Monica Yant Kinney: Did gambling woes spark two King of Prussia killings?

Raghunandan Yandamuri (center) has been charged in the deaths of a baby and her grandmother.
Raghunandan Yandamuri (center) has been charged in the deaths of a baby and her grandmother. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: November 01, 2012

Rashivar Karnati didn't know. He shared an apartment in San Jose, Calif., with Raghunandan Yandamuri in 2011, but could recall only one time his roommate visited a casino in Reno.

Chendu Tummala had met Yandamuri years earlier in undergraduate school in India. Long after both men moved to the United States, they still hewed to Indian traditions and would never have discussed Yandamuri's gambling problem.

"Asking financial information is not a good thing," Tummala told me. "We didn't even know he had filed for bankruptcy."

Now, Yandamuri's financial woes are being cited as motive for a kidnapping and double homicide that may go down as among the most depraved gambling-related crimes of modern times.

The 26-year-old software engineer is charged with stabbing 61-year-old Satyavathi Venna, and then gagging her 10-month-old granddaughter, Saanvi, and stuffing her into a suitcase that he dumped in a sauna while he awaited a $50,000 ransom payment.

The infant's parents and Yandamuri were neighbors at the Marquis, a King of Prussia apartment complex populated by highly skilled foreign professionals on H-1B visas. In unit C603, Saanvi's parents doted on their new daughter, while in B610, Yandamuri worried about the pending birth of his first child.

After printing missing-child posters himself and attending a vigil for Saanvi, Yandamuri confessed to investigators, he wrote the ransom note threatening to cut the child "into pieces" if he didn't get $50,000 - the exact amount he lost gambling last year.

During that interview, the unlikely killer audaciously asked Montgomery County detectives to say his wife had turned him in. That way, Yandamuri figured, perhaps she could collect the $30,000 reward.

Where gambling is taboo

Up to 20 percent of gaming in Atlantic City has come from Asian players, especially the Chinese. But the Asian Indian community, I'm told, does not share a fondness or tolerance for wagering.

"Gambling is a taboo in India," explained Mallik Budhavarapu, whose Telugu Association of Greater Delaware Valley brings Indian expats together. "We don't have casinos. We don't play poker or slot machines."

Indians fear shaming their families, Budhavarapu said, with fathers warning sons not to sully social standing.

"If anyone would see me drinking alcohol, he would talk badly about my parents," he explained. "If someone gambled, he would be looked down upon. And if someone lost money gambling, he would probably just keep it to himself."

What is oddly common in the last decade in India, Budhavarapu shared, is the kidnapping of children for ransom.

"It happens, but usually from very rich or politically powerful families," he told me. "They don't kidnap neighbors from down the block."

Cruel calculations

Given the expectations, Yandamuri's March bankruptcy filing represented an epic failure. In that 38-page document, he reported a $75,824 income but had no IRA, no car or house, few belongings, and only $175 in savings. The young professional said he spent $1,500 a month in rent and $600 supporting family in India.

He owed $26,268 on nine credit cards, but did not elaborate on the $50,000 gambling loss. Compulsive gamblers often use cash advances to fuel their habit, but it's unclear whether Yandamuri did; his California attorney declined to comment.

The bankruptcy was discharged in July, seemingly freeing Yandamuri from a self-made mess two months after he and his wife had relocated to King of Prussia. Whether he gambled afterward - the Valley Forge Casino beckons toward the Marquis from three miles away - is unknown.

Money clearly remained on the young man's brain. A week before the killings, Yandamuri asked Tummala for $1,000 to fly in his in-laws after his wife gave birth.

Days later, Yandamuri typed the frenetic ransom note targeting Saanvi, a bubbly baby often wearing her own jewelry.

"It's up to you to decide," he threatened, "your 1 yr old daughter or 5 months of your income."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @myantkinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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