Kiwi mum admits daughter’s death at Australian cult

Ellen Craig arriving in Sydney, Australia, after her extradition from New Zealand. Inset, with...
Ellen Craig arriving in Sydney, Australia, after her extradition from New Zealand. Inset, with her daughter Tillie who she has admitted to killing in 1987.
Warning: This story contains details that some people may find upsetting. 

"Oh no, no she’s gone."

Those were Ellen Craig’s words after realising she’d beaten her 2-year-old daughter to death with a piece of plastic piping.

But instead of calling emergency services, Craig and another woman undressed the girl, Tillie, laid her in a bathtub and inspected her for wounds. Then, they waited for "Master Wilon" to return to the Ministry of God cult’s property on the outskirts of Sydney.

The women prayed and meditated in a room at the property in Porters Retreat known as "Papa’s Room" until Alexander Wilon, the head of the cult, returned.

When he was shown Tillie’s body he allegedly prayed for her in an attempt to resurrect the girl, telling the women he had connected with her soul that morning and felt she was about to leave this planet.

Then Wilon allegedly burned Tillie’s body in a metal drum, stoking the flames for several hours before combing the ashes with a sieve, scattering them and dumping the drum in a river.

That was in 1987 and shortly afterwards Craig fled back to her home country of New Zealand, changed her name and began working with victims of domestic violence for the Women’s Refuge.

On the back of a tip-off to the Australian police in 2019, Wilon and Craig were arrested in 2021. Wilon at the same Porters Retreat property he’d run his cult from in the 80s, and Craig at a state house in Palmerston North.

The Australian Government applied to have Craig extradited back across the ditch where she was initially charged with murder and pleaded not guilty.

However, Craig has since struck a deal with Australian prosecutors and pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter this week, while Wilon, who has been battling with ill health, has been declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

Now, the agreed summary of facts, signed and acknowledged by Craig, which details the events leading up to the offending has been released to NZME.

Papa and the Ministry of God

The charismatic leader of the Ministry of God, also known as The Family or the Community of Eden, was known to his followers as "Papa" though his name at the time was Alfio Nicolosi.

His cult was established in the late 80s and run out of a secluded property in Porters Retreat, several hours’ drive west of Sydney.

Alfio Nicolosi, who was also known as Alexander Wilon, in 1988. Photo: Channel 10/ABC
Alfio Nicolosi, who was also known as Alexander Wilon, in 1988. Photo: Channel 10/ABC
Nicolosi would hold prayer sessions four times a day in "Papa’s room", where he would interpret the messages from a spiritual being called "Monet" using crystals. He purported to be able to read the minds of his followers.

According to the summary of facts before the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Wilon received money from members of The Family and controlled what it was spent on.

He would direct his followers to call him "Master Wilon" and life at the property became more and more regimented with Wilon ordering his followers to meditate for up to four hours a day.

They had to eat at specific times, never question Wilon or speak out, and were not allowed to interact with outsiders.

When members of The Family disobeyed him, the summary states he would beat them either with his fists or with a piece of plastic pipe.

Wilon would also allegedly have sex with the female members of his cult, sometimes taking several of them into "Papa’s Room" at once where they would engage in sexual activity.

He also wrote a manifesto called the Community of Eden which outlined the consequences of not following his rules such as being expelled from the community and physical punishment. The manifesto also discouraged mourning or funeral ceremonies following a death and espoused immediate cremation of the body.

"Under the influence of Wilon, members of The Family were required to physically discipline the children. In particular, Wilon’s orders to discipline the children were directed at the mothers of the children. The mothers faced discipline as well if their child misbehaved. The children were smacked, hit with the black irrigation piping, and hit with a long scrubbing brush," the summary of facts states.

According to the summary, Wilon would also personally discipline Tillie, dragging her off almost daily into the bathroom where he would beat her with a long wooden-backed brush.

He would hit her harder when she refused to stop crying.

"Look at the ego in her, look at the evil in her," one of his followers says they heard him say.

‘She’s stopped breathing’

Children were required to do chores at the property regardless of their age and on the morning of July 7, 1987, Tillie was sweeping the pathways between the cottages.

Unhappy with Tillie’s sweeping, Craig began yelling at her and started hitting her with a piece of black, plastic irrigation pipe.

Tillie Craig was 2-years-old when she was killed by her mother in 1987. Photo: Provided to NZME...
Tillie Craig was 2-years-old when she was killed by her mother in 1987. Photo: Provided to NZME by Gerard Stanhope
Another member of The Family observed Craig hitting Tillie while the child lay face down on the ground before coming inside and saying: "She’s stopped breathing."

Tillie wasn’t moving or breathing as Craig picked her up and said to the other woman, "Oh no, no she’s gone" before attempting to resuscitate her.

After this Craig and the other woman took Tillie inside, laid her in the bathtub and waited for Wilon to return.

In accordance with his own manifesto, Wilon allegedly burnt the body, feeding the flames with motor oil, wood and old clothes for several hours.

Another member of the cult said Wilon spoke about "God’s laws, not man’s laws" applying to The Family at the property, and that he was protecting Craig as a child of God.

According to the summary, when the ashes had cooled Wilon took a sieve to them to make sure nothing had remained unburned, then scattered them and threw the drum in the river.

After Tillie’s death, Wilon prohibited his followers from talking about what happened. He said if anyone asked after Tillie, they were to be told that she was given up for adoption.

Arrest and extradition

Tillie’s father, Gerard Stanhope, had been trying to get custody of his daughter before Craig disappeared to the Blue Mountains, taking the youngster with her.

When he turned up at the Porters Retreat property a month after Tillie’s death, Craig told police that Wilon ordered her to hide and told Stanhope, "Tillie isn’t here and don’t come back for her".

On August 6, 1987, Stanhope obtained an order from the Supreme Court of New South Wales preventing the offender from removing Tillie from the state and an airport watch was put in place.

Two days later Stanhope drove back to the cult where he said Wilon told him Craig was no longer living there.

Detectives raid a house in Porters Retreat and search the river for the drum Tillie was cremated...
Detectives raid a house in Porters Retreat and search the river for the drum Tillie was cremated in. Image: NSW Police
However, it wasn’t until November that Craig was expelled from The Family and flew back to New Zealand where she changed her name to Jowelle Tenzing Smith.

Stanhope continued looking for his daughter throughout 1988, appealing to newspapers and even the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which filmed a documentary about the Ministry of God.

He managed to speak on the phone to Craig, who told him differing stories about where Tillie was; in one lie she said she’d given Tillie to a South African couple she’d met at a resort, another time she simply said she was safe and for him not to worry.

After police arrested Craig at her home in Palmerston North she told them in an official interview she was naive and had been influenced at the retreat.

"I think something happened … I don’t know. But I was, something was, I was not, I was completely out of my, myself, my character … I completely, I don’t know what I was doing," a transcript of her interview reads.

When asked to talk about Tillie she said: "I don’t think I can at the moment. I want to say all of these things … but I just … I don’t …" After being asked again what happened with Tillie, Craig said: "I can’t, I don’t, I can’t, I, I … I don’t know what happened. I can’t tell you … what happened."

Tillie Craig with her father Gerard Stanhope in the 1980s.
Tillie Craig with her father Gerard Stanhope in the 1980s.
When asked a third time what happened to Tillie and about the details of the allegations against her she remained silent.

Since that interview, Craig has spent nearly three years in prison where she was allegedly assaulted by another inmate as she awaited trial.

However, in a surprise move this week she pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter rather than murder and is due to be sentenced later this year.

Wilon was initially charged with acting as an accessory to murder and misconduct in regard to corpses for the disposal of Tillie’s body.

Since those initial charges, further ones related to allegedly sexually and physically assaulting two teenage boys and two women between 1987 and 2000 were added.

However, Wilon, who was pictured by New South Wales police during his arrest in 2021 carrying an oxygen tank, has this week been declared by a district court judge mentally unfit to stand trial.

NZME understands the Director of Public Prosecutions will make a call about whether further proceedings will be taken against Wilon.

 - Jeremy Wilkinson, Open Justice reporter