A 22-year-old woman died during an exorcism ritual in New Zealand, drowning at a relative’s home as up to 40 family members looked on, police said today.
Janet Moses, a mother of two, was held under water in an attempt to drive away a makutu, or Maori curse. Containers holding an “extensive amount” of water were brought into the lounge of the house, in Wellington, for the ceremony.
The woman had been dead for nine hours before her family contacted police. She had been placed on a bed and was found with grazes to her upper arms, forearms and torso.
Detectives initially treated the death as unexplained until a post-mortem ruled out natural causes and revealed the woman had drowned.
Detective Sergeant Ross Levy, leading the inquiry, confirmed that a “cultural ceremony” had taken place, and said police were treating the death as a homicide. The exorcism took place on October 12.
Moses, who had daughters aged one and three, stayed at her relative’s house in the week leading up the ceremony. A woman living next door said she heard loud noises on the night of the exorcism, “like banging on a wall”, adding that a large number of people had entered and left the building.
Detectives have now interviewed 100 members of the woman’s family. “The family has always been the central focus of the inquiry … this has not changed and won’t change,” Det Sgt Levy said. “Our task is to identify those responsible for Janet’s death.”
The exorcism ritual was held because the woman’s relatives believed a curse had been put on her after another member of her family stole a taonga, meaning treasured artefact, belonging to someone else.
Dr Hone Kaa, an archdeacon of the Anglican Maori Church, told the New Zealand Herald that he was last involved in a makutu-lifting ceremony 12 years ago, but said they were still commonplace.
Dr Kaa said water was used to cleanse the victim during the ceremony, and expressed surprise when he heard the amount of water alleged to have been used.
He added that such ceremonies were “very emotional, very intense”, but said he had never heard of anyone being badly injured.
“You may have to hold the person down because the spirit may fight within the person to stay, so you need others around you to restrain them,” he said.
The victim was buried in a traditional Maori funeral ceremony.