When a tall stranger calling himself ‘Black Jesus’ lured Rita Hemen away from her remote jungle village, he promised to make her one of his special ‘flower girls’ and convinced her that her family would one day be rich beyond their wildest dreams.
The pretty Papua New Guinean girl, just 13 years old, could never have imagined, as she innocently followed the attractive figure up the mountain, that she would become tangled in a pagan web of evil from which there was no escape.
After being stripped naked, she was tied to a crude bed in a dark hut, raped by the 31-year-old man claiming to be the true Messiah – and then, with birds of paradise calling in the valley below, her throat was brutally cut with a bush knife.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
Rita was Black Jesus s first human sacrifice. As the girl lay dying, her blood was drained into a coconut shell and drunk by the murderer and his evil henchmen. In a final horrific act, they cut strips of flesh from her body and feasted on it.
And in a grotesque twist, witnesses claim that Rita’s mother not only encouraged her to have sex with the ‘Messiah’ but also participated in the blood-drinking ceremony that followed her daughter’s murder.
This is not one of the many dark episodes from Papua New Guinea’s ancient past when cannibalism was rife.
Rita was killed only a matter of months ago – and two more young women have since been sacrificed in similarly barbaric ceremonies. The last body was found just three weeks ago.
Today, Black Jesus is in hiding, deep in the most impenetrable mountain jungle. Armed with spears, bows and arrows and stone-headed clubs, his loin-clothed henchmen are said to be ready to fight to the death – for the brutal figure claiming to be the most powerful of all men has promised them Paradise, win or lose.
But while the local police have confirmed that the bodies of three murdered young girls have been exhumed from crude jungle graves, are these reports of child sacrifice and cannibalism true, or simply borne out of fertile imagination and rumour? And who is this brutal, murdering self-styled prophet?
Steven Tari was born on the island of Manus, north-east of Papua New Guinea, where Prince Charles once danced with the local women before he married Princess Diana.
After Tari’s parents split up, he made his way to the mainland town of Madang, where he enrolled at the Amron Bible College to study to be a Lutheran pastor.
However, according to the college principal, Pastor Kyther Worrety, Tari quickly set himself apart from the other students.
“He saw himself as different from the other young men here,” says Pastor Worrety. “He went off at a tangent, didn’t agree with the Bible’s teachings and eventually vanished, leaving behind all his clothes and belongings.
“I learned in time that he had gone to a village called Matepi, up in the mountains, and had started preaching to people there, saying that he was the real Christ.
“He called himself Black Jesus, obviously because of the colour of his skin – although from what we know of him now, the title is more appropriate because of the darkness of his mind.”
Concerned that his former student was spreading the wrong word among the tribes, Pastor Worrety made the torturous journey into the mountains, where the sight he was met by took his breath away.
“Steven had made a platform on the tip of the highest peak and was addressing an enormous crowd of at least 6,000 people. His hair was much longer, and his face was tattooed with coloured markings.
“He was wearing a long, white shroud, like the kind Jesus wears in all the paintings, and his feet were bare.
“On the ground in front of him were two crossed spears and two bush knives, and on each side of him were 25 of his flower girls, all naked except for a small cloth.
“He had his arms wide, as if he were embracing all the people, and he was telling them that the Jesus the missionaries had told them about was a liar and that he was the chosen son of God.
“With the wind blowing his robes, he shouted that the people should burn their Bibles because they were filled with untruths. He commanded the gathering to follow him because, he promised, they would benefit from great gifts from God.”
When Pastor Worrety was spotted by Tari’s bodyguards, they stormed up to him, pointed to the spears and bush knives, and said: “Those are for you if you dare talk about this.”
Undeterred, the pastor returned straight to Madang and reported all that he had seen to the police. While cults have existed in Papua New Guinea for centuries, it is now illegal to make false promises to people in order to gain personal fame and fortune.
A team of heavily-armed police worked their way up the mountain, where they took Tari by surprise and led him away in handcuffs. He was driven to Madang and charged with spreading misleading statements, falsely soliciting property by demanding sustenance from villagers, and hindering arrest.
But before he appeared in court, he escaped and disappeared into the mountains again – accompanied by a church pastor who was meant to be counselling him but who had fallen under his influence.
Now Tari was back in his jungle domain, he gathered the fiercest men he could find to protect him, and travelled through the mountain villages preaching his own kind of warped Gospel, again insisting he was the true Messiah and persuading parents to let their daughters join his flock and become his ‘flower girls’.
He punished those who resisted him by destroying the simple Lutheran village churches, burning down homes, stealing money and food, and driving hundreds of tribal people out of the jungle to the safety of the coast.
Having built up a devout congregation scattered across the mountains, Tari set up a new headquarters in a village called Gal – which he promptly renamed Galilee – and conducted a bizarre series of interviews there with the young girls he had gathered.
Stripping them naked, he asked if they had been married, had ever had a boyfriend and if they had ever had sex.
“What he was trying to establish,” explains Police Sergeant Darius Lasisi, as we travel together to the village of Gohe, where two of the murdered girls came from, “was which ones were virgins. He’d send the ones who weren’t on their way, warning them not to talk about his attempts to recruit them”.
Sgt Lasisi is fearful of the damage Tari is causing across the mountain.
“His whole philosophy is based on a twisted religious ego – reversing all that the Bible teaches – and on sex. Those poor girls truly believed that if they became his flower girls – which is just a nice way of saying sex slaves – good things would come to their families.
“He appointed one girl, Dorothy Gasan, as his queen, but we’ve caught her and she’s now in jail, regretting the day she ever met this Black Jesus.”
But there is a deeper regret in the heart of Brigitta Laspain, whose sisters Rita and Evenick, 16, were sacrificed by Tari.
“The girls who have come back have all talked about it,” she says. “Some of my family who were influenced by him have also talked about the sacrifice. And, of course, we have the absolute proof of the bodies that have been found.” Rita’s decomposing corpse was found during another police raid – dubbed Operation Black Rose – on Tari’s camp.
This time, the officers were met by fierce resistance from 1,500 war-painted warriors. As arrows, spears and police bullets flew, Tari slipped away into the jungle.
A post mortem carried out on Rita’s body, exhumed from a crude grave, confirmed the stories of sacrifices.
There were severe knife wounds to her neck and torso and both her palms had been slashed. Since then, Tari has emerged from his jungle hideout to sacrifice another girl, called Siralas, aged only 13.
“He may say he is the son of God, but he has the devil’s heart,” says Brigitta.
“One day the police will catch him, no matter how deep in the jungle he hides. But, until then, I fear that other innocent young women will fall under his wicked spell and their lives will be taken, too.”
In Gohe village, home to many of Tari’s supporters, Brigitta’s father makes the astonishing admission that he feels no anger towards Black Jesus for killing two of his daughters.
“I believe that he is the Messiah, and if he took my daughters in that way to give him more power, then I understand that he had to do it,” he says.
“The girls were not forced to go with Steven. When he came to this village, he asked me if it was all right to take them with him and I gave him permission. First, Rita went with him but I believe she did not want to have sex with him and she came back.
“Then he came and took her away again, but this time I wasn’t present because the police had thrown me in jail for being one of Steven’s supporters.
“She may have been sacrificed because she ran away, or he may have thought she was a special person who had to die in this way.”
It is clear that these are simple, poor people who are easily influenced by anyone charismatic who offers some form of salvation from their daily struggles.
The girls’ father allowed Black Jesus to appoint Rita and Evenick as flower girls because he wanted to believe in Tari’s new vision in which no one would ever want for anything again.
Friends of the murdered teenagers are filled with grief, but they, too, show no anger towards the evil man who is still at large, and perhaps even gathering more followers and flower girls in the mountains.
“I believe he would have taken me with him if I had not already had a child,” says 25-year-old Della Rodly. “And I would have gone with him if he had asked.”
“What I am concerned about,” says Police Sergeant Lasisi, “is that this is not going to have a clean ending. Judging by the battle we have already had, he is determined not to be caught.
“He is also very clever. He has struck a deal with his bodyguards that if God comes after him, he will deal with Him – but if the police arrive, his warriors must do the fighting and let Tari get away.”