MARKED FOR MURDER by Bernard VanCuylenburg

MARKED FOR MURDER by Bernard VanCuylenburg

The author of “above” has given us a “new name”, one that I accept with pride. ” The A team” consists of, 
a)   the writer of “Marked for murder”himself. The name Bernard VanCuylenberg, whose “Sigiriya-Sagas” have already been read, and thoroughly enjoyed by more than 20,000 members, plus many others, I suppose, of eLanka, the “Premier” Website for Lankan/Aussies, in particular, owned and “operated” in Sydney, Aust. by
b)   Neil Jayasekera, whose “Internet- expertise” is amply obvious, &, in addition, runs a “tight Ship” with
c)   “Yours truly”, taking on the role of 1st Lieutenant,
58 years after leaving the Royal Ceylon Navy, to come to Australia, just to join another “Force” The “A” Team.

      From “reports” we have been getting, Bernard’s “Sigiriya Saga’s” have been read and thoroughly enjoyed by everyone who has taken the trouble to ingest what I would term “superb writing”. Hopefully, our readers out there, will not only read “our stuff”, they will then take the trouble to “comment”. We can NEVER get enough of “praise”, but if you are in a bad mood, and your comments are likely to be ” rotten”, take them with you & go “jump into the Yarra”.

     It was rather difficult to find the relevant video for this particular “title” but, your 1st Lieutenant does not wish to be “keel-hauled” Sir, so I have come up with a favourite “Country-Star” of mine, Gene Watson to sing “Ceylon”?, couldn’t have picked a better place to die”!
Please listen to Gene, folks, there is none better, and I would know thousands of girls who would “die” for him.

Desmond Kelly
Star of eLanka
(Editor-in-Chief).
 

MARKED FOR MURDER by Bernard VanCuylenburg

 

The sylvan surroundings, bracing climate and majestic mesmerizing landscapes of the  tea estates in  the plantation districts of Sri Lanka specially in the hill country, are an inspiration to the poet, artist, and philosopher. But beneath this facade  of nature at her very best, lie tales of dark secrets and  murder most foul, four of which I shall set down in this article. The four cases depicted are factual to the last detail. Perhaps one that became famous for all the wrong reasons was the  ‘ The Whitehouse Murder ‘ which took place in 1949. It was the English Bishop Reginald Heber who once said that “Every prospect pleases and only man is vile…….” In the beautiful hill country with its desolate valleys, hills of carpeted green, and flora of every description, every prospect was pleasing to the point of spiritual intoxication, but only man proved to be vile as other human beings were marked for murder………

Mr. Bruce Whitehouse was the Superintendent on Madampe estate, Rakwana. Every month he travelled to  Colombo to collect the staff/labourers wages. On these trips he always followed a set routine. Having collected the wages from the National & Grindlays Bank, he would visit  the Colombo Swimming Club for drinks and sometimes lunch, after which he drove back to Ratnapura. Mrs.Whitehouse usually accompanied him on these trips. Unknown to Mr.Whitehouse, his trips to Colombo and back were meticulously chartered and studied by none other than the  kingpin of the underworld in Colombo at the time  – a veritable Al Capone of the day –  the notorious and much feared “Laathara Baas “. This worthy gentleman was responsible for many crimes, murder included, and had fallen foul of the law on several occasions, but thanks to a slick lawyer, he always evaded being put away for life. “Laathara Baas” and his cronies were particularly interested in the trips Whithouse made to Colombo and back due to the large sum of money he carried on the return trip.

The criminal network was so well organised that they knew the exact day he would leave the estate. It  transpired later that on the return journey, he was  followed to Ratnapura on a few occasions by a car which kept its distance, in order to ensure that the murderous plan these thugs had in mind would succeed when it was eventually carried out. On that fateful day, true to form Whitehouse followed the script.”Humourous” is a word I do not care to use considering the events to follow, but into this drama comes  the humble  tomato ! Mr.Whitehouse had a fondness for tomatoes, and sometimes during these visits he would go to the Pettah market and purchase a sack or two of the best tomatoes to take back to his bungalow. On the day in question he did just that, and three sacks of tomatoes were placed in the boot of his car, side by side with the bags of cash. Now it happened that the bags of tomatoes bore a close resemblance to the bags of cash stacked side by side, and the odd mix played an important part in this sordid tale as would be seen later. So dear reader, steel  yourself for the action down the track, or in this case, along the Colombo – Ratnapura road. As usual on this day Whitehouse was followed to the bank, to his club, and then to the Pettah market  – and from there to Ratnapura. In the vehicle trailing him were “Laathara  Baas” himself and three of his hoodlums with intent to waylay the car at a designated spot, and steal the cash.

Unaware that they were being followed Mr.& Mrs.Whitehouse drove on, until at a sharp curve near the old bridge on the Ratnapura road a vehicle suddenly overtook theirs and blocked the road. Mr.Whitehouse slammed on the brakes, and before he could even begin to think, “Laathara Baas” and two of  his sidekicks,fully armed and masked, thrust a gun in his face demanding that he hand over the cash. If they thought that Whitehouse was an easy target, they thought  wrong. To their surprise he put up a defiant struggle, attempting to grapple with the thugs. It was three against one, and proved futile. Incensed at being thwarted, the thugs responded inthe manner best known to them   – they shot Mr.Whitehouse at point blank range, and while his horrified wife watched, opened the boot and took four bags of cash, making a quick getaway. Not quite ! – In their haste, thinking that the gunshot would by now attract some unwelcome attention, they had taken two bags of tomatoes along with two bags of cash, leaving the rest of the bags in the boot. Mrs.Whitehouse meanwhile, – full marks to this gallant lady, took the wheel and cradling her mortally wounded husband in her lap drove the car to the Palmgarden estate factory from where they attempted to get medical attention which was of no avail because Mr.Whitehouse died a few minutes later……..

The full  force of the law, and the best detectives worked on the case, which resulted in the arrest of “Lathara” Baas and his henchmen aftert three weeks. Following a trial which gripped the nation, “Laathara Baas” and his  cronies went the way that all “good” criminals go. He and three of them were hung at the Welikade jail,  while  one got a life sentence and died in prison. To this day, the bend in the road where this gruesome murder was committed is known as “Thakkali Wanguwa” (Tomato Bend). I have seen it and in fact on one occasion stopped  awhile at this bend attempting to visualise in my minds eye the horrible events as they happened that awful day in 1949. Unfortunately not many are aware of this spot because the  last book on this murder went out of print over fifty years ago, and with the passage of time events like this tend to be shrouded in the mists of memory.

In 1941 the Nuwaraeliya district was rocked by one of the most brutal murders which belied the bucolic charm of mountains  valleys hills and dales,and life in those salubrious climes. I refer to the murder of Mr.George Pope, the Superintendent of Stellenberg Group, Pupuressa. There is a direct link to Carolina Group on which my Dad planted, which I shall mention at the end of this episode. Mr.Pope was ever the strict disciplinarian and as tough as they came. He managed the estate with an iron fist, and woe betide anybody who stepped out of line. During this period, trade unions were formed on many plantations, and one day a group of labourers met him and requested permission to form a trade union on Stellenberg. Not only was their request refused, but they were soundly berated and threatened with dire consequences as far as their employment on the estate was concerned, if they  persisted with this demand.

Dismayed at the manner of the refusal in what seemed to them a  reasonable request, and angered by the manner in which they were addressed, the labourers held the matter in abeyance, and for awhile life on Stellenberg went on. Mr.Pope  used to visit the  Superintendent of the adjoining estate at least twice a month for dinner, and the latter would return the visit. He had a standing order that whenever he returned to the estate late at night, the tea maker on night duty or the factory officer had to telephone his bungalow and inform the bungalow appu to keep the garage doors open no sooner he passed the factory. On the night in question, Mr.Pope went  over for the usual dinner rendevouz, and left very late. Driving along the road to his bungalow, a fair distance  before the factory, the headlights of his car picked out some obstruction on the road which made it impossible for him to pass. It turned out to be the trunk of  a tree, and if  – there’s always an IF  in cases like this –  he had fined tuned his antenna it would have told him that something was not quite right. Call it bravery  or foolhardiness, but he stopped the car, went upto the tree trunk and attempted to dislodge it giving him just enough room to pass. The labourers who had laid this trap were hiding in the tea bushes armed with pruning knives. No sooner did he reach the trunk and attempt to move it, they attacked him in a fury of pent up anger with the pruning knives, holding nothing back. On that dark lonely road, in the dead of night he was literally hacked to pieces not by one, but by six men who fled the scene having committed this dastardly deed. George Pope lay on that road of death, the flesh ripped from his body, his life blood slowly draining away.

Meanwhile the bungalow appu, anxious that ‘The Master’ had still not returned as it was now almost 1.00 AM, telephoned the factory and expressed his concern to the tea maker, Mr.Ludowyke. Alarmed at this phone call, Mr.Ludowyke organised a band of labourers and armed with “pandans” to light their way, went along the road leading out of the estate. Imagine their horror at finding Mr.Pope in a pool of blood breathing his last. The labourers  cleared the road and Mr.Ludowyke drove the car to the factory the dying Mr.Pope by his side. He summoned the dispenser and then arranged for the wounded man to be taken  to hospital. To no avail. Having tenuously clung to life,Mr.Pope breathed his last in a scene straight out of hell.

Events took a quick turn after this. The Police were  informed, and I dont know about the wheels of justice grinding slowly because in this case the opposite was true. They came to Stellenberg with all speed and in the early hours of the morning commenced their inquiries. Fate lent  them a helping hand almost immediately because at the scene of the murder  they found a door key to a line room. At muster that  morning, six labourers were missing and could not be found anywhere,including the would be union leader, Ramasamy Weeraswamy. Pieces of the jigsaw began falling into place when the key found at the scene fitted the door to his line  room. He and the other five  suspects had absconded. The police then threw all their resources into a search which encompassed most of the plantations in the area and before long, one by one, the five suspects were arrested  – except for the union leader. He evaded the law for almost five months and seemed to have vanished. The Police had by then printed ‘Wanted’ posters of the man for distribution, which were circulated as far as Kandy. There is a lesson to be learned here. Never take anything or anybody for granted, least of all the humble  barber with his scissors, comb and machine in his dingy saloon, unlike the fancy hairdressing saloons and  boutiques of today. One such barber among many ran a small barber shop in Kandy with his assistant. One morning a  scruffy looking character sauntered in looking the worse  for wear requesting a hair cut and shave. His unkempt hair and beard did not concern the barber for that was his trade. What he noted was the filthy state of the mans shirt  and sarong. He proceeded with the shave first, and then began the haircut. And this is where Alfred Hitchock could relate, or rather depict what followed with his sense of the dramatic like a scene in one of his classic movies, leaving the viewers biting their nails, and digging into their arm rests, in jaw dropping suspense. As he began cutting this customers hair, the face before him in the mirror accelerated his heartbeat as if he was walking a treadmill. Because, in the drawer of his little table at the back  of the saloon there was a poster of the ‘Wanted’ man handed out by the police sometime ago. At the time of distribution the suspects hair was not long and resembled the face in the mirror before him !

Full credit to Captain Cool for not flinching or losing his nerve at this discovery. Politely telling his unsuspecting client that he had to answer a call of nature, he asked his assistant to continue where he had left off, went to his room, checked the poster, and having scrutinized it once more went to the tailors shop next door and used their telephone to inform the police. Five heavily armed constables led by an Inspector made their way to the saloon, and the wanted man – the union leader, Ramasamy Weeraswamy – meekly surrendered, realising that escape this  time was impossible. The long search of five months had  ended. The case was heard by one of the finest Judges of the  time, Justice Soertsz. Five of the accused, the union leader included were sentenced to be hung and kept their date with the hangman. The other  accused was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment when it was conclusively proved that he had no direct link to the  murder, but had aided and abetted the accused in plotting Mr.Pope’s murder. One of the names of the accused was  Iyan Perumal Velaithen. I cannot recall the others after all these years. And here’s the ‘Carolina  connection”. The Superintendent who succeeded George Pope was Arthur Doudney. Twenty years later he became my Dad’s boss on Carolina Group. And George Pope, before  he took charge of Stellenberg was Superintendent of Watawala  Estate, Watawala, the estate just past Carolina, on the road to Hatton. And there this story ends.

Kenilworth Estate, Ginigathena can be reached from  the Nawalapitiya – Hatton road, or travelling from Colombo, on the Yatiyantota – Hatton road.

On any of these roads, it is the first estate before Carolina Group. In the late thirties, the Superintendent was Mr.Roberts. Over a  period of time after some careful scrutiny of the books, Mr.Roberts found that the chief clerk had misappropriated funds from the office to the tune of Rs.2000/=. He summoned the man to his office who when confronted with the evidence, made a full confession. In normal circumstances this would have warranted an instant dismissal, but Mr.Roberts decided  to give his chief clerk another chance to wipe the slate clean. He set a deadline, giving him a period of one month to return the money by a certain day. If the money was not returned the police would be informed. It was a magnanimous gesture, one to which the culprit readily agreed. Came the  designated day and Mr.Roberts entered his office, summoning the chief clerk expecting the money to be returned. Unknown  to him, this man had hidden the estate gun, fully loaded behind the office door. No sooner had Mr.Roberts entered and sat at his desk, the clerk in a flash took the gun from behind the door and shot Mr.Roberts dead at point blank range. The clerk then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. The Managers bungalow was close to the factory and Mrs.Roberts hearing the gunshots, thought  that a pig was shot on the estate farm which happened  to be in the vicinity. That was the tragic end of a Superintendent who paid the price for his act of kindness, giving another human being a chance to redeem himself.

Finally, there was the murder of the chief clerk, and the tea maker, both on the same night on Galboda Group, Galboda in 1954. Galboda was just past Mt.Jean division on Carolina Group. A young lad who had just left Ananda College having passed his exams, boarded the train from Colombo Fort, and after the arduous journey alighted at Galboda station and made his way to the office to report to the manager, an Englishman Mr.Andrew Murray. Somasiri had secured the position of junior clerk and was to commence work the next day. He was introduced to the chief clerk who would be his immediate superior. He settled in well and in time showed much promise. But soon the chief clerk in a spirit of fun, began to play some practical jokes on him and before long the situation got right out of hand and most of the office staff had a laugh at young Somari’s expense. On occasion the tea maker joined him. The lad bore this all in silent resignation, not wishing to retaliate in any manner lest he risked losing his job.

One night the tea maker had a dinner party at his house and invited the chief clerk, and some office staff, including young Somasiri. Their aim was to ply him  with liquor and amuse themselves. Somasiri being one of the staff could not refuse the invitation, and reluctantly accepted. Unknown to anyone, he had gone to the estate blacksmith a few days before, and requested him to make a knife which he said he needed for his kitchen. This transpired in the inquest which followed, and it was remarked how strange it was that the blacksmith did not have the least suspicion or  doubts about Somasiri’s unusual request. On that fateful night, liquor flowed freely and before long the fun began with young Somasiri the whipping boy. He bided his time until his patience ran out. The chief clerk was the first victim. Pulling out the knife concealed inside his jersey (or Jumper) he  stabbed the chief clerk through the chest with such force that the blade went right through the mans chest, and through the rear of the cane chair on which he was seated,according to eyewitness evidence at the trial.

The tea maker was the next victim. Retrieving the knife from the chief clerks mangled chest, he plunged it with full force into the tea makers stomach. You are talking of a youth of 21 years against men in their forties. These liquor sodden men did not stand a chance against their intended “victim” who was in the prime of his youth. . Most of those present fled in fear, and Somasiri stood beside the bodies of his victims and would not let anyone near. Nobody could approach him as he kept brandishing the blood soaked knife,  threatening anybody who dared approach him with a similar fate.

Meanwhile,  Mr.Andrew Murray, the Superintendent of Galboda was notified. He made his way to the scene and on seeing his boss, Somarisi calmed down. Mr.Murray in his usual gentle manner tactfully spoke to him, and convinced him  to lay down the knife. Before long, thanks to Mr.Murray, the situation was brought under control.The police arrived, and when the case went to trial the accused was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Many witnesses testified in his favour highlighting the treatment he had received at the hands of the deceased. This evidence was what saved him from the gallows, and the defence had a strong case. It was remarked during the trial that such behaviour by grown up mature men such as the deceased persons, towards a novice starting out on lifes road was inconceivable. I was ten years old at the time and can still remember recoiling in horror when I heard Mum and Dad discussing this case with some visitors. News of this crime spread through the plantations, and on a cold dark night, must have been the topic of conversation in front of many a blazing fire in the halls of a far away estate bungalow.

Many years ago I found myself in the Ratnapura cemetery. As is my wont, I proceeded to read the epitaphs on the tombstones until I came across one I have never forgotten. It read ” Sacred to the memory of H.G.Ross, shot and fatally wounded on Galboda Group, Ratnapura, 17th April  1937″.  My efforts in finding out the details of this murder were unsuccessful.

Perhaps in the dead of night on an estate somewhere, one still hears the plaintive voices of these victims, mingled with the howling wind as they appear in a ghostly re-enactment of these tragic events of long ago…….

 

Bernard VanCuylenburg.

 

 

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