Student death still unsolved
By John Woodrow Cox
Alligator Contributing Writer
After 12 days of questions without answers and indignation without justice, a 25-year-old man with a tired face, quiet voice and pair of shoulders better suited for a boy half his age walked to a lectern and talked about his friend.
On that cold, gray January afternoon, he spoke about the tragedy and the loss. He said he hoped the person responsible was caught and punished. And in front of that crowd of eyes filled with something between grief and rage, Praveen Kumar Vedam said he would miss his best friend, Sudheer Reddy Satti.
Vedam talked about his longtime relationship with his friend’s family, and he remembered the three words spelled out in magnet letters on Satti’s refrigerator – peace, friendship and love.
“This is what I need to follow,” Vedam said in front of more than 100 people about Satti’s way of life.
He also read a letter, penned more than 10,000 miles from Gainesville by a mother and father unable to attend their dead son’s memorial service. It thanked UF and Satti’s friends for their support.
That was the day after UF and Crime Stoppers offered $10,000 to anyone who could provide information leading to an arrest and a conviction, and it was just a few days after fliers of Satti’s picture were peppered around Gainesville, pleading for any help, any scrap, anything to find the truth.
It was less than a week after Vedam met with members of the local Indian community to arrange the memorial service for Satti. It was six days after Satti had intended to arrive at the University of New Hampshire and start work on his doctorate degree.
It was 12 days since police found Satti’s naked body in his bedroom in Maguire Village, apartment No. 7, Building 382, the walls and ceiling splattered with dried blood.
And the day Vedam talked about his friend was 15 days since Satti, in the moments before the sun rose on New Year’s Day 2004, was stabbed more than 30 times in his head, face and chest.
For the two weeks the Gainesville community had wondered who could have committed such a sadistic act to a seemingly harmless person, the police thought they already had a lead.
Among the items missing from Satti’s apartment when police found his body was his Dell Inspiron laptop computer – one piece of evidence police thought they could trace. And though only pieces of the laptop were found, the questions about the computer Satti owned for just 81 days before he died would evolve into a centerpiece of the investigation, rumors and mystery surrounding UF’s first campus murder in more than 25 years.
Police discovered that the computer was accessed by someone at two different locations several times after officers found Satti’s body. That discovery directed investigators to a suspect they hardly considered a possibility a few days earlier.
And just one week after Vedam walked to the lectern and talked about his friend, he went into the University Police Department to answer questions about the case and pick up some of Satti’s belongings. When Vedam walked out, he was in handcuffs, getting into a police car and on his way to the Alachua County Jail.
For almost 26 years, Vedam’s life was inspiring. His story sounded like a clichéd outline from a high school motivational speaker – work hard, chase your dream, defy the odds, overcome.
But for a soft-spoken young man from Andhra Pradesh, India, a state with more than twice the population of California, it was reality.
Vedam was an only child in a lower middle-class family that believed in conservative values and a strong work ethic, said Dr. Arun Someshwar, Vedam’s friend and a leader of Gainesville’s India Cultural and Education Center. His parents were strict orthodox Hindus. His father was a state employee, and his mother stayed at home.
Although neither of his parents was highly educated, they both wanted something better for their son.
“They saved (money) their whole lives for him to come to the United States and get a degree,” said Robert Rush, Vedam’s attorney.
Friends say Vedam was among the elite students in India. He passed one of the world’s most difficult tests, the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination, a test with a success rate of less than 3 percent. Typically, almost 200,000 students take it every year in hopes of going to one of India’s premier technology schools. Only about 4,000 are accepted.
“He’s a genius,” said Anil Lingamallu, Vedam’s friend and roommate at the time of the murder. “He’s a workaholic.”
After attending the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, India, Vedam came to UF, and in August 2000, he met Satti.
“The cliché is kind of true in Satti’s case,” said Lewis Bryant, a fellow UF student and friend of Satti’s. “He seemed like the last person someone would want to do something like that to.
“He was just kind of a happy-go-lucky type of guy,” Bryant added. “He never said a bad word about anybody.”
Sometimes Satti, who had cheeks as round as grapefruits and eyes brighter than new quarters, smiled for no reason. Satti, a 4.0 student, was the guy everyone asked for help because he always seemed to know the answers, and he was the guy everyone teased because he always seemed to blush when a pretty woman walked by.
Satti loved to tell the story about his motorcycle, a luxury item in India, which he let his brother use so he didn’t have to ride on the backs of busses in the streets of Hyderabad, his family’s hometown.
He missed his grandfather’s farm, his father’s talks and his mother’s cooking.
In some ways, Vedam was the closest thing Satti had to home. They were both from the same area, ate the same food and spoke the same native Indian language, Telugu.
In the last week of December 2003, Vedam received a new assignment from his project manager at Nanoptics, a Gainesville software company, and he worked almost all day, every day that week.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, less than 30 hours before Satti died, Vedam took time off from work and watched “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” with Satti. He spent the night at Satti’s apartment, like many other times, and left the next morning. Vedam said it was the last time he saw his best friend alive.
But after investigators uncovered a few answers that didn’t fit – a computer that wasn’t in the right place and a suspect who wouldn’t admit the truth – they believed what happened in the time before, during and after Satti’s death was far different from the story Vedam told.
He had heard about things like this. He had trained for the sights normally confined to nightmares and horror films. But Darren Baxley, UPD’s lead investigator for Satti’s case, said he had never witnessed a murder scene like this one.
“It was just a brutal death,” he said. “You just felt horrible for the victim.”
Police took days to identify the body after the murder because of how badly it was disfigured.
Initially, police said they didn’t consider Vedam one of the primary suspects. He had helped authorities ship Satti’s body home to his parents. Only after investigators discovered Satti’s computer was used subsequent to his death at Vedam’s apartment and workplace did they consider him a possibility. They also found that someone had accessed both of Satti’s Hotmail accounts after the murder and changed the password from his UF Gatorlink account.
“We have someone who tells us he’s the victim’s best friend, and then as the investigation progresses, maybe he’s not being truthful with us,” Baxley said. “That obviously makes us become suspicious.”
After an almost six-hour search, police found Satti’s computer case, which they were convinced was in the apartment at the time of the murder, in the air duct of an attic at Nanoptics.
“It was obviously placed there by someone who didn’t want it found,” Baxley said.
Soon after, police arrested Vedam for grand theft, and less than a month later, he was charged with Satti’s murder.
Forensic tests showed that a drop of blood found inside the computer case came from Satti and an unknown person.
“Whoever had the computer either did it or got the computer after he was murdered,” Baxley said.
But Vedam’s attorney tells a different account. He said the computer wasn’t in the apartment at the time of the murder, and he said Vedam regularly shared Satti’s computer, something his roommate said was common between the two friends. Rush’s investigation indicated the blood found inside the case was inconsistent with the blood spatter strewn throughout Satti’s bedroom.
Rush also said the reason Vedam accessed Satti’s e-mail account was much more complicated than police realized. It wasn’t to hide his guilt or cover up a crime. Instead, Rush said Vedam was protecting his friend.
Rush’s lead investigator, Danny Pascucci, who worked for the Alachua County Sheriff’s office for more than 20 years and investigated the Danny Rolling serial murders, remembered the first time he confronted Vedam about why he had Satti’s computer.
“He put his head down and started to cry,” Pascucci said of the meeting they had at the county jail. “I can still see him sitting behind the cage, shaking.”
He told Pascucci he found pornographic pictures and videos, considered shameful in Indian culture, on the computer. For most of his life, Satti grew up in a country where anyone who possesses, sells or distributes anything resembling what Americans consider pornography is jailed for up to two years.
“You’ve got to think about the culture of this kid,” Rush said. “He’s a naive kid from a village in India.”
Someshwar and Lingamallu asked Vedam why he took the computer, and in each case, Vedam said he was defending Satti’s reputation.
“He didn’t want to shame his dead best friend,” Rush said.
“You suddenly know the whole world is going to look at your friend’s e-mails,” he added. “Would you delete some stuff?”
Rush argues this wasn’t a crime between two friends but a crime of opportunity – one that included an escort service, sex and a lust not for revenge or jealousy, but for money.
The theories and rumors surrounding Satti’s death seem more at home in an afternoon soap opera or a $3 crime novel.
Although Baxley said he couldn’t talk about the police’s ideas concerning Vedam’s motive because the case is still open, rumors of the public and private theories have circulated in Gainesville for almost three years.
The details of Vedam’s relationship with a woman who also attended UF were revealed soon after he became a suspect. In the summer of 2003, he returned to India and asked her parents about marriage, but her parents wouldn’t allow the union and arranged for her to marry another man a few months later, Lingamallu said.
Some conjectured Satti came between Vedam and his ex-girlfriend, who police interrogated at length.
But it didn’t stop there. Rumors ranged from Indian hit men who were enemies of Satti’s father, a high-ranking government official, to revenge over unpaid gambling debts from Satti’s recent stop in Las Vegas to a scheme involving Vedam’s ex-girlfriend and her new husband. But Rush said none of the hearsay had merit.
“The most obvious, great big blinking light was that this was a crime of opportunity,” he said.
Rush’s theory stems from an alleged phone call made to Barbara Young, the owner and operator of a Gainesville escort service at the time of the murder. Young claimed to have received a call the night of the murder from a man with an Indian accent who identified himself as “Reddy,” Satti’s middle name.
Young said she told him her company didn’t provide services on campus, and according to police reports, she believed he may have called another escort service.
Rush said he thinks a woman came to Satti’s apartment that night and saw an easy mark.
Evidence at the scene indicated sexual activity occurred soon before or while Satti was murdered, and although the blood covered the room and most of Satti’s body, there was none on his crotch, indicating to Rush and his investigators that someone was straddling Satti when he was stabbed to death.
Rush asserted the escort saw electronic equipment, which has never been found, called someone to help and killed Satti while having sex.
Young’s claim, which Baxley refutes, was looked into when she came forward, he said, but it wasn’t thoroughly examined until several months later, when Rush brought it up again. Baxley said police talked to Young’s escorts and checked all incoming calls to the service, and nothing came of the investigation.
Lewis Bryant, Satti’s friend, and others who knew him said they couldn’t imagine their good friend calling an escort service. When Satti’s father heard the assertions, he was outraged.
“That would surprise me,” Bryant said. “He hardly talked to girls.”
Vedam was even surprised when he heard of Young’s claim, Lingamallu said.
“Everyone associated with this adamantly denied Satti would use an escort service,” Baxley said. “It was against his character and against his religion.”
The last phone call from Satti’s apartment was to Vedam’s apartment shortly after 11 p.m., investigators discovered. Vedam admitted Satti asked him to come celebrate the New Year, but Vedam, who maintained he worked at Nanoptics all night, said he declined the offer, an assertion police didn’t believe.
Vedam’s arrest, initially for grand theft and eventually for first-degree murder, was just the start of an experience that would see his father develop heart problems, his mother fall into a depression and his dead friend’s parents believe he killed their son.
Questions. Questions without answers. Perhaps all unsolved murder cases are riddled by unanswered questions, but for the people who are and were involved, for the parents who lost a son, for the parents whose son was called a murderer, for the friends without their friend, for the Indian community, for the investigators and for the people who have just heard about Satti’s gruesome death, questions are all they have.
Baxley and police want to know why, if Vedam didn’t murder Satti, he lied.
Someshwar and the Indian community want to know why, at least from their perspective, police had only one suspect.
Pascucci, Rush’s lead investigator, wants to know why police didn’t determine where the unknown blood and hair in the apartment came from or why they didn’t swab Satti’s penis for DNA or where the apartment’s missing stereo receiver, home theatre speaker system, speakerphone and DVD player disappeared.
Rush wants to know why police still think Vedam ended Satti’s life, even though experts believe the murderer killed Satti with his or her left hand and Vedam is right-handed.
Satti’s parents want to know why Vedam, who was released from jail about 11 months after his arrest and went back to India after a judge dismissed the case because of a lack of evidence against him, would not return to the United States to face trial following a second first-degree murder indictment.
Vedam’s parents want to know why their son was accused of murdering his best friend and imprisoned.
Lingamallu wants to know how police could think his “geeky,” 120-pound friend who read electrical engineering conference papers for fun was capable of stabbing to death someone he spent almost every day with.
Bryant wants to know why “one of the truly good people in this world” had to die.
And Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, the Indian Student Association’s faculty advisor, wants to know how parents could live their lives after such a tragedy.
“You send your son off with great expectations and hopes, seeing them at the threshold of a great career and wonderful job, and then all your dreams are gone,” she said. “When your child is gone, there’s never a moment you don’t think of them.”
Spencer Mann, the chief investigator for the state attorney’s office, said he is more than satisfied with the police’s investigation into Satti’s murder, and he still believes the evidence points to Vedam.
“We have checked out many leads and theories that have been presented by his attorneys and others,” he said, “and none of those leads have produced another suspect in this case.”
Baxley said he and other investigators did everything they could, which included employing the help of city, county and state law enforcement officials, and recently the FBI.
Prosecutors and the defense team have gone back and forth over Vedam’s alibi since the beginning.
Vedam said he was at Nanoptics all night working on a project and downloading Indian movies, but police say a lull of a few hours in his computer activity can’t substantiate his whereabouts.
Police can’t talk about the new forensic evidence that resulted in the second murder indictment against Vedam, who now works at a software company in Bangalore, but Rush argues there’s nothing to it.
“A weak case doesn’t get better over time,” he said. “He’s who they pinned it on, and they didn’t look at anyone else, and that’s tremendously irresponsible of them.”
For now, Vedam is in India, and most think he’s unlikely to ever return, even though he’s said he wants to clear his name.
“Why would he?” friends ask. They don’t think there’s anything good to come back to.
In the end, after all the talk and all the speculation, only questions and victims remain.
“They have a void that can never be filled,” Narayanan said of Satti’s parents. “They have memories that can never be erased.
“And they have questions that can’t be answered.”