The Beast of Badulla – Copy Cats and Mass Hysteria?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

For the past couple of weeks, there has been much excitement in our Sri Lankan neighbourhood (near Badulla). For some time there have been rumours about women being attacked. Villagers are convinced that there is a serial killer on the rampage. The elderly ladies, Tewanee and Meenaachi,  who work for us  have been telling us that they know for a fact that women have been raped and killed in this vicinity, their breasts bitten off, their hearts torn out. Tewanee’s dogs were killed by having their throats slashed.

We heard of an attack at two-mile  post another at seven mile post. We heard that a man had been chased by a mob with sticks and knives and he had hidden in the jungle near the Tea Research Institute. We asked a doctor friend who works in Badulla near the general hospital if there was any truth in these rumours. He said there had been attacks but he had not heard of any deaths. Sightings got  closer to our home. We phoned the local police chief. At that very moment  he was in a meeting with the manager of the tea estate next to the one on which we live. The OIC (Officer in Charge) told us there was nothing to worry about, These were just wild rumours. He said there was no truth either in stories that children were being abducted from the lines (the estate accommodation for tea pluckers and labourers).

The manager on another tea estate, someone with whom we often socialise, also pooh-poohed the idea of attacks on women. However, later in the conversation, he admitted that he had taken a woman to hospital after she had been attacked on an estate road and badly scratched  She had been with another woman who ran away.

The attacks are being blamed on bhuthaya, grease yakas or grease devils. Historically, a “grease devil” was a thief who wore only underwear or went naked and covered his body in grease to make himself difficult to grab if chased. Lately, the “grease devil” has become a night-time prowler who frightens and attacks women. Some of the reported attacks around here have been in daylight.

The name ‘Grease Devils’ was used in connection with the killings of seven elderly women in Kahawatte, near Ratnapura. On  July 5, 2011, about 2,000 people protested about the  ineffectiveness of the police. According to human rights campaigner Basil Fernando: “The most attractive aspect of policing in Sri Lanka today is no longer investigation into crime and serving the people. It now appears to be the improvement of one’s own position, and to make money. There are many avenues open to senior police officers to do just this which makes worrying about criminal investigations an inconvenience…the authorities are more concerned about damage-control rather than trying to arrest the culprits. After the scandal goes away it will be business as usual, meaning that criminal investigation will remain no one’s business, as before.”

A man was arrested on  Friday July 7 in an operation conducted by a special police unit assisted by the CID and the Ratnapura police. He broke the necks of these women before he raped them and dumped the bodies in jungles around Kahawatte. The suspect is  a 35-year-old  army deserter known as Dhananjaya. The killing spree began  in 2008. It is said that  the suspect is mentally impaired, having had a bullet graze his skull whilst serving at the front during the war. He deserted from the army while stationed at Vedithilathiv and moved to Kahawatte. He started by stealing  women’s underwear and later peeped  at women asleep in their beds or taking showers. This escalated to  forcibly embracing women. “When I look at young women I am not attracted to them. But when I look at middle-aged women, I am sexually aroused,” Dhananjaya had told the police during interrogation.

There have long been rumours about feral bands of army deserters living in jungles and swooping on remote villages to plunder and rape.

Initially, there was not much in the newspapers despite accusations by the authorities against “the media” about distortion and panic-mongering. All the news was by word of mouth. There were rumours of incidents all over the country. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who lives in the Kalutara area on the west coast, told us that on three separate occasions she has been scared by three different men staring in through her windows. One of them was naked.

A 36-year old airline ticketing agent from the Hill Country district of Matale said, “The story we hear is he comes and bites young women’s necks and breasts. Despite several complaints, the police have failed to act on that and in fact in two places have released the culprits,”.

A 16 year-old boy who posed as a ‘Grease Yaka’ and attempted to rob a house in the Badulla area was arrested. The youth along with another friend had rehearsed for the robbery and captured his own photograph on his mobile phone before he was detained by the villagers and handed over to the Police.

Ushanar Marzuka, 31, a mother of two living in a remote area in Valaichchenai in the east, was accosted by two men clad in T-shirts and shorts with faces painted black. One of them cut her with a sharp object he carried in his hand. More than 100 villagers, some of them armed with clubs started searching for the two men. They caught a man and beat him up.  He had said he was visiting one of his relatives.

A masked man who was terrorising people in the Sigiriya-Dambulla area was arrested by police on August 13. Police said the 34-year-old suspect was hiding inside a wooded area on the Sigiriya border when he was apprehended around 7.30pm. The police were led to the suspect’s hide out on a tip-off provided by local villagers. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of a bag loaded with women’s under wear.

There have been deaths. Police said that two unfortunate men killed at Thotalagala estate in Haputale, not far from us,  were two travelling rug salesmen, though villagers identified them as ‘Grease Devils.’ The police identified the victims as Somasundaram Mahendran (29) and Sylvester Dias Jonny Peter (35). Fifty Special Task Force personnel had been deployed at the Thotalagala Tea Estate. Earlier in the day in the  villagers  had assaulted two men apparently in the presence of police. This led to a clash between the police and villagers, in which the OIC and a constable were injured. Because of this police had delayed about five hours reaching  the scene at Thotalagala estate.

In Daulagala, near Kandy a 23 year old youth who was among a group of villagers giving chase to a suspicious person got entangled in a live electrical wire set to a trap wild boar and was electrocuted.

A mob attacked the navy camp in Kinniya, Trincomalee after assuming that a suspect had taken refuge inside the premises. The mob believed the suspect was a man with grease on his body. Over 500 people gathered around the navy camp, pelted it with stones and also set fire to a jeep which arrived at the scene with police reinforcements. The Sri Lankan police said that at least three people including a police officer were injured in the attack and 25 people were later arrested.

The fear is real. We have been told two men have been watching our house, one man dressed all in white, another dressed all in black. There have been reports of two strange men hiding in a drain near our house. A male worker who sometimes does jobs for us told us to be careful. He said the yakas jump from trees. Some might be suspicious about that worker himself. The husband of one of our workers has been expressing fears about our safety but did not worry about going away to work on  lorry without telling his wife that he was going. Police have been calling at his house looking for him. His neighbour has three young daughters and his wife is always away working in the Middle East. The man is rarely at home and leaves the daughters to fend for themselves. The girls, aged from five to thirteen, are very scared by the stories of yakas.

Villagers are roaming the roads around our house with sticks and knives and setting fire to the jungle to flush the miscreants out. Strangers come under suspicion. We phoned the police one night when there were shouting mobs roaming the roads. The local police fobbed us off but we later heard that they did come to investigate. One villager said a policeman pleaded, “Please don’t hit me son. I’m a policeman. Hit the Yaka if you catch him. Kill him with your stick if you like but don’t hit me. I’m a police officer!” It does not seem that villagers suspect their own – the emphasis is on fear of strangers – but there is potential for the settling of old scores as in the Salem witch hunts and Guantanamo. The belief that the police are releasing culprits adds to the vigilante frenzy.

It is quite touching that Tewanee has invited us to stay at her home out of fear for our safety. Our neighbours are related to the people living below them. There is no love lost but they insisted that they all stay with them for safety.

I recall that there were panics in England about the Beast of Bodmin  Moor and the Beast of Exmoor. There were many sightings also in an area I am familiar with, Gloucestershire. Residents of the Cotswolds provided photographs of  a Muntjac Deer  mutilated horribly. According to Frank Tunbridge, self-proclaimed big cat expert and BBC contributor:  “Most of the ribs are bitten off close to the spine (giving easier access to internal organs). The carcass also has a badly twisted broken neck and strips of skin torn from nose area (sustained in initial attack) skin and fur were peeled back in a clinical way as is often the case in big cat kills. There are marks to show the carcass has been dragged 10 feet into some cover (dense brambles) to be consumed at leisure out of sight, which is typical big cat behaviour. One Cotswold resident reported seeing a large black cat eyeing a cow on Edge Common.

Some testimony must be taken with a pinch of salt: “I know for a fact there are big cats in Cheltenham. My husband has been working late a lot lately. When I saw there were severe scratch marks on his back he told me, his voice shaking, how he had been attacked in Montpellier by a black puma on his way home. Those scratches were deep, painful looking, and too big to be from a domestic cat”. This “witness” signs as Mrs Cynthia Cuckold.

I became interested in the subject of mass hysteria and witch hunts when I worked at the Child Protection Unit at the Department of Health in London. We commissioned the anthropologist, Professor Jean La Fontaine, an expert on witchcraft and witch hunts, to conduct a study of satanic ritual child abuse. This idea that there was a secret, highly organised cult of Satanists intent on the sexual abuse and murder of young children first appeared in California in the early 1980s and was exported to Britain towards the end of the same decade. This was taken up by powerful advocates in the media in the UK. One of the most significant voices was that of the journalist Bea Campbell, whom I encountered at various conferences. Another strong advocate of the satanic conspiracy was Valerie Sinason, a psychotherapist, whom I also met many times. These conferences almost became religious rallies or Amway  meetings where one was afraid to voice any doubts about the doctrine and faith that satanic abuse was a huge problem.

These satanic rites supposedly involved human sacrifice, breeding children for sacrifice, child murder and cannibalism. I recall a forensic psychiatrist saying at one of these conferences that she had never, in many years of wide experience,  seen any evidence of satanic child abuse. I thought she would be dragged from the hall for hanging, drawing and quartering as a heretic. If one disbelieved one was suspected of being an abuser.

Social workers all over Britain were convinced that they had a divine duty to protect innocent children against an evil conspiracy whose tentacles stretched deep into the establishment, involved free-masonry and reached into the police forces who were supposed to be investigating it.

A number of police inquiries concluded that thorough investigations had produced no bodies, no bones, no bloodstains and that, if ritual abuse presentations did not cease,  there was a likelihood of a witch-hunt developing which might result in grave injustice.

La Fontaine had previously been sympathetic to the Bea Campbell view of the existence of satanic abuse but in her report concurred with the police view that there was no evidence. She argued that what is presented as the testimony of children in most satanic abuse cases is almost always an adult construction. This comes about either because of selective over-interpretation of innocent remarks or through coercive or suggestive interviewing. The social workers shaped the evidence they were pre-disposed to find.

What happened in Britain from 1987 onwards was not just a national phenomenon, not just British social workers going crazy. It was a kind of viral mass hysteria generated as the result of a global village rumour whose specific origins, documented by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker in their book Satan’s Silence (Basic Books, New York, 1995), can actually be examined.

It is odd that the Grease Yaka phenomenon should be sweeping Sri Lanka at the same that English cities were burning in riots. The Irish Times said this about the English riots: “the exact nature of the initial stimulus is of little significance. Rumours rose and spread in the vacuum left by the dearth of police communication, and soon what had actually happened mattered little in comparison to what people had come to believe.”

Contagion Theory was formulated by Gustave Le Bon in 1896. According to him, crowds exert a hypnotic influence over individual  members. In a crowd,  people abandon personal responsibility and surrender to contagious emotions. A crowd can drive people toward irrational, even violent action.

According to convergence theory, crowds can diffuse responsibility. Crowds, in addition, can intensify a sentiment simply by creating a critical mass of like-minded people. according to Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian, crowds begin as collectivities composed of people with mixed interests and motives. People in crowds make their own rules as they go along.

James Alan Fox, professor of criminology and law at Northeastern University in Boston, says of the English riots: “This is a contagion of wilding. It is exciting, thrilling. It can occur randomly after something like a police shooting, and get out of hand. The majority doing the looting and arson see it as fun, and justify it because lots of other people are doing it. It is different from entrenched gang activity, and if the police can quickly squelch the rioting, the people involved are not necessarily committed to a life of crime and violence. This is not a sign of permanent change in British society.”

In Urani, Pottuvil, in the Eastern province, villagers attacked three Wild Life officers carrying out an elephant census, accusing them of being Grease Yakas. The  army intervened. Villagers  attacked the soldiers as well. Villagers detained three boys who were apparently loitering in the Vinayagapuram area of Tirukkovil and handed them over to the police. Later, hundreds of people had converged at the police station demanding that the boys be handed over to them to carry out their own ‘investigations’. Villagers set fire to tyres , stoned  the police prompting them to open fire injuring two villagers. The army was called to the area to control the situation, after tear gas failed to disperse the mob. The army  fired at the  crowd,  killing one person. It later transpired that the dead man was an activist of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). M. Maujoom a 32-year-old father of three.

SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem is Minister of Justice in the coalition government. Hakeem hurried to the airport to meet President Rajapaksa who was returning from China.  “I told the people that the President was concerned about the situation here in Pottuvil and that he condemned the killing in no uncertain terms. We assured them that everyone responsible will be held accountable.” Twenty youths were arrested for vandalism and damage of state property. Hakeem said, “We told the people that there were people with vested interests who are formulating these reprehensible rumours, with the idea of putting the government into difficulty.” An SLMC spokesman told The Island newspaper that President Rajapaksa, during his meeting with Minister Hakeem that the ‘grease devils’ story could be a plot against him and his government. The Government mouthpiece the Daily News seems to be suggesting that the JVP, a Marxist opposition party, is the culprit.

JVP MP Vijitha Herath claimed  in Parliament that there is a connection between the Government and these incidents. There is  rumour an  offering of the blood of 1000 young women is required for the reign of the president to continue

Some claim that the government is using the military to create a tense situation to justify the continuation of emergency regulations. Others argue that this is an attempt to gain the support of the majority community and create ethnic disharmony among the communities in the light of international pressure on war crimes and gain political power. Some see significance in the fact that the incidents have mainly occurred in Tamil and Muslim areas.


On August 4, police spokesman Prishantha Jayakodi, went on TV to say that most of these incidents are blown out of proportion by the media.  The myth mostly spreads in rural areas like Badulla and Mahiyanganaya. “Those are the areas where women mostly stay at home alone or walk alone as their husbands are in the fields. Certain individuals with different desires try to exploit this situation. People who want their neighbours to leave throw stones in the night to scare them and blame it on the Grease Yaka.” Superintendent Jayakodi may be a little out of touch. Our long experience of the area he refers to is that the women do all the work and the men stay at home.

Director General of Government Information Department Prof. Ariyaratne Athugala said that there was no basis for the story of ‘grease devils’ in the provinces. A statement issued by the Government Information Department said that there was no truth about the arrest of persons who have applied grease on their body and no such person has been handed over to the police. no arrests have been made of  ‘grease yakas’ in any part of the country. Ariyaratne urged the media to desist from using the term ‘Grease devils,’ or ‘grease Yaka.’

The statement said that a peaceful  atmosphere was prevailing in the country which is on a rapid development programme and the people are moving about freely in the country.

There are hints in those words about different agendas.

The odd thing about this is that, on the same day as the information department was huffing and puffing and pooh-poohing, the new national police chief N. K. Illangakoon (his predecessor resigned after  police shot dead an unarmed union protester) and his deputy Pujith Jayasundara called a press conference to admit the situation was a “mess”. “The fear needs to be overcome and everyone should work towards this end,” he said. The DIG said so far 47 persons involved in this scare drama had been arrested. He conceded that the situation had been mishandled with the result that “the problem was allowed to develop into a full blown crisis, causing deaths, hatred, fear and a lack of trust in the police.”