Crime File

Luis Gravito – I The Bodies and the Suspect

With 138 confirmed victims, Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos tops the list of the most prolific serial killers in the history of mankind. He is estimated to have raped and killed as many as 400 children between 1992 and 1999, and was finally arrested when his luck ran out. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of ‘La Bestia’ (The Beast) and the investigation that led to his arrest and conviction.


In April 1999, when John Ivan Sabogal, a child between 10 and 16 years of age (exact age unknown), did not return home in the evening after having left to sell some lottery tickets along with other poor children of his age to pay for school, his mother, Maria Bertelda Lara, accompanied by her husband, approached the police. But this was the city of Villavicencio, Columbia, South America, in the 1990s, and it was not easy to convince an officer to take up the case of a missing child amid a gurgling sea of urgent complaints of heinous crimes. However, Maria’s misery could have gone completely unheeded, had the authorities not been already aware of a large number of missing children in the region. The case of Maria’s missing boy caught the attention of prosecutor Fernando Aya, who assured her husband that he would do his best to find and bring Ivan home although, given what he knew, it is unlikely that he believed he could return Ivan alive to his mother.

At the time Maria and her husband were assured by Fernando, he was already investigating 13 cases of murdered children for over six months. Mass graves of children had been found, and the children were disappearing not just in the city of Villavicencio but also in other regions of Columbia. The scenario, therefore, looked pretty grim from where Fernando stood, and the hope of finding Ivan Sabogal alive was very slim.

In November 1998, some 380 miles from Bogota in a small place called Nacederos, the bodies of 14 children were discovered buried in a small area. It was the mass grave of 14 Caucasian boys between 8 and 14 years of age, as the forensic investigation later revealed. Most of the remains indicated that the victims had been cut at several places with a sharp edged object like a blade or a knife. At this point it had become crucial to get the identities of the victims for the authorities to move forward with the investigation, but due to advanced decomposition of the bodies the fingerprints were impossible to obtain, and none of the children seemed to have visited a dentist, as there was no dental match found. However, that there had been no dental treatment ever administered to any of the children indicated that they came from very poor families, which made the investigators think that they could be the children who had been disappearing from the streets of Columbia at an alarming rate for the last few years. However, given the limitations, there were only two ways of getting to the identities of the victims – DNA analysis and facial reconstruction from the bones.

Mario Leon Artunduaga, Columbia’s best known forensic facial reconstructionist, lent a helping hand to the authorities. However, as soon as he began working on facial reconstruction of the child victims, he ran into trouble with the parameters available for forensic reconstruction. The international parameters available for the reconstruction of adult faces were not helpful in reconstructing the faces of children, and for children there were no known parameters available. Since the facial features of children are still developing and proportionally the measurements of a child’s facial features are very different from that of an adult, certain significant modifications to the parameters available for adults had to be made, which was nothing short of formulating new parameters afresh, and that could be a daunting task. Artunduaga called to his laboratory a child matching the facial structure of the victims and got down to the hard work of working out his own parameters. He took detailed measurements painstakingly and adjusted the scientific principles involved to suit the peculiarities of a child’s face.

On the other hand, the police were working on other leads and coming up with different theories, one of which was that it was the work of the members of a cult, as wax had been found at the burial sites while another theory postulated drug related payback. But none of those theories could satisfactorily answer all questions that naturally arose from the nature of the burial sites.

When another seasoned investigator, Aldemar Duran, who had been investigating the murders of three children in Genova, Quindio, for over a year looked closely at the victims in his case and other murdered child victims in many cases across the country, he found some striking similarities, which made him seriously consider the possibility that the perpetrator in all these crimes was a single person. Beginning with finding the similarities in the three murders Duran was investigating, he and his team threw the net wider by pulling the archived files of similar crimes between 1991 and 1998. And a pattern gradually emerged.

A large number of child victims seemed to have died under a strikingly similar set of circumstances with a considerable number of commonalities in the way they had been buried and the things that were found at and around the burial sites. The position of the bodies, the fibres from the rope the victims had been tied with and the empty bottles found at the place of burial were some of the characteristic features that seemed to persist in a large number of cases involving murdered children.

The forensic laboratories analyzing the pieces of physical evidence concluded that it was probable that they were dealing with a single killer, who was sexually motivated – a serial killer – and that was the most plausible theory of all, for it was the one that the evidence so far gathered supported the best. But that it also changed the direction of the investigation, and the investigators, particularly Aldemar Duran, re-calibrated their approach accordingly by having a re-look at the evidence to detect behavioural patterns that might provide clues to the kind of person the killer might be. The problem, however, was that Columbian law enforcement did not have the expertise to create the psychological profile of a serial killer based on behavioural patterns. Duran turned to the American expertise and tried to pick as much as he could from the material available on principally American serial killers.

Since the killer picked his victims from among the poor, Duran placed undercover policemen equipped with transmitters posing as indigents in the poor neighbourhoods to monitor the hunting grounds of the killer at close quarters. There was a good chance of the killer’s revisiting the poor neighbourhoods in search of new victims and being spotted by one of the watchful undercover policemen.

On February 6, 1999, more bodies turned up in Palmira, some 60 kilometres from Narcederos. Carlos Hernan Herrera, another seasoned investigator, was assigned to the case. Among the 13 separate pieces of evidence found at the burial site, there were a pair of glasses, a pair of shoes, underwear and some currency. Herrera’s working theory was that the killer left in a hurry because he left behind a number of such items that could potentially lead the police to his doorsteps and he would not have left them behind, had he not been in a hurry to flee the scene.

Herrera closely analyzed the pieces of evidence gathered from the burial site. The heel of the right shoe of the pair of men’s shoes left at the site showed unusual wear inconsistent with the condition of the rest of pair. This led Herrera to hypothesize that the killer had a kind of limp in which he rotated his right leg a bit while walking, and the condition could be the result of an injury. The pair of glasses left behind was partly burned. From the prescription on the lenses, Herrera estimated the killer to be between 40 and 45 years of age, or between 55 and 60. The currency found suggested that the killer moved from one place to another quite frequently. Some of the currency had been distributed in the southern part of Columbia and in the city of Ipiales, which bordered on Ecuador.

Herrera’s analysis of evidence provided the investigators the basic idea of what their suspect looked like. They now knew that they were looking for a limping, bespectacled man of average height (1.63-1.67 mts.) and of age between 40 and 45, or between 55 and 60 years. Their man also had a favourite liquor brand from which he rarely deviated. It was a good start. The authorities pulled out files on the past cases involving paedophiles. They had over 5000 such cases. The task was to narrow down the number to a manageable size. Since all the victims were young boys, all cases involving girls were dropped, which brought the number down to around 1500 cases. Next, the crimes involving offenders below the age of 42 were also dropped cutting the number to around 95. Then they factored in the height, and the number came further down to a manageable 45. The next criterion was the areas in which most of the bodies had been found. There had been only around 25 suspects in the past who were known to have been active in the areas where the bodies were found.

On the other hand, Aldemar Duran’s undercover policemen continued to keep a watch on the poor neighbourhoods while Duran extended his research into the past murder cases involving child victims in other areas of Colombia. He went to Bogota to dig deeper and after a few days of research came across a 1996 case with a child victim in Tunja. The victim was a 12-year-old boy by the name Renald Delgado, whose body had been found in the bushes under the conditions very similar to those in which the recent burial sites had been found making it very probable that the boy had been killed by the killer Duran was looking for. The documents related to the case noted that a store owner as well as several local prostitutes had last seen the boy with a man who was not local. It was also recorded in the file that the suspect pointed out by the witnesses was arrested and questioned but was later released for want of evidence. The suspect was Luis Alfredo Garavito, whose name also figured on the list of 25 suspects prepared on the basis of forensic analysis.

A copy of Garavito’s Identity Card on the record indicated that he was a native of Genova and his place of residence was in Trujillo, and in both of the places the bodies of children had been found. However, while Duran was pursuing leads in Bogota, the investigation was making headway in Pereira as well. The searches conducted in Pereira led to a promising suspect – Pedro Pablo Remirez Garcia, better known as Pedro Pachuga. Pedro had been a child offender for a long time and his list of crimes against children began in 1980. He fitted the profile of the killer to the last detail. He was 44 years of age, limped with the right leg, was within the height range of the killer and had been found selling honey in the bottles like the ones found at the burial sites. And on October 1, 1997, two boys had disappeared in Pereira and their bodies were later found with marks of torture and sexual abuse, and then there was another boy who identified Pedro as the man who attempted to rape him. All factors put together, there was little doubt in the minds of the investigators that Pedro was the serial killer they had been looking for. Pedro was promptly arrested and locked up. However, Pedro never admitted to any of the crimes he was accused of, and kept reiterating his innocence.

…to be continued

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