He called himself Black Jesus but Steven Tari was a false prophet, according to police in Papua New Guinea, where the Bible school drop-out will face charges of murder and cannibalism after being captured in a jungle village.
Tari, the leader of an obscure cult with 6,000 followers, had been on the run since last June, when he escaped from custody with the help of a Lutheran pastor. Suspected of raping scores of girls and carrying out sacrificial killings, Tari eluded police by staying on the move and hiding in far-flung mountain villages.
It was in one such village, Matepi, in the east of the Pacific nation, that Tari, 32, was finally tracked down this week. According to The Nation newspaper, eight local men crept into a hut where he was taking an afternoon nap, pinned him down and tied him up, using nylon rope. They called police – but only after one man had scaled the highest peak of a nearby mountain and then climbed a tree, in order to get a mobile phone signal.
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Matepi is so far off the road that a squad of six police officers from the town of Madang had to walk all night to reach it. They carried Tari out of the jungle on a bamboo stretcher, wearing only a loincloth, and with his hands and feet bound.
In Madang, 2,000 people had gathered outside the police station to get a glimpse of the infamous cult leader. They shouted insults and taunts as Tari, still carrying a battered bible, was taken into the cells.
It was an ignominious exit for the self-styled son of God, who had promised poverty-stricken villagers that fame and fortune would be theirs if they followed him.
Tari, from Manus Island, studied to become a Lutheran pastor at a bible college in Madang but vanished after disputing the Bible’s teachings. He reappeared in the mountains, clad in white flowing robes, barefoot, and surrounded by thousands of followers.
Soon, disturbing stories began to surface, particularly about the dozens of “flower girls” whom he recruited, some as young as eight years old. They were allegedly used as sex slaves by Tari and his bodyguards.
Police are investigating the murder of three girls whose flesh Tari allegedly ate after they were killed. According to police, one girl, Rita Herman, was offered up by her own mother, Barmarhal, who forced her to have sex with “Black Jesus” and then stabbed her to death.
Afterwards, the Post-Courier newspaper reported, Tari and Barharmal collected Rita’s warm blood and drank it from a cup. They also sliced flesh off her body and devoured it. Barmahal, who was “queen” of the flower girls, has denied the allegations.
Papua New Guinea, like most of the Pacific, was colonised by missionaries, and the country is nominally Christian, with a strong Lutheran Church presence. But superstition and witchcraft continue to hold sway, particularly in more isolated areas.
Tari was arrested and charged last year but absconded after being granted bail to undergo “counselling”. His spiritual assistant was a pastor who had fallen under his influence and helped him to escape.
Police tried to flush him and his followers out of the mountains but they were met by warriors armed with guns, spears and bush knives. Thirty flower girls were arrested but Tari and senior members of his cult escaped.
This week’s dramatic capture was a result of cooperation between church and community leaders and villagers, who were fed up of his activities in their area.