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New Zealand|Crime

35 years on the run: Cold case hunt for Kiwi who allegedly beat her daughter to death and hid the body

Jeremy Wilkinson
By
Jeremy Wilkinson

Open Justice multimedia journalist, Palmerston North

Almost 35 years ago 2-year-old Tillie Craig was allegedly murdered by her mother at an Australian commune. The cult's leader is accused of helping dispose of the toddler's remains. This week a judge has ordered that her mother Ellen Craig, who has spent three decades living in New Zealand under a series of different names, be extradited to face charges in Australia. Open Justice's Jeremy Wilkinson reports.

Two decades ago Gerard Stanhope sat down and penned a message to his daughter.

"Tillie, It's been 16 years since I last saw you," he wrote.

"I spent years looking for you. It almost consumed me. Eventually I had to get on with my life, and hope and pray that our paths would one day cross and we could know each other again.

"I will always regret the years I have been unable to spend with you."

Stanhope posted the message on an Australian missing persons website in hope of finding his daughter Tillie Craig - but she never responded.

The blonde-haired toddler was just 2 years old the last time anyone saw her in 1987. Her father was in the middle of fighting for custody of her when she vanished without a trace.

Ellen Craig and Tillie Craig in the 1980s. Photo / Supplied
Ellen Craig and Tillie Craig in the 1980s. Photo / Supplied

For years he wondered where she was - whether she was with her mother in another country or still somewhere in Australia.

He had no way of knowing it at the time of writing the heartfelt message in the early 2000s, but New South Wales police now believe Tillie had already been dead for years.

Australian authorities allege that in July 1987 Tillie's mother Ellen Craig beat her to death with a piece of plastic piping after becoming angry at her.

In an affidavit by New South Wales Police Detective Senior Constable Tamer Kalani, he alleged there were a number of young children at the commune and physical discipline of them was encouraged.

"It was common for this to take place with hard plastic tube."

The cult's leader, Alexander Wilon, helped Craig put Tillie's body in a 44-gallon drum and burn it, police say.

Shortly after Craig was expelled from the cult, fleeing home to New Zealand where she changed her name by deed poll for a period of time, using several different names during the past three decades. 
 
Ironically, for some of that time she was right under the nose of police, working for Women's Refuge in Palmerston North under the name "Erena Craig".
 
Craig and Wilon were arrested in November 2021 as part of a joint operation between New Zealand and Australian Police.
 
Wilon, who was known as "Papa" to his followers in the Ministry of God, is due to appear again at the Bathurst Local Court in April facing charges of accessory to murder and misconduct with regard to corpses.
  

New South Wales Inquiry Head Detective Superintendent Danny Doherty said at the time of the arrests that the allegations were brought to the attention of New South Wales police via a tipoff in October 2019.

That tip-off came from a former cult member who claims to have witnessed the death.

"The level of violence allegedly used upon this child is abhorrent and left a father without his daughter or knowledge of her death for 34 years," he said.

Alexander Wilon was arrested at a property near Sydney in November. Photo / NSW Police
Alexander Wilon was arrested at a property near Sydney in November. Photo / NSW Police

Those who knew Craig in New Zealand were shocked to learn she is now accused of such a horrific crime.

Some have described her as having no boundaries, but also being a bit of a recluse. They recall her citing large passages from the Bible and say she appeared to suffer from anxiety, with few friends or family stopping by to visit.

But none of them had any inkling that her past may have involved such a dark secret.

"I just find it hard to believe that she did it ... she has never shown any signs of aggression," a close friend and ex-Ministry of God cult member told Open Justice.

"I can't believe she (would) kill a child ... I just can't believe it," said one neighbour.

On Thursday at the Palmerston North District Court, Judge Ian Carter ordered Craig's extradition to Australia, but granted her 15 days to appeal.

Tillie, Ellen and The Ministry of God

Tillie was just a baby when Craig and Stanhope spilt up and the single mother found herself living at a cult inland from Sydney.

Margaret*, a childhood friend of Craig's, introduced her to the Ministry of God in the late 1980s.

Wilon, who went by the name Alfio Nicolosi, was recruiting members to the "family", especially young women and single mothers.

Craig moved out of her home with Stanhope to live with Nicolosi and the other members, with baby Tillie in tow.

Four months later Margaret was kicked out after she began raising concerns about the way Tillie was allegedly treated.

She was so concerned she went to the Supreme Court in Australia and testified in an affidavit about the abuses she claims to have seen there.

Police combed Wilon's property for Tillie's body. Photo / NSW Police
Police combed Wilon's property for Tillie's body. Photo / NSW Police

"I witnessed extreme abuse of Tillie principally by Alfio. Almost every day Tillie was repeatedly dragged into the bathroom by Alfio who would then proceed to hit her with a wooden-backed brush," Margaret testified.

"I'd also seen him smack her across the face so hard she got a black eye."

Another member of the sect, Eve Roire, also testified, saying Nicolosi ordered the other members to punish Tillie in the same way he did.

She claimed that all members of the "family" would take part in punishing Tillie in the bathroom.

"He would threaten to throw us out of the family if we did not follow him strictly," she said.

Cult member Elizabeth Cork told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation {ABC} in 1988 that the whole family had responsibility for the upbringing of any child.

"That means if I see the child being disobedient, then it's my responsibility to do something," Cork said.

"It may just need a word, or maybe a smack."

Nicolosi told the ABC he never beat Tillie.

"I don't deny that I have disciplined the child, but not in the way they put it. I have certainly not given Tillie black eyes or welts. Ever."

After hearing the allegations of abuse about Tillie, Stanhope attempted to gain custody of his daughter, but by the time the courts granted him that right Craig had fled to New Zealand.

"She changed her name to Jowelle Smith when she returned to New Zealand in 1987 in an effort to elude me.

"I'm positive her family had no knowledge of what happened in Australia. She refused to discuss anything to do with Tillie," he told Open Justice this month.

Despite New South Wales police saying they only found out about Tillie's disappearance in 2019, Stanhope says he's been searching for years.

"The Australian police have more than enough evidence of efforts I made between 1986 and 1990," he said.

He won custody of Tillie in 1988, but by then Craig had left the Ministry of God and the country.

"She certainly does not want to see him and I don't think he will ever find her, ever," Nicolosi told the ABC.

Ellen and her multiple personae

Ellen Craig has been a ghost for anyone trying to find her for the past 35 years but in contrast, she maintained a peculiar public profile in Palmerston North.

She has not shown up in any electoral roles for as far back as Open Justice can find, nor does she show up in any Habitation Index or phonebook.

Neither does her alias Jowelle Smith, which she used for at least 10 years.

Ellen Craig at her extradition hearing in early March. Photo / Jeremy Wilkinson
Ellen Craig at her extradition hearing in early March. Photo / Jeremy Wilkinson

But she does show up in local newspaper the Manawatu Standard as Erena Craig, where she was the manager of the Palmerston North Women's Refuge, working actively with victims of domestic violence.

In 2007 she told the Manawatu Standard only 12-20 per cent of domestic violence went reported, and went on to praise the police for their "positive attitude towards domestic violence".

Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury, who was shocked to learn Craig was now facing charges for the alleged murder of her child, said Craig was fired for erratic and paranoid behaviour.

"She didn't leave happily," Jury told Open Justice.

"She was a very closed-off woman, very defensive and paranoid ... it was hard to really get to know her."

But that's not how Craig's old friend Margaret remembers her.

The two met on a bus in New Zealand when they were just 16, and started a firm friendship, which carried them over the ditch to Australia.

The house where Ellen Craig was arrested in November 2021. Photo / Jeremy Wilkinson
The house where Ellen Craig was arrested in November 2021. Photo / Jeremy Wilkinson

She remembers her as kind and caring, and without a mean bone in her body.

When Margaret joined the Ministry of God and Craig followed a few months later, things started to take a turn for the worse.

"I'm a pretty outspoken person. I find it hard to keep my mouth shut when I see something I don't like."

She said she was forced out when she raised concerns about the abuse she claims to have witnessed and was publicly shamed by the cult's leader.

Margaret left the fold and moved back to New Zealand, and when she heard Craig had moved back too she tried to reach out.

"I'd call her mother every six months or so and I'd ask about Tillie. Her story would change every time," Margaret said.

"Her mum would tell me one day that she didn't know, and the next that she'd gone off to live with family.

"Ellen also told my brother - who was dating her for a time - that she'd given Tillie to a couple to take care of and they'd taken her overseas."

Margaret stayed in touch with Tillie's father over the years as he also tried, unsuccessfully, to make contact with Craig.

"I finally managed to get hold of Ellen and ask her about it and she got really, really angry that I'd texted her. She said I should have called instead. Then she withdrew and I never heard from her again," Margaret said.

In November last year, Craig was handcuffed in the back of a police car after her Kāinga Ora home at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Palmerston North was raided by police.

One of her neighbours, who moved in four months after Craig, told Open Justice they were friends at the beginning, but that she had no boundaries.

"She would just come onto my lawn and take my lemons from my tree. Not the end of the world, but a little odd.

"And she knew these Bible verses off by heart, like word-for-word whole passages. She'd recite the passage about how Lucifer was once an angel and then became Satan."

Another neighbour said Craig was a recluse and wouldn't leave the house for weeks on end.

"Every time I talked to her she seemed pretty normal, but you could tell she was struggling with anxiety and stuff.

"My impression of her was that she wasn't really close with anyone. She was friendly enough if you bumped into her but was otherwise a bit of a recluse.

"If she did do what she's accused of, I don't think she's that person anymore."

Alfio, Papa and Monet

The charismatic leader of the Ministry of God was known to his followers as "Papa".

His cult was established in the late 1980s and run out of a secluded property in Porters Retreat, several hours' drive west of Sydney.

Nicolosi would hold prayer sessions four times a day in a house dubbed "Papa's room", where he would interpret the messages from a spiritual being called "Monet".

"At times he's made me act with compassion to someone and to someone else he has made me rebuke those people," he told the ABC in 1988.

After Craig left the cult in 1987, little can be found about the Ministry of God.

Alexander Wilon, also known as Alfio Nicolosi or "Papa". Phot /: Safecity
Alexander Wilon, also known as Alfio Nicolosi or "Papa". Phot /: Safecity

Nicolosi changed his name to Alexander Wilon and became a Justice of the Peace and a security consultant, conducting firearms training and other security training for a range of government organisations.

He also ran an underwater wedding business, where he would take couples scuba diving to say their vows, and also purports to have a diploma in hypnotherapy and various forms of reiki.

Listed among his staff on his security consulting website is Elizabeth Cork, a former Ministry of God cult member, who's now a course co-ordinator for some of the training his business Safecity provides.

Alfio Nicolosi in 1988. Photo / Channel 10/ABC
Alfio Nicolosi in 1988. Photo / Channel 10/ABC

In the cult, Margaret says she was in a sexual relationship with Nicolosi, who moved on to Craig once she was brought into the fold.

"After that Alfio's guide, Monet, shamed me in front of the whole group.

"'You're like a bitch on heat. You disrespected our master', he would say, channelling these messages from the spirit through a crystal."

Margaret said he was charismatic and initially gave her a feeling of being wanted and belonging to a group.

"He had such a strong presence. You didn't want to cross him."

Cult territory

The recently retired president of Cult Information and Family Support (CIFS) in Australia, Ros Hodgkins, said strong, narcissistic personalities are a common characteristic among cult leaders.

"We get a lot of coaches that get a following. It's a typical pyramid. There's a leader and people listen to pretty much everything they say," she said.

"It takes a certain type of person, generally a narcissist who can control these groups of people."

Australia's most famous cult was perhaps the "Family" run by Anne Byrne-Hamilton, a yoga teacher who claimed to be Jesus Christ reincarnated and blended Christianity with drug-taking and the brainwashing of children.

She and her husband adopted 28 children over the course of a decade, dyed all their hair blond, made them wear the same clothes, administered drugs to them and told them they would one day take over the world.

In her work with CIFS Hodgkins said she'd lost count of the number of people she'd helped escape cults in Australia or reintegrate into society.

She said Australia was ripe for all kinds of overseas cults to establish themselves and start taking on followers.

"Every cult that is around the world has probably planted a group here."

"They're mostly based in Christianity-focused ... but that's about where the similarities end. They don't practise what they preach a lot of the time."

Hodgkins said it was hard to keep track of the harm they were causing because many of the followers of these extreme groups were so indoctrinated they didn't realise they'd been brainwashed until years later.

"There's no law that says you can't start something and have followers."

Cold case and extradition

In the Palmerston North District Court this morning, Judge Ian Carter approved the surrender of Craig to Australian authorities.

She has 15 days to appeal the decision.

Craig has appeared in the Palmerston North District Court three times this year, streaming in by video link from prison where she's been in custody since November.

She's been fighting to remain in New Zealand and avoid extradition to Australia, where she is to be charged with Tillie's murder.

According to her lawyer, she is too unwell to make the trip to Australia or engage in the court process.

The lawyer acting on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia, Guy Carter, told the court at a hearing in early March that there was no reason Australia couldn't manage her health conditions.

Judge Ian Carter presided over Craig's extradition hearing in the Palmerston North District Court. Photo / Jeremy Wilkinson
Judge Ian Carter presided over Craig's extradition hearing in the Palmerston North District Court. Photo / Jeremy Wilkinson

"Why should the fact that Ms Craig left Australia, changed her name and never returned, why should that grant her an advantage in avoiding trial for murder?" he said.

Craig's lawyer, Paul Murray, said his client didn't know any more about the alleged offending than what the court had provided her with.

"The greater the passage of time, the greater the impact of quality and availability of evidence," he told the court.

"It affects recall, memory and may very well affect the availability of people who could recall that information."

Murray told the court it was extraordinary that Tillie's father had not raised the fact his daughter had been missing for 34 years - something Stanhope denies.

Stanhope is now a step closer to finding out what happened to his daughter all those years ago, but his anger is surprisingly not aimed at the mother of his dead child.

"I feel anger towards Alfio for manipulating people the way he's done.

"But I don't feel anger towards Ellen. Right now, I'm trusting that the New South Wales police have their ducks in a row, and that some kind of justice will be served."