The tale of Jolly Joseph: Mom, churchgoer, chatty neighbor ... suspected serial killer

Koodathai, India (CNN)For years, Jolly Joseph talked about how her house was cursed, neighbors said.

Her mother-in-law apparently died from a mysterious illness. At least three of her close relatives suffered fatal heart attacks, and her two-year-old niece choked to death on a piece of food.
But in October, Indian police presented a different theory. There was no mention of curses. Instead, they alleged, Joseph had poisoned each of them, one by one, and then covered up her crimes with lies that have only now started to unravel.
Her full name is Joliyamma, but people call her Jolly for short. She lived in a pastel-pink three-story house in Koodathai, a small town of just 12,000 in the Kozhikode district of Kerala state in southern India.
    A photo of Jolly Joseph, who police say has confessed to killing six of her family members.
    The 47-year-old mother-of-two seemed every bit the upstanding citizen, neighbors said. Every day, she left home, telling people she was going to her job as a professor at the prestigious National Institute of Technology Calicut (NIT) university about a half-hour away, according to police. She wore a neat saree, and in her spare time regularly went to church and helped her neighbors when they were sick.
    "Jolly seemed like a perfect woman to us," said 30-year-old Saidu NK, who lived next door to Joseph for over 20 years and who, like other South Indians, uses an abbreviation of his family names as his last name.
    "We never had a shadow of doubt on Jolly until the very recent turn of events," said another neighbor whose name CNN agreed not to publish as she was afraid of repercussions from fellow residents for speaking out on the case, which is highly sensitive in Koodathai.

    A pastel pink house with a dark secret

    When Joseph moved into the area, she seemed friendly and kind, her neighbors said.
    It was 1997, and Joseph had just married Roy Thomas, the unemployed son of a popular local couple, neighbors said. She moved into Thomas's family home, a spacious property with an iron fence that stood out from the tangle of lush jungle around Koodathai. A little plaque on the gate bears the name "Tom Thomas," Roy Thomas's father.
    The exterior of Jolly Joseph's house in Koodathai.
    Joseph often chatted with Saidu's family as she hung out the washing on the balcony, which was lined with ornate, white balustrades. "She was very talkative and well-mannered," he said.
    "Jolly was very loving," said the neighbor who CNN agreed not to name. "She would be here if we needed anything or if someone fell ill."
    In the predominantly Muslim town, Joseph and her husband's family were some of the few Christians, according to 37-year-old Mohammed Bava, who lived next door and attended Roy Thomas and Joseph's wedding. She was a regular churchgoer, Bava said.
    The couple had been married for five years when tragedy struck.
    In 2002, Roy Thomas's 57-year-old mother Annamma Thomas died in circumstances that weren't explained, but because she had health issues, her death wasn't considered suspicious and there was no post mortem. In India, post mortems are only required if the death is unnatural or suspicious. They can be requested by the deceased person's family, but some Indians are reluctant to do so because of a cultural belief that autopsies are a desecration of the body.
    After Annamma Thomas's death, the mood changed, said Bava, who at the time was so close with the Thomas family that they regularly cooked extra dinner so he had something to eat once he got home from work. "There was no happiness in the house like how there used to be when (Annamma Thomas) was alive," said Bava.
    In 2008, Bava remembered hearing the sound of someone being violently ill next door. He said Joseph called him and calmly told him that Roy Thomas's 66-year-old father Tom Thomas wasn't well. When Bava got there, he said he found Tom Thomas lying flat on his back, foaming at the mouth. Bava took him to hospital where doctors declared him dead from a heart attack. According to Bava, Roy Thomas and Joseph inherited the property in Tom Thomas's will. Police investigations found that by the time of the elder Thomas's death, all his assets had been transferred to Joseph.
    Three years later, 40-year-old Roy Thomas was dead, too. Again, Joseph called Bava, who said he found the man lying on the bathroom floor, foaming from the mouth. This time, Roy Thomas's uncle Mathew Manjadiyil insisted that Joseph's husband needed a post mortem and took him to the hospital. The post mortem found that Roy Thomas had died after consuming cyanide, a chemical commonly used in mining and jewelry-making which can be fatal in high doses. Police ruled it a suicide and didn't investigate further, according to Bava. But again, Joseph told others -- including Bava -- that it was a heart attack. "It's a fact that the then-investigations didn't go into trying to find out from where he received the cyanide," Kozhikhode district police superintendent KG Simon said at a press conference in October.
    After that, Joseph grew more distant from the community, neighbors said. "She wasn't that friendly or close to local people, but we didn't really mind it as we knew that she was a woman and a widow, too," said Biju Mon, who used to drive Joseph and Roy Thomas's eldest son to school.
    Saidu NK, one of Jolly Joseph's neighbors, at his house in Koodathai on October 25, 2019.
    More deaths followed. In 2014, Roy Thomas's 67-year-old uncle Manjadiyil died in Joseph's presence -- another heart attack, Joseph said, according to Bava. That same year, Alphine, the two-year-old daughter of Roy Thomas's cousin Shaju Sakhariyas, died after allegedly choking on food at a christening ceremony. Then, in 2016, Sakhariyas's 43-year-old wife Sili died, too.
    In 2017, a year after Sili Sakhariyas's death, Joseph remarried. Her new husband was Sili Sakhariyas's widower, Shaju Sakhariyas.

    Brewing suspicions

    By the time she remarried, people close to Joseph had begun to suspect something was wrong.
    After the death of Joseph's first husband in 2011, Bava said he saw a new version of Tom Thomas's will, which said that the family home should be transferred to Joseph. Suspicious about the changed will, Roy Thomas's brother Rojo Thomas began to look into the people who had witnessed it, Bava said. Rojo Thomas told Bava that, in the course of his investigations, he found Joseph didn't really work at NIT as she had claimed.
    "The whole family attacked him. They were not ready to believe Rojo," said Bava. "Such was the clout and image that Jolly had in the family -- they all thought that Rojo Thomas was saying this because he had an eye on the house and property."
    By 2017, Bava had doubts, too.
    Rojo requested a copy of the post mortem conducted on Roy Thomas, and found a discrepancy in Joseph's story, according to Bava. Joseph told Bava that she was making her husband an omelet for dinner when he suddenly ran to the bathroom and collapsed. But according to the post mortem which Rojo Thomas shared with Bava, Roy Thomas had eaten a dinner of rice and chickpea curry the night he died. CNN has not been able to independently confirm the contents of the post mortem.
    When Rojo Thomas confronted Joseph about the inconsistencies, she stuck to her original story, according to Bava. The men became even more suspicious.
    So, Bava, Rojo Thomas and Rojo's sister Ranji Thomas began looking closely at all of the deaths themselves. In each case, they found a common link: Joseph had been present.
    Earlier this year, they complained to the district police, who forwarded their complaint to the Thamarassery Police Station in nearby Kozhikode. But Bava said they were told there was nothing to investigate because the post mortem listed suicide as Roy Thomas's cause of death. They complained again to the crime unit of the Kozhikode police -- and this time, police agreed there was a potential criminal case.
    Mohammed Bava, one of Jolly Joseph's neighbors, at his house in Koodathai on October 25, 2019.

    The unraveling of Jolly

    Police said they began to investigate in August, and they soon found holes in Joseph's stories, too.
    Like Rojo Thomas, police discovered Joseph wasn't really a professor at the NIT university as she had claimed. Although she had an identity card from the university, police found she had faked her role as a professor to get people's respect. NIT's registrar lieutenant colonel Pankajakshan K confirmed to CNN that Joseph had never worked there, although police investigations found she somet