Former cult member living in Palmerston North wanted in Australia on murder charge

A Palmerston North woman accused of beating her toddler to death while living in a cult near Sydney 35 years ago is set to be extradited to Australia to face a murder charge.

Ellen Craig, 59, appeared via video link from prison in the Palmerston North District Court today where Judge Carter granted the extradition.

She has 15 days to appeal the decision that will surrender her to Australian authorities.

Craig was arrested by New Zealand police in November after New South Wales police received a tip-off in October 2019 that her daughter Tillie Craig, 2, had been murdered while they were living in Australia as part of the Ministry of God cult.

Cult leader Alexander Wilon, who went by the name Alfio Nicolosi at the time and allegedly helped Craig dispose of Tillie’s remains, was arrested at the same time at a property inland from Sydney. He is now before the Australian courts.

Tillie’s body has never been found and her father says he spent years searching for her, not knowing she was already dead.

According to Judge Carter’s decision, Australian police allege that while living at the commune in July 1987, Craig became angry with her daughter and beat her with a piece of plastic pipe.

Tillie fell to the ground and Craig allegedly continued beating her until she was dead.

It is alleged that Wilon disposed of Tillie’s body by burning it in a 44-gallon drum.

Tillie was never officially reported as a missing person and authorities were only made aware of her disappearance when a witness came forward in 2019.

After the alleged murder, Craig was expelled from the cult and moved back home to New Zealand where she used the name Jowelle Smith for three years, before changing it again and working at the Palmerston North Women’s Refuge under the name “Erena Craig”.

Women’s Refuge chief executive Ang Jury was shocked when told by Open Justice about the charges Craig is now facing.

She said Craig, who was no longer with Women’s Refuge, was fired for erratic and paranoid behaviour.

“She didn’t leave happily,” Jury said.

Craig was at her Kāinga Ora home when police came knocking on her door last November.

She has been in custody ever since, appearing via video link at Palmerston North District Court several times this year as she fought to remain in New Zealand.

Craig argued that she’s too unwell to travel but the lawyer acting on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia, Guy Carter, told the court this month there was no reason Australia couldn’t manage those health conditions.

“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 have any more information about the alleged offending than the court had provided her and questioned the quality and availability of evidence – including people’s recollections of what happened – given the passage of time.

Some of the allegations from Craig’s time at the cult were however put on record in the late 1980s when one of the cult’s ex-members, Margaret*, testified to the Australian Supreme Court about some of the abuse she’d seen there.

“I witnessed extreme abuse of Tillie [Craig] 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,” she told the Supreme Court.

“I’d also seen him smack her across the face so hard she got a black eye.”

Margaret told Open Justice she tried to contact Craig when she moved to New Zealand.

“I’d call [Craig’s] mother every six months or so and I’d ask about Tillie. Her story would change every time,” she said.

“She’d tell me one day that she didn’t know, and the next that she’d gone off to live with family.”

Meanwhile Tillie’s father Gerard Stanhope desperately searched for a trace of his missing daughter, including leaving messages for her on an Australian missing persons page long after Tillie is presumed to have died.

“I spent years looking for you. It almost consumed me,” he wrote.

Stanhope told Open Justice his ex changed her name when she moved to New Zealand in what he believes was an effort to elude him.

“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.”

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