Admitted killer says gambling debts led to double-homicide

Posted: November 30, 2012

IT WAS a hastily hatched plot, worming around his brain for just a few short hours before Raghunandan "Raghu" Yandamuri grabbed a kitchen knife and knocked on a neighbor's door.

He needed money. He'd lost $15,000 at a casino the week before, owed money to a friend who'd paid for his wedding and had about $5,000 in other debt.

His salvation, he decided, was Saanvi Venna, a neighbor's wide-eyed, cherubic 10-month-old daughter. He would kidnap her. The baby's parents, both software engineers, would pay dearly to get their treasured child back, he figured.

Instead, the 26-year-old King of Prussia man slashed the baby's grandmother, Satyavathi Venna, to death when she tried to stop him, and he suffocated the baby when she wouldn't stop crying, according to testimony at Yandamuri's preliminary hearing Wednesday.

It was all an accident, he insisted in a taped confession prosecutors played in court.

"I don't have any plans to harm the baby or the grandmother. I just want to ask them for money," Yandamuri told detectives.

"I'm really sorry for what happened. I know this is not a small mistake, and no one will forgive me."

His attorney, Stephen Heckman, argued that the judge should dismiss first-degree murder charges, saying Yandamuri never intended to kill.

But Magisterial District Judge James P. Gallagher ordered him held on all charges and set his arraignment for Jan. 16.

The distinction is key, because a first-degree murder conviction is necessary for the death penalty. Kevin Steele, the county's first assistant district attorney, said District Attorney Risa Vetri-Ferman will decide "soon" whether to seek a sentence of life-without-parole or death.

In prison blues and a bulletproof vest with his hands and feet shackled, Yandamuri sat expressionless, taking notes as two detectives testified. He didn't talk during the hearing - but said plenty in his 23-minute videotaped confession. He even acted out his crimes with a fake plastic knife detectives provided.

In the confession, he admitted he stabbed the 61-year-old grandmother the morning of Oct. 22 in the Marquis Apartments - but said she fell on the knife when she advanced on him to rescue the baby he'd snatched off the couch. When he saw the grandmother's gaping neck wound and realized she was dead, he panicked, he said. He tried to quiet the crying baby by shoving a handkerchief in her mouth, and when that didn't work, he tied a towel around her head and put her in a blue suitcase he found in a closet. He then carried the case to an unused sauna in the building's gymnasium, took Saanvi out of the suitcase and left her on the trash-strewn floor.

She appeared "unconscious" and didn't rouse even after he splashed water on her face, he said. Still, he told detectives he didn't know she was dead until he returned hours later with a bottle of milk to feed her. Autopsy results show she died of "asphyxia due to foreign-object compression," Steele said.

Steele disputed that Yandamuri's crimes were accidental, saying he'd met the grandmother twice before and killed her because she was a witness to his kidnapping. He further showed murderous intent when he threatened to cut the baby "into pieces," Steele argued.

Saanvi's father, Venkata Venna, clutching relatives' hands, listened quietly as Yandamuri told detectives how he killed Venna's daughter and mother. Chenchu Latha Punuru, the baby's mother, sat with supporters in a nearby conference room, unable to bear the testimony. The couple left without talking with reporters.


On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com

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