How a bizarre revenge plot snared five victims and sent an actor and a DJ to jail.

Words by:
Bhavya Dore
Photos by:
Oishi Dutta

April 15, 2024

“You can’t just let your house burn. You got to decide do I get the water from the well or a fire brigade but I have to pour the water.”

THERE WAS NOTHING instantly suspicious about the man—five feet, six inches, formally dressed, business-like. At the coffee shop of The Grand Hyatt in Bombay, he described an exciting new project to Chrisann Pereira. The petite, twenty-seven-year-old actor with a wide, dimpled smile had always wanted to be in showbiz. She had already essayed small roles in films like Sadak 2 and Batla House. The new web series sounded promising to her.

Ravi, as the man introduced himself, told Chrisann the audition was in Dubai—all expenses would be paid, her hotel and visa arrangements made by the company. But they couldn’t share the script yet because it was confidential. This was normal in Pereira’s line of work. She took the offer.

Hours before her Air Arabia flight on the night of 1 April, 2023, Ravi met her again. He handed her a shiny trophy, tightly wrapped in cellophane. It had the following inscription: “Awarded to RISHIKESH PANDYA: ACHIEVING 30 SUCCESSFUL EVENTS I.S. Solutions U.S.A Events”. She was told to carry this to her audition. Chrisann remembers thinking how light it was, how different from the trophy her brother had recently won at his company. She took it along. 

When she reached the airport, she devoured Extrapolations, a new drama series on Apple TV that ended up almost totally draining her phone battery. She briefly slept on her three-hour flight and disembarked at Sharjah around midnight. When she called her hotel and tried to locate her pick-up, she found there were no arrangements made. Ravi was unreachable, and more worryingly, all the messages exchanged between them on WhatsApp had disappeared. She Googled the name of the company mentioned on the award, but drew a blank. It all stank of a scam.  

Chrisann sent her father Mark—who was at home in Mumbai—a photo of the trophy, and trashed it on his suggestion. But her mother Premila advised her to hand it to the airport authorities instead, to avoid any trouble. It’s a moment Chrisann has returned to a thousand times since then. But every time, she would have done the same thing. “I still would have gone and handed it over to the police,” she said. “Because I had no idea what was happening. I was in an unknown country. I just wanted to be safe.”

No items found.

The police at the airport broke open the trophy and out popped what looked like “small shrubs”. There was a note, too, with the words “the joke will be on you”.

At first, it was a swirl of confusion—she didn’t get any clear answers and conversations in Arabic peppered the air. After several hours, she was asked to get into a vehicle. “Where are we going?” she remembers asking. Just for an investigation, she was told. Chrisann wasn’t panicking yet—she thought she was simply helping them. “Will I be able to go home tomorrow?” she asked. One of them replied: “Inshallah”.

There’s cheating and forgery. There’s extortion. And then, there’s this saga that is dialled up and lubricated by pettiness. Officials associated with the case described it as “crazy” and “weird”. You know that movie, Zinda, one asked—the one where Sanjay Dutt’s character is held in jail but has no idea why? It’s something like that. A strange, shape-shifting, cross-border con where victims became the accused. It features a bakery owner, an actor, a DJ, drugs, stray dogs, stray comments and an investigation spurred by Instagram. Through several interviews, police documents and court papers, Object reconstructed the alleged crimes of a certain Anthony Paul. 

INSTEAD OF BEING at an audition, Chrisann unexpectedly found herself in a jail cell in a foreign country. The charges? Trafficking drugs. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is harsh on drug offenders; a conviction could mean a life sentence and, in extreme cases, the death penalty. 

With no contact from Chrisann, her family in India was getting increasingly restive. They approached the local police in Mumbai with a cheating complaint against Ravi. On 5 April, a full four days after hearing from Chrisann, the Indian consulate informed them that she was being held in the Sharjah Central Jail. Again, the family wrote to the local police, “Our daughter is innocent and has been framed. We urgently request you to reach out to Sharjah Police and help us in getting in touch with our daughter and get her back as she is not involved in this crime.” 

At first, Chrisann’s older brother Kevin, a marketing executive, became the public face of the appeal. On 7 April, the first posts went out. “URGENT help required”, it began, then went on to say, “We are worried sick not hearing from her past seven days.” On Twitter, he tagged the accounts of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Mumbai Police and the Prime Minister’s Office. 

The Pereira family was scrambling for legal help and told the media they were even considering mortgaging their property in case they had to pay heavy fines. Into the scene entered thirty-five-year-old Anthony Paul. The stout, five-feet-five-inches tall bakery owner knew the Pereiras. The family shopped at his bakery in Borivali, and he had even requested Chrisann to post about it on Instagram. His sister lived in the same building as the Pereiras in IC Colony, a leafy, Catholic-dominated residential enclave in the city’s western suburbs. In fact, Paul and Premila had just returned from a business trip to Hyderabad to explore a real estate opportunity.

Premila told the police they were together when Chrisann became unreachable so she ended up confiding in Paul. 

From that point, Paul began assuring the family of all possible help. He claimed to have a contact in the UAE and that he could arrange for Chrisann’s release for eighty lakh rupees. As Paul’s insistence grew, so did the Pereiras’ suspicions. 

On 9 April, eight days after their last contact with Chrisann, Paul arrived at the Pereiras’ residence around 8 pm to meet the family. He came bearing buns and Easter greetings. He responded sharply when Kevin told him about the social media posts. 

“Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that,” he said. “Why?” Kevin asked. 

“You know how many people have replied and called us and been supportive.” Paul insisted, “I don’t think you should do that.” Mark interjected to say the police weren’t making much progress. The conversation moved to a “parallel channel” that Paul was dangling, some kind of under-the-table option to get Chrisann out. He claimed he had enviable contacts. The asking price was several lakhs. 

This meeting, covertly video-recorded by Kevin on his iPhone, later became a part of the chargesheet. The forty-three-minute-long conversation is a masterclass in bloviation. “If you need me for anything I am just a phone call away,” Anthony had said at one point. Later, “Money is secondary. I have face value,” and “Police is not taking FIR, you want me to get it done?” He appeared to alternate between catastrophising, goading, wheedling and reassuring. “You can’t just let your house burn. You got to decide do I get the water from the well or a fire brigade but I have to pour the water.” At the end of the visit, he prayed with them. “Father, you know what she is feeling. You exactly know what they are feeling as a family. So Father, we ask you to bring restoration.”

Four days later, Kevin put out the post on Instagram that perhaps marked a turning point. “Update: We got to know that the charges against my sister Chrisann are drugs found in the momento (award). This was handed over by a fraud here in India who framed her, sending her to Sharjah for an “Acting Audition”. He attached a photo of the cling-wrapped trophy with Rishikesh Pandya’s name on it. 

RISHIKESH PANDYA WAS on a train when a friend alerted him to this Instagram post. Oh God, he thought. This was the same trophy with the identical creasing which he had been handed last month by a man called Ravi. He immediately called Kevin, whose number he procured through a common contact. “I am the guy you are searching for,” he said. “I am Rishikesh Pandya.” 

Thirty-four-year-old Pandya is a fast-talking, bespectacled businessman with a singular focus: dhanda. He prides himself on having a crack bullshit detector and a nose for scams. But Pandya was in a rough place after the COVID-19 pandemic. His event management business had taken a hit and he had pivoted to a start-up—renting out a farmhouse for events and shoots. His father-in-law happened to mention Pandya’s new venture at his workplace in Borivali: a bakery called Our Daily Bread. The bakery owner, Paul, heard about this and sought a meeting, where he presented himself as a potential investor. Pandya treated him with guarded caution; internally baulking at his swagger. The two met a handful of times in 2022 but no collaborations materialised.

In February 2023, Pandya received a call from a man called Ravi. Like Chrisann, Pandya’s work also involved agents, middlemen and word-of-mouth opportunities. Ravi purported to have a client in Dubai and said the deal was worth two-and-a half crore rupees. Pandya found him fishy right at the outset—Ravi came to their first meeting at the Hyatt masked. 

At a subsequent meeting with Ravi, Liza, Pandya’s wife and business partner, also went along. Paul, her father’s boss, insisted on accompanying them as a well-wisher. Liza and Paul ran the meeting, and Paul even asked Ravi detailed questions about the alleged deal. Pandya agreed to go ahead with it. 

On the day of Pandya’s flight, the four met again. That’s when Pandya set his eyes on the notorious trophy for the first time. Ravi wanted him to take it to the client in Dubai, and have a photo taken. But Pandya was dubious and offered to have it couriered. Paul intervened, saying he would deal with the trophy instead. They split up—and Pandya headed to the airport. A little while later, Paul spoke to Pandya and told him he had discarded the trophy on the highway because he wasn’t “comfortable” about it.

When Pandya arrived in Sharjah the following morning, he was whisked aside for a surprisingly thorough check. Each of his items was unpacked and inspected. He was put through an X-ray machine. 

The police at the airport broke open the trophy and out popped what looked like “small shrubs.” There was a note, too, with the words “The joke will be on you”.

Two hours later he was allowed to leave. As with Chrisann, there were no arrangements for him, no meeting and fake return tickets. Pandya knew something bad had just happened. And something worse had been averted. 

On the phone, Paul played the concerned well-wisher. “Brother, we are there for you, I will use my contacts and bring you back—he told me,” Pandya recalled. When Pandya returned to Mumbai, still aggrieved, he tried to get back to the normal rhythm of his life. Paul dissuaded him from going to the police.  

Now, on the train, staring back from his phone screen was the same suspicious trophy he had refused to carry. It contained drugs and entrapped a hapless actor in a prison in a foreign land. 

AS PEREIRA’S POSTS on social media buzzed on to phones and tablets across Catholic neighbourhoods in Mumbai, more victims began to come forward. Thirty-seven-year-old fashion designer Monisha Demelo had an uncannily similar story. “Ravi”, in her case, “Prasad Rao”, had arranged a meeting in Dubai between Demelo and a client who had a large wedding-wear order. Before leaving, he handed her a cake, some cupcakes and a packet of poppy seeds. Demelo discarded the package before her flight. In Sharjah, when she found no arrangements and a fake return ticket, she rang Prasad. In this case, he answered, apologised and then stopped responding to her altogether. Demelo took a flight back to Mumbai and forgot about the incident. The police later claimed that she was the first alleged mark in what would become a string of disconcertingly similar episodes.

BY THE TIME Ken Rodrigues was entrapped, the scam was in its third iteration. The fitness instructor was set up for a six-month-long nutrition and body training gig in Dubai, handed a trophy and put on a flight. He discarded the trophy and returned home. 

Pandya, Demelo and Ken Rodrigues had all come off relatively unscathed. Frustrated, yes. Cheated, yes. But none had to suffer time in prison. However, Clayton Rodrigues wasn’t as fortunate. And he was still not out of prison. 

It all began in January 2023. “Prasad” approached Clayton, a DJ on the Cordelia cruise ship, saying his boss had heard Clayton playing, and had loved his work. Prasad claimed he had a job offer for Clayton, but first he would have to give an audition in Dubai. The initial proposal led to five-star hotel meetings, paid-for tickets, a visa. On 5 February, the night before Clayton’s flight, the Rodrigues hosted their daughter’s communion. Clayton’s wife Falyn, and Paul’s girlfriend knew each other from work. So, the couple was also invited. But Paul and his girlfriend arrived two hours early and left even before the function began—a move that Falyn, on hindsight, found suspicious.

At a last-minute meeting before Clayton’s early-morning flight to Sharjah, Prasad handed him a cake and told him it was for his boss. The cream-laden cake packed in a small container raised Clayton’s suspicions. But Prasad insisted that no other cake would do. The police later claimed that Paul had himself baked it at his bakery in Malad. He had also slipped a taunting note inside: “Sample, 50kg available.”

Falyn woke up around 9 am the following morning with an uneasy feeling. When she slid open her phone, there were no messages from Clayton. This was unusual. Even when he was on the ship for months with poor connectivity, he always found a way to stay in touch. Two hours later, Falyn got a call from Paul’s girlfriend—Paul had left his wallet at their place the previous evening and wanted to come over to pick it up. As he would with Chrisann later, he deliberately found a way to be in the thick of the crisis as it was unfolding, so he could immediately read the situation. 

When he arrived, the “Anthony show” as Falyn describes it, began. Paul quickly made himself home and asked for a cup of tea. He enquired about Clayton’s whereabouts and expressed surprise that he had not been in touch with Falyn. 

By now, Clayton’s brother in Dubai had also grown worried and began searching for him. At around 2.20 pm, shortly after Paul left her home, Falyn received a message from an unknown number, stating: “Clayton is arrested at UAE narcotics substance, send help, do not contact this number.” 

The police found cannabis and poppy seeds in a container inside the cake.  

Falyn was unable to lodge a cheating complaint with the local police in Mumbai—she was told there was little they could do with just a phone number of the alleged cheater. Eventually, twenty-four hours after he left, Falyn heard that Clayton was in prison. “We were speechless, we didn’t know what to say or how to comfort each other,” she said, of her first call with her husband.

Paul, who was now suddenly keenly in touch with Falyn, advised her against going to the police. He assured her that he would handle it through his contacts, that a lawyer he knew could bring Clayton home if they paid 98,000 dollars. He said he would do what it took, even if it meant “bringing Clayton home in a cargo ship”; after all Falyn was like his sister. Falyn was so harrowed, a “headless chicken” as she puts it, willing “to go to any level, sell anything to just get our people back”. 

As with Chrisann, Paul’s excessive interest in Clayton’s case had already alarmed other family members. So, Falyn started recording her calls with Paul, paying greater attention to his behaviour as the days passed.

In the meantime, weeks ticked on but Clayton remained in prison. When Kevin’s Instagram post blipped onto Falyn’s radar, only one thought came to her mind: this is a mirror image. The two spoke and mapped the similarities in their respective cases. Then she volunteered her suspicions about Paul. 

PAUL RAN OUR Daily Bread, a bakery with branches in Malad and Borivali. The outlets were popular and served an array of breads and pastries, including a wicked Belgian chocolate mousse and a soft poee. One former customer remarked that the poee was the closest he had come to the original Goan thing. 

Paul was frequently seen at his bakeries. He knew each of the victims personally—in two cases, his employees were related to them.

His victims mentioned he was a talkative man, smart but boastful and adept at networking. According to Pandya, he casually mentioned that he visited the Ambanis. Another time he excused himself, saying Aditya Thackeray was on the line. He seemed to be God-fearing, or at least made a show of it, elaborately saying “grace” when offered food. 

Paul lived with his parents and a younger brother in a housing colony at Mira Road where they owned three apartments. Paul spent his teenage years here, attended a local school and went to Australia for further studies. Building residents claimed that the family was querulous, and quick to take offence, even over small issues like parking.

So, people tended to stay away from them. “They have been creating trouble ever since they came,” said Narayanan Nambiar, the secretary of the society where Paul’s family lives. A bakery outside the complex called Our Daily Bread later claimed on Instagram that Paul had lifted their name and identity without permission, and had refused to change it.

PERHAPS THE CASE would have been cracked even without social media. But Kevin’s posts on Instagram and Twitter lent it an irrevocable momentum. As the victims came forward one by one and exchanged their stories, the pattern that emerged seemed unmissable. By now, the police were taking it seriously.

On 24 April, the crime branch team arrested Paul from his Borivali bakery. At first, Paul feigned ignorance. But he had likely sensed the game was up, and had begun destroying evidence in the course of the previous days.

Investigators ran down leads on the cell phone numbers victims had heard from—these led back to Paul. The probe revealed fake air tickets crafted on his phone. He allegedly bought the trophies from a local shop where he asked that they be hollow and lightweight.

His cell phone records revealed the accomplice Rajesh Bobhate—aliases “Ravi” and “Prasad” —a bank manager. The police believe Paul and Bobhate first met in 2016 through a common friend. According to them, Paul approached Bobhate with the plan as he knew the victims and could not conduct the initial meetings himself. Police believe Bobhate was himself lied to. Paul told him the families of the victims wanted them to go abroad, and that if Bobhate helped achieve that, he would get a commission.

Now, on the train, staring back from his phone screen was the same suspicious trophy he had refused to carry. It had contained drugs and had entrapped a hapless actor in a prison in a foreign land.

The plot was hatched in late 2022 according to the police. Paul had read about severe sentences for drug-related offences in certain countries. He chose the UAE over Singapore, because tickets to Sharjah were comparatively cheaper. In December 2022, he allegedly bought 500 grams of ganja worth 6,000 rupees from one Shantisingh Rajput, a daily-wage labourer who had done an electrical job at his bakery. Paul bought it on the pretext that he needed a small quantity for an ailing relative. He also bought an unspecified quantity of poppy seeds from a grocery store in Borivali (it is legal here). A few weeks later, he rolled out his campaign when he targeted his first alleged victim—fashion designer Demelo.

The pattern repeated in every case: the professional opportunity overseas, the paid-for tickets and visas, the five-star hotel meetings with Ravi/Prasad, Paul appearing in the moment of crisis offering advice, comfort or contacts. The police also claim that Paul tipped off the airport authorities in Sharjah to certain passengers travelling into the country with contraband.

All of this has been documented in the 1,500-odd-page chargesheet which Mumbai’s Crime Branch Unit X filed on 21 June, containing charges of cheating, forgery and impersonation, leading to the overhanging question: why? Why on earth would someone hatch such an elaborate scheme against people he knew? People who seemed to have done him no harm?

The police believe Paul was motivated primarily by revenge and schadenfreude—a pleasure at their downfall. Extortion was ancillary. Though he tried, he didn’t end up getting money from any of the families. In fact, he would have spent up to half a lakh of rupees simply on one-way tickets for the five victims.

The prosecution has created a pithy nine-column table with the names of each victim and other case details. The last column is a window into petty slights and infarctions. The heading is in the form of a question: “What enemity Anthony had with victim?” 

Paul had had words with Chrisann’s mother Premila over stray dogs in their neighbourhood. Premila, who frequently fed them, once found Paul throwing a chair at one of the strays in the building. “My mom stopped him and said, what’s wrong with you?” recalled Chrisann. “You can act as if you’re throwing a stone to scare the dog but you don’t have to literally throw a chair.” Though the two later patched up, this incident appeared to have rankled Paul. 

Meanwhile, the police believe Pandya was targeted by Paul over the souring of their professional equation, and that Demelo was picked because he believed she broke up Paul and her sister.  

Perhaps the reason behind singling out Clayton is the most absurd of them all. When the Rodrigues went to Paul’s farmhouse for a day trip, his girlfriend’s son from a previous relationship had made a remark. The child said that Clayton reminded him of “Dadda”, Paul’s girlfriend’s ex-husband, the boy’s father. Falyn recalled Paul’s face falling, his behaviour changing. Perhaps that was enough to find a spot in Paul’s grudge book.

TWO DAYS AFTER Paul found himself in jail, Chrisann found herself getting out of jail. The authorities in Sharjah kept her passport but released her on bail as the investigation progressed. At this point it had been twenty-seven days. The early days were marked by catatonic sense of shock for Chrisann. “What did I do? Why am I in prison?” she recalled thinking. “I have done nothing wrong.” Ahead of her, a life sentence potentially loomed. She wondered how she would convince a judge of her innocence. She prayed hard every day with some African inmates in a cell full of women speaking different languages. Seventeen days after her imprisonment, Chrisann was finally able to speak with her family and told them she was in jail. “And, they were like, yeah! We know!” she laughs.

After twenty-seven days in custody, Chrisann headed straight to the house of a family friend in Dubai. She cried into her chicken spaghetti with red sauce: her first meal as a free person. The best goddam bowl of pasta in her life. As she waited for the final decision in her case, she spent weeks listless and dejected, trying to eviscerate the trauma from her head. “How much is my life worth you know?” she asks. “Eighty lakhs?” 

She finally returned to India in early August after being cleared of all charges. Kevin posted a video on Instagram—of himself and his sister embracing. “It was extremely emotional to see them,” she said. And I didn’t want to let go of hugging them for hours.”

IN MUMBAI’S CITY Civil and Sessions Court complex, court room number forty-two on the first floor is designated for cases that involve narcotics. It’s full of creaky metal cupboards and backless wooden benches. Advocates crowd around tables in front, separated from the judge by a glass panel. 

This is where Paul’s bail plea has been heard over the past few months. Paul’s lawyer Alisha Parekh called the case against him “weak”. In his bail application, Paul contested the charges and said he had been framed. Parekh argued that the allegations were “foam without water”, all “surmises and circumstances” without substance. Paul claimed he her and that drugs were not detected by either airport authority, in Mumbai or Sharjah. Paul’s previous lawyer Ajay Dubey said that the main role was not Paul’s but Bobhate’s, and that there was no direct evidence against Paul. 

Bobhate also remains in jail. He, too, claims he is being framed. In a bail application filed by his advocate Shekhar Bhandare, he said “nothing incriminating” was detected at Mumbai when Chrisann left. And that none of the other alleged victims registered a complaint against Bobhate. Moreover, the plea claims, even the police have said that Bobhate was “kept in the dark with false stories and misinformation”. The court has yet to decide on his plea. On 10 October, the judge rejected Paul’s bail plea. In November, he moved the Bombay High Court, but the matter has not yet come up for hearing. He faces charges related to cheating, forgery and some sections of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. 

On 7 November, a special NDPS court transferred the case to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate. It said that the drugs found were of a “small quantity”, and conviction attracted a shorter prison sentence, so the jurisdiction of the NDPS court would not apply.   

Mary Paul, his mother, declined to meet, saying she was not in the right frame of mind. Those who have recently met her say she has been shattered, suffering from poor health and even been hospitalised.

In October 2023, the police filed a supplementary chargesheet based on Chrisann’s statement. She also moved court opposing Paul’s bail plea. She believes he could pose a danger to herself and her family. 

On 24 May 2023, Clayton was convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison by a court in Sharjah. Falyn said they did not get a proper legal defence at first. The media reported last month that Clayton’s appeal was rejected, and his family plans to move the Supreme Court. Falyn continues to pray, holding out hope every day.

These episodes have created a kind of kinship of the wronged between Paul’s alleged victims. “We will never forget what we did for each other to stand for the truth and come together to ensure that criminals like these don’t affect other innocent lives,” said Falyn. She spoke of the Pereira family as “angels”. Chrisann, in turn, brought up Clayton and said perhaps her experience was a way to bring his case to light. Pandya dismissed his own episode by contrast. “The story is not mine,” he said. “It was much bigger when two innocent people were stuck in it”.  

The incident has also left deep scars. “Our approach towards people has changed,” said Falyn, of her family. “We are much more careful and trust [others] less easily.”

The Pereiras are still trying to move past it; Chrisann is easing her way back into writing and performing. She recently finished work on a show that wrapped up, “just before this trip down to hell”. It will be released in 2024. 

Paul’s trial might take years to start, let alone end. The mere thought daunts Chrisann. Even then, she said, “I definitely once want to see his face to understand: how can a human being do this to someone who’s never done anything to you?” 

But she carries no anger within her, and has a strengthened belief in god. “The realisation of what freedom means has a whole new meaning for me,” she said. “I am really just enjoying life.”

Bhavya Dore

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