KOODATHAYAI, India — She was a pillar of her small community, respected by her neighbors as a distinguished professor, a solemn widow and a churchgoer whose religious devotion only seemed to grow, despite a string of personal tragedies.
The police now say she is one of India’s most cunning serial killers, with cyanide her weapon of choice, served up in soups, snacks and ayurvedic beverages.
Her name is Jolly Joseph, and the authorities say she has confessed to killing six family members over the span of 14 years, including her husband, his parents and a 2-year-old niece. Officials, who say she will be charged with six counts of premeditated murder, accuse her of trying to inherit valuable property and other assets held by the family she married into.
That Joseph, 47, might have killed with such abandon has scandalized Koodathayai, a small town in the southern state of Kerala where she was an active member of the Roman Catholic community, seen as a model citizen.
Joseph drew a large crowd at her first court appearance this month, emerging handcuffed from a police vehicle to a burst of jeers and catcalls, schoolchildren in matching uniforms struggling to catch a glimpse of her through the crowd.
Although she has confessed, her lawyer says there is still not enough evidence to convict her — and under Indian law, a confession to the police is not enough.
Also accused are a jewelry store clerk who the police said helped Joseph carry out some of her killings, as well as a goldsmith from a neighboring town, who is alleged to have provided the cyanide. Goldsmiths are legally allowed to buy cyanide, which is used to extract gold and polish it, but it is illegal for them to sell it. Both men say they are innocent.
The graveyard of Lourd Matha Church in Koodathayai has been upturned. Freshly placed candles adorn the Thomas family crypt, where the remains of Joseph’s in-laws were recently exhumed for forensic testing.
“I just pray that we can bring my family members justice. You don’t know what it does to me as a daughter, as a sister, to see my loved ones’ remains after so long, taken from their graves,” said Renji Thomas. She is the sister of Roy Thomas, the husband Joseph stands accused of poisoning.
Now, neighbors and relatives — including Joseph’s two sons with Thomas — have been left to wonder if anything they thought they knew about her was true.
Once admiringly called “Jolly Teacher” by her neighbors, Joseph used to proudly display her identification as a professor at the National Institute of Technology in the coastal city of Calicut, bearing the school’s motto: “From darkness, lead us into light.”
That identification was forged, and Joseph never worked at the university, the police now say. But for 17 years, she embarked on a daily, hourlong commute to Calicut, also known as Kozhikode. Where she actually went in the city is now a matter of intense police interest and town gossip.
Joseph and Thomas met at a housewarming party and quickly fell in love, family members say. He was drawn to her easy smile, her smarts, her university degree and her willingness to help those in need.
When the couple wed in 1997, Joseph entered the tight-knit Thomas family, moving into her in-laws’ home in Koodathayai.
Despite her long work days, she always found time to help around the house. She cooked, led a prayer group and went to church every Sunday, usually arriving early enough to snag one of the front pews.
“My mother always wanted me to be more like her,” Renji Thomas said of Joseph. “She was so loved, and she became like a sister to me.”
Joseph’s mother in-law, Annamma Thomas, a former schoolteacher, kept the house buzzing, tutoring children and hosting big dinners for family and friends, as well as an annual Christmas party that was the biggest in town.
But after a few years, they began clashing over money, according to family and friends. Annamma was in charge of the family accounts.
In 2002, five years after Joseph had moved into the family home, Annamma died a painful death. She had been unwell, and one day, Joseph urged her to sit down and relax, promising a warm bowl of goat soup to ease her churning stomach. Investigators say the soup was laced with cyanide. Annamma collapsed and died, frothing at the mouth.
The Christmas parties grew smaller and eventually stopped. Friends and family stopped coming by, feeling the house had grown cold under its new matriarch, Joseph, said Mohammed Bava, a neighbor who lives across the street.
He said Tom Thomas, Joseph’s father-in-law, became reclusive after his wife’s death.
“He became very sad and silent, and increasingly came under Jolly’s control. He stopped interacting with all of us,” said Bava, who grew up playing in the Thomas household.
Tom’s relationship with his children started deteriorating. Property disputes emerged, family and friends say, with Joseph demanding that the family home be put in her and her husband’s name.
In 2008, her father-in-law died after eating a snack. Joseph was said to have found his crumpled body on the floor. A will emerged, naming Roy Thomas as the sole inheritor of his father’s fortune. But the will had no date or witnesses and was considered invalid, family and friends said.
When Roy Thomas died suddenly in 2011, after retching violently in a locked bathroom, Joseph told people that it had been a heart attack.
A year later, in 2012, a second will for Tom Thomas turned up, naming Roy and Joseph as the chief inheritors. It was signed by witnesses no one in the family had heard of. Now that Roy was dead, Joseph stood to inherit the entire family fortune.
Mathew Manchadiyil, Roy’s uncle, grew suspicious. He demanded an autopsy. After resisting, Joseph finally buckled under family pressure. The cause of death was listed as cyanide poisoning, doctors said.
But she would not share the autopsy report with the rest of the family. Tearfully, she told the family that Roy had committed suicide — that he had been an alcoholic who snapped under financial pressure and drank cyanide to end his life.
Manchadiyil demanded a police investigation. For the next two years, he challenged her claims to the family property and the validity of the will.
In 2014, Manchadiyil died under unclear circumstances. Once again, it was Joseph who found the body.
Her next victim, the police say, was Alphine, her 2-year-old niece.
Alphine was the daughter of Shaju Zacharias, Roy’s first cousin. Alphine died months after Manchadiyil did, after eating a snack soon after her older brother’s first communion. Alphine’s mother died in 2016, collapsing on the floor after drinking a glass of water that Joseph handed to her, according to the police.
A year after his wife’s death, Zacharias married Joseph. The police have questioned him several times, but he says he had nothing to do with the death of his wife and daughter, and he has not been detained.
Whatever suspicions Renji and her brother Rojo had about Joseph deepened after her marriage to Zacharias. The property disputes between Joseph and her first husband’s siblings continued.
Renji filed a lawsuit in January to contest ownership of a plot of land. As part of the suit, she had access to her brother’s post-mortem for the first time. And one glaring discrepancy stood out.
At the time, Joseph had gone out of her way to explain that Roy had died of a heart attack while she was cooking dinner. Her insistence on this seemingly banal detail — that he died on an empty stomach — received little attention at the time. But the post-mortem stated clearly that he had died within minutes of eating a curry dish — his favorite kind, which his wife often cooked for him.
Renji and her brother, who lives in the United States, decided to file a police report months later. This month, Joseph was detained by the police. Her two sons now live with their Aunt Renji, who says they have been devastated.
When asked during a phone interview what she might say to Joseph if she were to see her again, Renji paused.
“Let me be frank. I would say, ‘Thank you for keeping your two sons alive, as they are now my children, and now I have five children,’” she said.
“At least I could save them — they are my blood.”