Family friend charged with King of Prussia murder-kidnap

Saanvi's mother, Chenchu Latha Punuru (center), is escorted from court after Friday's hearing.
Saanvi's mother, Chenchu Latha Punuru (center), is escorted from court after Friday's hearing. (TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 28, 2012

FOR THREE DAYS, Raghunandan "Ragu" Yandamuri seemed the most caring of friends.

After someone killed Satyavathi Venna and kidnapped her 10-month-old granddaughter, Saanvi, from the family's King of Prussia apartment Monday, Yandamuri attended a candlelight vigil and helped create and distribute fliers offering a reward for the baby's safe return.

To show support for the family, he even visited the Upper Merion Police Department, where Saanvi's parents, Venkata Venna and Chenchu Latha Punuru, camped out with investigators, desperately waiting for any word of their missing infant.

But Friday, authorities announced that Yandamuri had been camouflaging a killer's instinct with concern.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said Yandamuri, 26, had kidnapped little Saanvi in an attempt to ransom her for $50,000 from her family, and stabbed her 61-year-old paternal grandmother repeatedly in the chest, neck and hands when she tried to protect the child. Investigators believe that Yandamuri suffocated Saanvi soon after taking her - maybe even before he left his crime scene - and hid her body in the basement of the high-rise apartment building where he and the Venna family lived in separate apartments.

After his arrest, he asked detectives to "tell the media that his wife turned him in so she could get the thirty grand [reward]," according to an affidavit.

Montgomery County Magistrate Judge James P. Gallagher arraigned him Friday and ordered him held without bail on charges of murder, kidnapping, robbery and abuse of a corpse.

"This was an attempt to kidnap the child and hold her for ransom," Ferman said. "He believed that the Vennas were of sufficient means and would be able to pay the ransom."

All week, authorities had released few details about the crime or their hunt for Saanvi, saying they didn't want to jeopardize her safety. Ferman said Friday that investigators had known from the outset that it was a ransom try, because police on Monday found 10 copies of a ransom note throughout the Vennas' sixth-floor residence at the Marquis Apartments, on West Dekalb Pike near Kings Circle.

"Over the past few days, we had been very hopeful that Saanvi was still alive, and we were taking every step we could, making every effort we could, to try to locate her," Ferman said. "Tragically, during the course of the last few hours, we learned that that was not the case."

Investigators found Saanvi's body about 4:30 a.m. Friday, hidden in a sauna in the men's locker room of a basement gym.

Yandamuri met the Vennas through the Indian community soon after they moved to King of Prussia in June, Ferman said. They socialized at cultural events, she added.

Yandamuri apparently believed that the couple, both software engineers, would be able to pay a ransom for Saanvi, Ferman said.

The computer-printed ransom note was blunt: "Shiva your daughter has been kidnapped. If you report it to cops your daughter will be cut into pieces and found dead. If you inform this to anyone you will find your daughter body parts thrown into your apartments. Prople [sic] are monitoring all your moves all the time. Your emails & phones are being traced . . . This is very serious. Its up to you to decide, you want your 1yr old daughter or 5months of your income. . . . Any cunning act from anyone of you will lead to your daughter's death. We don't want any excuses. Remember that your baby is starving since morning."

As directed, Punuru, Saanvi's mother, visited an eatery across from the apartments to meet a ransom demand, but no one was there, according to Ferman and an affidavit.

Investigators began to focus on Yandamuri after asking who knew the couple's nicknames, which were in the ransom note.

When they questioned him Thursday, he initially denied knowing anything about the slaying or kidnapping. But he soon confessed - saying that he had written the ransom note on his work computer, armed himself with a knife from his kitchen, knocked on the Vennas' door about 11 a.m. Monday, burst into the apartment when the grandmother opened the door and snatched Saanvi from the living-room couch, according to the affidavit. When the grandmother moved to rescue Saanvi, Yandamuri told police, he dropped Saanvi and fell on her, and the grandmother then fell into the knife.

He quieted the crying baby by stuffing a handkerchief in her mouth, covering her head with a bath towel and placing her in a blue suitcase he found in the Vennas' bedroom, according to the affidavit. Before leaving, he said, he stole jewelry. He later discarded the knife, his clothes and the suitcase in a trash bin in Upper Merion Township and dumped some of the jewelry in the Schuylkill, he told investigators.


Contact Dana DiFilippo at difilid@phillynews.com or 215-854-5934. Follow her on Twitter @DanaDiFilippo.

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