Mystery as Cafe Coffee Day‘s owner missing

Mangaluru: Karnataka, and the rest of India, woke up to a massive shock on Tuesday morning soon after news spread that V.G. Siddhartha, founder of the Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) chain, the Indian rival to Starbucks, and son-in-law of former chief minister S.M. Krishna, had gone missing near a bridge over the river Netravathi in Mangaluru on Monday evening.

Siddhartha is yet to be traced with a herculean search operation now being carried out by personnel of the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, police and local fishermen in the swirling waters of the Netravathi. They are acting on the suspicion that Siddhartha may have taken his own life by jumping into the river at a point, barely 2 km from the sea, as a letter by him alluding to pressures from a private equity investor to buy back shares have left many questions answered.

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), home guards, fire department and the coastal police too are involved in this operation which is proving extremely difficult because of the rains and the fact that the river has a width of 1 km at the spot where Siddhartha was last seen before it enters the Arabian Sea.

Siddhartha’s driver, Basavaraja Patil, who filed a missing person’s complaint at the Kankanady police station in Mangaluru on Monday midnight, said he had taken his employer to the CCD office at Vittal Mallya Road at 8 am and returned home at 11 am on July 29. As Siddhartha wanted to go to his village in Chikkamagaluru, he asked the driver to bring his luggage and they left at 12.30 pm in a Toyota Innova, leaving his regular driver and car behind.

The dramatic sequence of events began when they were about to reach Sakaleshpur in Hassan. Siddhartha asked the driver to continue driving and go to Mangaluru instead. “When we reached the circle at the entrance of Mangaluru (Mahaveera Circle), he (Siddhartha) asked me to take a left turn as he wanted to go to his site (the CCD owner owns a property at Ullal),” the driver explained.

“When we reached Ullal bridge on Kerala Highway, he asked me to stop the car before the bridge and asked me to wait at the other end as he wanted to walk. He
stepped out and asked me to stay in the car. He crossed the road to reach the other lane going towards Mangaluru and started walking on the bridge. I waited, but when he did not return by about 8 pm, I tried calling him. His number was switched off,” Basavaraja said. Sources said the CCD chief left all his personal possessions behind in the car, only carrying his mobile telephone with him.

The panicked driver then called Siddhartha’s son Amarthya Hegde, who said that he would call his dad. By then Coffee Day officer Pradeep Shetty had also reached the spot. Not finding Siddhartha anywhere, the officials and family members held a discussion and decided to lodge a complaint with the police.

Mangaluru police commissioner Sandeep Patil, who is supervising the rescue operations, said a dog squad was used during the search. “It stopped in the middle of the bridge. We are ing all those to whom he spoke to before he went missing,” he said. Four teams have been formed by the police chief to probe the shocking incident from all angles.

Sources said the last tower on which Siddhartha’s mobile signal was active was Jeppinamogaru — which is near the bridge where he was last seen.

Based on a request from the Dakshina Kannada deputy commissioner, the Indian Navy has deployed two Gemini boats and a Navy diving team from its Karwar base. The coast guard has stationed ICGS Savitribai Phule, a fast patrol vessel, off the Old Mangalore Port to maintain a sharp vigil close to the mouth of the harbour. Coast Guard ship Kasturba Gandhi too has been kept as a standby for deployment off the Old Mangalore port.

A fisherman has claimed that he saw a person falling from the bridge over the Netravathi river at around 7 pm. The fisherman, Simon D’Souza, who stays near the bridge, was fishing in the Netravathi on Monday evening. “It was around 7 pm and I was near the 6th pillar of the bridge. I saw a person falling into the river near the 8th pillar. I do not know who he was. I tried to rescue him but failed as he was far away from my boat. He sank in the water,” Simon claimed.

Netravathi bridge is known as a suicide spot. Siddhartha, who did his education in Mangaluru and owns property here, knows the city pretty well, said sources.

Mangaluru police commissioner Sandeep Patil said on Tuesday that a police team has left for Bengaluru to conduct an inquiry and question the office staff and relatives. Asked about the letter purportedly written by Siddhartha to CCD’s board of directors, the commissioner told reporters: “Siddhartha’s family gave us the letter, so it has to be genuine. We are inquiring into its contents also, for which a team has gone to Bengaluru.” Mr Patil said the team headed to Bengaluru will conduct an inquiry of the office staff and relatives and gather all information. “A detailed technical investigation is also going on,” he said.

In Bengaluru, chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa, former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and scores of  leaders, including Congress leaders Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar visited, Mr S.M. Krishna’s Bengaluru residence after coming to know about Siddhartha going  missing.

Meanwhile, a letter written by the Cafe Coffee Day owner a few days before he went missing has triggered doubts that financial problems could be the reason for any extreme step Siddhartha could have taken. “I have failed as an entrepreneur,” he said in the letter purportedly written to the board and employees of Coffee Day Enterprises. “After 37 years, with strong commitment to hard work, having directly created 30,000 jobs in our companies and their subsidiaries, as well as 20,000 jobs in a technology company where I have been a large shareholder since its founding, I have failed to create the right profitable business model despite my best efforts… Today I gave up as I could not take any more pressure from one of the private equity partners forcing me to buy back shares, a transaction I had partially completed six months ago by borrowing a large sum of money from a friend,”  he said. “I would like to say I gave it my all. I am very sorry to let down all the people who have put their trust in me,” Siddhartha said in the letter, widely circulated in the social media.

The shares of Coffee Day Enterprises fell 20 per cent and hit a 52-week low of Rs 154.05 apiece on BSE after the news surfaced that its founder had gone missing.  Siddhartha also claimed in the letter that  there was a lot of harassment from the previous D-G of the income-tax department in the form of attaching “our shares”, a charge vehemently denied by the I-T department.

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