him. His father is serving a life sentence in an Uttar Pradesh prison.
When we showed Pathak's photo to the locals after the murder, they recognised him as the person who was fighting with Kudle. We have identified two other accused as well and have launched a manhunt for all three," said Pawar.
Police sources said that they nabbed two accused from Bhagwati Hospital last evening. They were admitted there after the fight between the two groups on Saturday. "We are questioning them to find out whether they were involved in the murder," said the investigating officer.
A postmortem will be conducted on the victims' bodies at Bhagwati Hospital today.
Almost 12 hours after the men's bodies were recovered, the Kurar police were working on a theory of a tiff over one of the victims eve teasing a girl in Pathak's locality leading to the murders.
Eyewitness and police accounts indicate that Pathak had accompanied the girl, whose identity remains unknown, to the Kurar police station on Friday a day before the incident to file a non-congnisable complaint of eve teasing against one of the victims.
Pathak had also approached the Kurar police station after the fight on Saturday with the girl in tow to state that the fight had taken place over the eve teasing incidents and file a complaint against the victims.
He left without filing a complaint because an angry crowd of locals had already gathered at the police station to make the cops register a missing complaint regarding the four men. It is not clear at this stage whether the girl is related to Pathak.