"Aaftab is a smart and confident liar. He showed no remorse, nor did he have any fear of getting caught," a senior inspector at the Manikpur police station in Mumbai told The Quint, recalling his meetings with the accused in the Shraddha Walkar murder case.
The gruesome murder, which took place at the couple's rented flat in Delhi's Chhatarpur, may have gone into cold storage if not for the Mumbai Police.
Shraddha's father, Vikas Madan Walkar, approached the Manikpur police station in Vasai West in October and submitted a written complaint that his daughter had been missing for the last six months. Without any jurisdiction or formal orders to investigate, Manikpur cops say they took suo motu cognisance and launched an inquiry.
"Both their residences fall under the jurisdiction of other police stations as they resided in other parts of Mumbai. We actually had no connection with their case. But when the victim's father approached us with the application, we asked him to file a missing complaint in Delhi. But the next day, our seniors asked us to look into the matter."Sampatrao Patil, Senior Police Inspector, Manikpur police station told The Quint
Patil added, "At first, I was reluctant. Then, I thought that it was about a young girl who has gone missing. So, at least, on humanitarian grounds, we must find out what happened to her. We decided to give it a shot. We registered a missing complaint."
'Never Doubted Aaftab at First Glance'
The Manikpur Police put inspector Sachin Sanap on the case. His first task was to locate and bring in Shraddha's friends, including Aaftab Poonawala, for questioning. After taking down statements from the victim's father Vikas and friend Laxman Nadar, the police told The Quint they were "certain that something had happened to her."
Nadar and Shraddha's father had, by then, told the police that Poonawala used to assault her and that their relationship was abusive and toxic.
After their families opposed their interfaith relationship, 27-year-old Shraddha and the accused Poonawala had shifted to Delhi in May 2022 merely days before he killed her in a fit of rage.
"His body language was too calm and composed. In fact, he was giving us ideas on how to track and locate her. In our first meeting with him, we never doubted him. He was called in for questioning twice before he was arrested," Patil told The Quint.
The needle of suspicion already pointed to Poonawala, but there was nothing to back it.
How Manikpur Police Connected the Dots
During the course of their investigation, Patil and his team kept a close watch on technical evidence, like mobile tower location, bank transactions, and call records. This led them to a UPI transaction from Shraddha's mobile which gave away Poonawala's lies.
Notably, Shraddha's last known location was in Delhi – the same as Poonawala. However, Poonawala had told the cops that Shraddha had walked out of their house after picking a fight with him. He added that she came back again a few days later to collect her belongings, and that was when he saw her last.
But on 26 May, there was a transfer of Rs 54,000 from the victim's account to Poonawala's account. This contradicted the accused's previous statement that Shraddha left home on 22 May, and that there was no trace of her after that.
"At this point, we knew that some tragedy had happened to the girl. We feared that she could be dead. Without alerting the accused, our team flew to Delhi and informed the cops there. They reached Poonawala's Chhatarpur residence and verified the address. They then detained him for questioning. At first, he refused to answer anything. He pleaded innocent," added Patil.
But as the investigation proceeded, Poonawala reportedly confessed to killing his partner by strangulation, chopping her body into pieces, and stacking them up in a refrigerator for nearly 20 days.
An FIR was then registered against Poonawala under Sections 365 (kidnapping or abducting with intent secretly and wrongfully to confine person), 302 (murder), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence) of the Indian Penal Code on 10 November by the Delhi Police, after his confession.
Senior inspector Patil said that he was glad he decided to pursue Shraddha's case. "For us, the safety of any woman is of utmost importance. The sole reason we took up this case was because it involved a missing woman."
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)