ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Indonesia Has Another Shaman Serial Killer – and the Phenomenon Is More Common Than You Think

The frequent occurrence of such crimes speaks to Indonesians’ widespread belief in the occult and the lure of get-rich-quick schemes in a country with widespread poverty.

Indonesia Has Another Shaman Serial Killer – and the Phenomenon Is More Common Than You Think

Suspected serial murderer Tohari is paraded in front of the media during a police press briefing on April 3, 2023.

Credit: Humas Polres Banjarnegara FB

Medan, Indonesia – Indonesia has a new serial killer in the form of Slamet Tohari, a 45-year-old self-professed shaman who used to hawk his wares on Facebook, promising the local populace that he could double, triple, and even quadruple their money by casting a few spells and chanting some mantras.

When police found the bodies of 12 men and women interred in eight graves on a plot of land near to his home, the jig was finally up for Tohari, a resident of Banjarnegara Regency in Central Java, who had been luring victims to his lair from their homes in Magelang, Sukabumi, and Yogyakarta in Java and Palembang and Lampung in Sumatra, with the promise of instant riches.

Once there, and once they had handed over thousands of dollars in cash for his “services,” Tohari would allegedly offer them a drink laced with potassium cyanide – a potent poison easily available in farming communities in Indonesia due to its use as a common pesticide.

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to Tohari’s case that goes beyond the mere macabre nuts and bolts of his crimes, which according to police he had been committing since 2020. It speaks to Indonesia’s belief in the occult; the popularity of get-rich-quick schemes in a country with widespread poverty; and, not least, the inability of the authorities to locate missing persons and apprehend a serial killer on the loose.

In many countries, the halcyon days of serial killings – or two or more killings taking place in separate incidents – were the 1970s and 1980s, when an increase in migration and the rise of sprawling cities offering anonymity seemed to prompt a surge in the crimes, according to a paper by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which also explains that,

“This development also proved to be a key precondition for the emergence of serial murder, given that a defining attribute of serial killers is that they prey on strangers (something that distinguishes them from the vast majority of homicides, which typically involve some form of prior relationship between killer and victim). Thus dense modern urban environments represent ideal settings for the routinized impersonal encounters that operate as a hallmark of serial killing.”

At Radford University in Virginia, Dr. Mike Aamodt, an expert on serial killings, has built a database of over 5,000 serial killers from the 1900s onward, which notes that there were 689 serial killers in the 1980s, but only 87 in the 2010s. While no one knows for sure, one of the reasons thought to be behind the decline of serial killings appears to be the rise of forensic technology, in particular DNA evidence, which has meant that serial killers are caught earlier before they can kill and kill again.

Yet over in Indonesia, while firm data is hard to come by, serial killings appear marked not necessarily by a rise or decline in numbers, but by a strikingly similar modus operandi.

From 1986 to 1997, Ahmad Suradji – also a shaman – killed 42 women by making them dig their own graves before strangling them in Binjai in North Sumatra. In 2007, Tubagus Yusuf Maulana, yet another shaman, murdered eight people by ordering them to dig a pit before handing them a deadly potion containing poison. In January this year, another three shamans were arrested in Bekasi, West Java and are facing trial for the murder of nine people, including several family members, who were given poisoned coffee.

In all of the above cases, and the latest case involving Tohari, it appears that financial gain was the motive for the murders.

Given such a profile, it is not surprising that Indonesia’s new Criminal Code, set to be phased in over the next three years, criminalizes “anyone who claims to have supernatural powers or offers or provides supernatural services to other people that cause illness, death or mental or physical suffering” in order to crack down on rogue shamans, known locally as dukun, and discourage promises of magic which appear, in some cases, designed only to exploit the most vulnerable.

Perhaps owing to the unfortunate pattern of shaman serial killings over the years, it was one of Tohari’s victims who solved his own murder and finally led to the shaman being apprehended.

On March 20, according to police, a 53-year-old man named Paryanto went to see Tohari from Sukabumi, a city some eight hours away from Banjarnegara, sending the GPS coordinates of Tohari’s home to his adult son with an accompanying message:

This is Mr. Slamet’s house, just in case father’s is [cut] short. For example, if you don’t hear from your father by Sunday, go straight to the location with the authorities.

On March 27, the day after he was supposed to return home, Paryanto’s family called the police.