Ransom note led police to suspect in Venna killings

In body armor, Raghunandan Yandamuri is taken into a preliminary hearing on murder, kidnapping, and other charges.
In body armor, Raghunandan Yandamuri is taken into a preliminary hearing on murder, kidnapping, and other charges. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: October 28, 2012

Nicknames used in a ransom note were critical clues that helped Upper Merion police crack the weeklong mystery that gripped the region and Asian Indians around the world after Monday's discovery of the throat-slashed body of 61-year-old Satayrathi Venna, and the disappearance of her 10-month-old granddaughter Saanvi.

On Friday, law enforcement announced the baby's body was discovered around 4:30 a.m. in an unused basement sauna at the Marquis Apartments in King of Prussia, where she and her father, Venkata Konda "Siva" Venna, and mother, Chenchu "Latha" Punuru, shared a sixth-floor apartment.

Authorities described the case as a bizarre abduction gone awry and revealed that 10 copies of a typed ransom note were scattered on the floor around the grandmother's body.

Charged with the two homicides was Raghunandan "Raghu" Yandamuri, 26, also a resident of the Marquis Apartments. Dressed in leg irons and a bulletproof vest, he was arraigned and held without bail pending a preliminary hearing Nov. 2. A crowd of about 100 - including some children - jeered obscenities at him as he was led from the courthouse.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said Yandamuri killed Satayrathi Venna while the woman tried to defend the baby. Yandamari then fled with the child, she said. He intended to use the infant to extract a $50,000 ransom from her family, authorities said.

According to court documents, a dissection of the ransom note proved crucial.

"Shiva," the note read, "your daughter has been kidnapped. If you report this to the cops [she] will be cut into pieces."

The note demanded $50,000 and said the money had to be delivered at a nearby fast-food restaurant.

"Your wife, Lata, [will] have to bring money to the location alone," it said.

The baby's father told investigators that his middle name, Siva, is used only by close family and friends. Likewise, only close contacts address his wife as Latha. In both instances, it appears the author of the note may have simply misspelled the names.

Investigators asked the couple to provide a list of people who "either used or were aware of the use of these nicknames."

Yandamuri was on that list.

On Thursday, he was interviewed by Upper Merion police detectives. Police say he told them that he had no idea who killed the grandmother or stole the baby. In fact, he said, he had created a missing-child poster with two photographs of Saanvi and made about 200 copies, which he delivered to the family for distribution. He said he also attended the Wednesday night candlelight vigil to support the family.

Later in the interview, according to the arrest papers, he admitted his role in both deaths. Police say he told them he targeted the Vennas because both husband and wife worked and he believed they had money.

Yandamuri, who married in April, apparently was desperate for money.

On the Friday before the killing, Yandamuri spoke by telephone with his friend of eight years, Chendu Tummala, with whom he had attended undergraduate school in India. Tummala now lives in San Jose.

"He asked me for $1,000," Tummala said in a telephone interview. "He said his wife was pregnant and that he wanted to bring his mother-in-law and father-in-law to the United States to help them."

Tummala said he made an online transfer of the requested loan to Yandamuri's bank account.

Before moving to King of Prussia in September, Yandamuri had shared an apartment in San Jose with Rashivar Karnati, 25, a graduate student at San Jose State University. They were introduced by Tummala. When they were roommates, said Karnati, he was a student and Yandamuri worked as a software specialist for Ebay.

According to Karnati, Yandamuri came to the United States in 2007 to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, but the registrar's office said Friday it had no record of his attendance.

Karnati said he only caught up with the news about the missing baby Friday morning via the Internet. A few hours later, he learned that his old roommate had been arrested.

"He was always close to us and friendly," said Karnati. The news is "shocking . . . because he was not that kind of guy."

A starkly different view emerges from Yandamuri's alleged confession to police. In it, he is quoted as saying he was carrying a kitchen knife with a four-inch blade when he showed up at the Vennas' apartment about 11 a.m. Monday.

According to the document:

When the grandmother opened the door to the apartment, he threatened her with the knife, forcing her to retreat into the kitchen. He saw the baby sitting on the couch and picked her up. During a struggle with the grandmother, Yandamuri dropped the child and ultimately cut the woman's throat.

According to the arrest documents, "Saanvi began to cry and [Yandamuri] stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth to make her stop."

He "placed a bath towel around her head to hold the handkerchief in place. He then put her inside a blue suitcase he found in the bedroom," the document said.

The arrest papers state that he took jewelry from the apartment and put it inside the suitcase with the child before leaving the apartment.

Police said he ultimately abandoned the child in the basement of building A at the apartment complex.

He told investigators he dumped the knife, some of his clothes and the blue suitcase into a Dumpster in another part of Upper Merion. He said he disposed of some of the stolen jewelry in the Schuylkill.

At the end of his interview with police, he asked detectives to tell the media his wife turned him in for the "thirty grand," a reference to the initial reward for information in the case.

Investigators proceeded to building A, where they found Saanvi Venna's body hidden in a disconnected sauna, with what appeared to be bloodstains on her white dress.

She would have turned 1 on Dec. 8.


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com

Staff writers Kristin Holmes and Carolyn Davis contributed to this article.

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