Rites and Wrongs

4 minute read

Maybe her mother is right and Carolyn Bushell was “just too trusting.” She was certainly desperate, 10,000 miles from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, with a divorce looming and little likelihood she would win custody of her three children. Desperate enough to seek help from an Indian spirit medium who promised that the rituals and prayers he prescribed would help solve her marital problems. Desperate enough to travel into the darkness on the night of Nov. 8, 1999, with four men she hardly knew, down the dirt tracks in a 1,000-hectare plantation of towering oil palms. They brought her to this spot at the base of one palm where a crude scarlet “X” slashed into the bark of the trunk is still visible. And here she knelt for the ceremony, only to feel, instead of the garland of flowers she had been expecting, the bite of a nylon rope cut into her neck.

Carolyn had been to the estate before the night she was strangled. Residents of the row of two-room shacks say she had come several times to see one of their neighbors, a self-proclaimed spirit medium named Shanmugavela. Outsiders are closely watched in this small community of 27 Indian families and some 50 Indonesian workers, and Carolyn’s blond hair and Caucasian features made her particularly conspicuous, says Ghulam Hussein, a 53-year-old estate worker. Previously, Ghulam says, Shanmugavela had taken her to a nearby temple devoted to a demigod called Muniandy.

But Carolyn’s killers planned to pray to another Hindu deity that November night, the fearsome Kali, goddess of destruction. A dilapidated temple devoted to Kali lies a few hundred meters from where Carolyn was strangled, just beyond her grave, which was finally discovered by police a few weeks ago after a tip-off. There, in a lean-to fashioned from a corrugated-iron roof and four wooden posts, the only decoration a single spear stuck into the raw earth, Shanmugavela and the three other killers conducted a gruesome set of rites upon Carolyn’s corpse, an otherworldly ceremony they believed would bring a mundane reward: winning lottery numbers. It’s not clear exactly what the offering to Kali involved, but Nithiyanantha Gurukkal, one of Malaysia’s most senior Hindu priests, says some devotees believe that “human body parts and especially blood will be given to these demigods.”

Despite 30 years of breakneck economic development, Malaysia remains a spirit-haunted land where, as Hairudin Harun of the University of Malaya notes, a recent survey showed that 90% of professionals said they had consulted spirit me-diums for marital, health or work-related problems. “Most of these (mediums) are harmless. It is like watching David Copperfield,” Hairudin says. But he adds that the regular reports in Malaysian newspapers of ritual dismemberment and the discovery of skulls and other body parts used in occult rituals testify to the continuing popularity of a much darker side to Malaysians’ faith in the spirit world.

After 14 years in the country, Carolyn Bushell was Malaysian enough to turn for help to the spirits when her world started to fall apart. She first arrived in 1987 after marrying a fellow student from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Malaysian Raslan Ahmad. The couple had three children and her husband prospered, rising to become general manager of the prestigious private hospital in Ipoh, an old mining town in central Malaysia where the family settled. But by late 1999, she and Raslan communicated mostly by shouting and Carolyn had formed a friendship with an ethnic Indian man named Michael. Police say Michael introduced Carolyn to the spirit medium Shanmugavela, promising that he could solve her marital woes. Both Michael and another man who allegedly participated in the murder are currently serving prison sentences for unrelated offenses and are still under interrogation by the police about Carolyn’s murder.

As for Shanmugavela, who died last year in a traffic accident, many of his neighbors on the estate say he was a fraud who faked the trances he fell into. “People here avoided him,” says 63-year-old Thenavai, grimacing through teeth stained black by years of chewing betel nut. “We all knew about his character. But outsiders believed he could cure them and give them winning four-digit numbers.”

Even if Shanmugavela did exploit the gullibility of the outsiders, some part of him must have been in thrall to the goddess’s dark power. After making the offering, police sources say, Shanmugavela fell into a trance in the makeshift Kali temple and intoned a four-digit sequence, these numbers the twisted legacy of a woman’s life. Michael drove straight to a betting shop and put down a few hundred dollars, carefully repeating the sequence. The numbers were, of course, losers. Had they been the winning numbers, would the sacrifice of Carolyn’s life have been any less in vain?

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