Stealing while mourning | Sunday Observer
At Lester’s funeral:

Stealing while mourning

As the country mourned the recent loss of the catalyst of Sri Lankan cinema, Dr. Lester James Peries, the disappearance of the Lifetime achievement award presented to the acclaimed director by the Indian government in 2000 from the Peries residence during his last rites outraged the film industry and shocked a nation already in grief. No sooner had the cortege left the residence, so too had the valuable medal which had been on display earlier in the day.

The brazen thieves had not only made away with the award but had also stolen a high end mobile phone belonging to one of the relatives attending the funeral along with several wallets of others at the funeral.

But, with large crowds arriving to pay their last respects to the veteran filmmaker the Police was faced with a daunting task to zero in on the possible suspects.

However, unbeknownst to the thieves, the theft of the mobile phone had been caught on camera and telecast on national television giving the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) of the Police a significant clue to commence its investigations into the missing award.

As investigations commenced the first hint on the whereabouts of the award reached the police, when on May 5 a bus driver and conductor of a 177 Colombo - Kaduwela bus informed investigators that an object resembling the lost medal has been found abandoned in their bus. While the Police recovered and identified it as the stolen Lifetime achievement award, the story of the thefts began to unravel through the statements given by the driver and conductor of the bus along with CCTV and camera footage from the funeral telecast, leading to the arrest of six suspects in a matter of six days.

As dramatically announced by Police Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekara at a media briefing this week, the thefts at Dr. Lester James Peries’s funeral, was the handiwork of an organised gang which specialises in thefts at events in Colombo graced by affluent individuals, particularly at VIP funerals.

Gunasekara says, on May 5 when the award was found a passenger in the 177 bus had brought an ownerless parcel to the attention of the driver and the conductor. “While they discovered the award inside, they had no understanding as to what it was, but kept it safe” he said, adding that later in the day they had received a call from an individual claiming he was from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and asked them to hand over the bag to the Police. As it turned out, the man who pointed out the ownerless bag to the bus operators was in fact part of the gang involved in the thefts.

With evidence received, the Police then turned its focus on two CCTV clips which showed a suspicious three wheeler bearing the number plate ABC 0911. “The number plate of the three wheeler and the three individuals are clearly identifiable” Gunasekara said adding that the Police then traced the owner of the three wheeler leading them to three of the suspects in a raid conducted by a special police team in the Kaduwela, Mathugama and Nawalapitiya areas on May 6.

Following their arrest, questioning the trio revealed that a group of five including themselves had descended on the funeral that day aiming to steal valuables and pick the pockets of those attending the funeral. “Three had arrived in a three wheeler and two in a bus” he said adding that the suspects were residents of Kandy, Kaduwela, Nawalapitiya, Gampola, Hiniduma areas. Yet another suspect to whom they had sold the mobile phone was also arrested for purchasing stolen goods from the gang. The Police revealed the man, as an owner of a mobile repair shop who habitually purchased stolen goods from the gang.

The five suspects had also confessed to stealing several wallets on the day, shockingly including that of a politician. According to the Police, several of the thieves were island reconvicted criminals known for similar crimes committed previously and had formed an organised gang for the purpose. But, the widespread attention to their latest thefts proved to be their undoing in the end.