The Spanish Prisoner is a confidence trick that dates back to more than two centuries. A classic pigeon-drop game in which the trickster extracts money from victims, promising them a share in a non-existent inheritance or a stash of illegal profit. A modern variant of this scam became ubiquitous in the 90s, as emails from the 'Nigerian prince' or other advance-fee frauds.
Monson Mavunkal Chacko, a self-proclaimed dealer in antiquities, whose brazen claims about the provenance of antiques in his private collection became a feast for meme makers after his arrest on September 25, used a similar playbook, according to investigators.
Monson's treasure chest was a frozen account he jointly held with an individual called V J Patel in Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), which purportedly contained the money he made from 25 years of trade in 'antique diamonds'. As per the police complaint filed against him by six persons — Yakoob Purayil, Anoop V Ahammed, Saleem Edathil, M T Shameer, Sidhique Purayil and Shanimon — Monson made them believe that the joint account was locked up for violations under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) and that a legal fight was on, allegedly, through Delhi-based legal firm Gupta Associates.
To convince them, Monson presented an array of documents including one with an HSBC bank seal dated July 5, 2010, which showed the account had Rs 6.62 lakh crore. The claim, if true, would have ensured the duo a slot in the Hurun India Rich List, though it is doubtful that any billionaire would have so much liquid assets.
Monson, the complainants alleged, also shared an order of a tribunal in Mumbai, dated March 25, 2019, which corroborated the claims he made with respect to the legal impediments.
The complainants have claimed they were defrauded of Rs 10 crore between June 2017 and November 2020, the money transferred in multiple installments to accounts of persons known to Monson or his relatives. By June 2019, Anoop Mohammed and Shanimon had together parted with Rs 6 crore and were being pressured for more. Shanimon's share was only Rs 16 lakhs.
"When I first met Monson in Bengaluru, he had around six black cats in tow. With him were people whom he introduced as IRS officials. As a businessman, I have met a lot of people and am familiar with many types of businesses. But dealing in antiques was new to me. We thought it wouldn't be prudent to seek proof for financial stability because he claimed his accounts were frozen," said Anoop, a businessman with interests in hospitality and construction.
Monson had committed to invest in their companies by funding specific projects, once the freeze was lifted, Anoop said.
Later, he also offered his debtors directorship in Monson Editions, a proposed luxury marketplace. The website for Monson Editions (which is now defunct) lists several ancient Islamic artefacts including a clay lamp and a prayer rug 'used' by Prophet Mohammed, and a Scroll of Abraham.
But this was not the first complaint against Monson, who introduced himself as a doctor. On August 5, 2020, Rajendran Pillai K P of Sreevalsam Group had filed a cheating plaint against him and three others in Pandalam police station in Pathanamthitta (FIR No 1823).
The complaint accused Monson of cheating him of Rs 6.27 crore by promising to secure a loan of Rs 25 crore. The payments were made between November 2019 and March 2020. Raids by the Income-Tax department in 2017 on properties by Pillai, a retired Nagaland police officer, after he voluntarily declared Rs 50 crore in black money had unearthed several financial irregularities. Interestingly, the complaint by Yakoob Purayil, Anoop and others state that while they were on a Delhi visit in December, 2019, 'police' vehicles with Nagaland registration numbers (NL107188, NL109637) had accompanied Monson.
Crime Branch officials have stated that they are investigating only allegations of financial fraud. "As of now we are not probing any case with regard to sale of antiques, whose originality is suspect. Our only focus is financial cheating," said M J Sojan, SP, Crime Branch, who is the investigating officer.
Anoop said they were dazzled by the opulence he displayed and the high-profile connections he flaunted — senior politicians, top police officials and film personalities. The most prominent among them was K Sudhakaran, Member of Parliament from Kannur and president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) in June this year.
He was allegedly present when a part of the payment was made in cash.
Pictures of Sudhakaran in company of Monson has since emerged, but the politician has denied the allegations and said he visited Monson for cosmetology treatment.
This alleged exchange of money happened on November 22, 2018 at the Kaloor residence of Monson, which also acted as a museum for artefacts he owned. The 'museum' attracted a steady crowd of influential visitors, and several videos and photographs that have come out since show that Monson made it a point to seat them on a throne that he claimed to have belonged to none less than Tipu Sultan.
Two current ministers in the Left Democratic Front government — Roshi Augustine and Ahammed Devarkovil, three top officials of the police including Loknath Behera, who recently retired as state police chief, two Inspector Generals of police — Lakshman G and S Surendran — were found adorning the red velvet throne as Monson looks on. In Behera's picture, Manoj Abraham, an Assistant Director General of Police, is seen posing with a drawn sword. Others include actor Mohanlal and a host of other celebrities from the film field.
Con artists often portray themselves as brash and larger than life. Monson seems to have had film aspirations and his personal website gallery features photoshoots in company of women that mimics film stills.
Monson took care to throw an aristocratic air around him, constantly reminding people of his wealth. He also gifted profusely — often Montblanc pens and luxury watches now suspected to be replicas and put on shows of philanthropic benevolence by supporting charity causes and helping people in need. The residence he occupied had several imported luxury sedans and MUVs parked in front, but inspection by officials found that many of them were not in working condition. Some of these vehicles owned by him were earlier seized by Cherthala police, following a cheating complaint by Pillai.
The growth of Monson as a businessman and how he became wealthy is shrouded in mystery. Residents in his village, Charamangalam near Mohamma in Alappuzha, who have known Monson from childhood, said his father worked in the survey department.
After completing his 10th standard, Monson, a Syrian catholic, pursued a survey course and spent some years in a seminary. On his return he worked as a sexton for some time. Soon after his marriage he had shifted to Idukki, where his wife worked as a school teacher. Crime Branch SP Sojan said, Monson, who uses the doctor honorific, claimed during interrogation that he did a course in surveying and has attended seminary. "We have not been able to verify these statements. He also said that he doesn't own a passport and has never travelled outside India. Our search at his places of residence did not yield a passport," said Sojan.
Monson's antique collection gained legitimacy after several publications including Deepika, traditionally owned by the Catholic church, but now a public limited company, and several television channels carried reports. The article 'Adbhudangalude sookshippukaran' (Guardian of wonders) written by a senior priest and editorial board member of the daily, and published on July 19, 2020 highlighted ancient artefacts including staff of Moses, two silver coins out of 30 given to Judas Iscariot. He also ran a YouTube channel to market his antique collection.
"Six months ago, when I came across a YouTube video it was instantly clear that the claims he made were preposterous. We wondered why no one called him out or arrested him," said Sunny R Malayil, who runs Crafters, an antique store in Jew Town, Mattancherry. Less than 10 traders here possess the licence to trade in antiques.
"Unless you have a non-antiquity certificate for the product, which means they are less than 100 years old from Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) they cannot be sold," he said.
The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, of 1972, requires that any privately owned work of art more than a hundred years old be registered with the government. According to Junaid Sulaiman, who deals in crafts in Jew Town, fake religious antiques or replicas that Monson held could have been obtained from Khan el-Khalili, a 14th century bazaar in Cairo known for fake 'antikas' with spurious certificates.
The cosy relationship Monson had with senior police officers is now seen as a reason why an earlier complaint against him was not thoroughly acted upon. On the night of September 25, the day of his daughter's betrothal, when officers reached his house at around 10 pm, Monson thought they were his guests. K J Joseph, who retired as state police chief in 2003, is livid.
"Police officers should not have in any way been involved with such fraudulent people. In our age this was unthinkable. There is no protocol that prevents it but we never went to houses of private individuals. If someone whom you do not know the background gives you a bouquet, would you go to his house next day, have dinner, take photos and attend their family celebrations? The decorum demands you to stay away from such friendships and associations. If at all they need to, it should be done after verifying their background," says Joseph. Two former DGPs refused to comment because the case involved senior police officials in the state.
The author is an independent journalist based in Kochi, Kerala. He tweets at @litemeter.
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