Shakahola deaths: Blunders by Mackenzie and how cult was discovered

Good News International Church Pastor Paul Mackenzie during an interview with the ‘Nation’ in Kilifi County on March 24, 2023. The pastor is under arrest following the deaths of four followers, whom he reportedly told to starve themselves in order to "meet Jesus". PHOTO | NMG

A series of blunders by controversial televangelist Paul Mackenzie and his aides made his freedom short-lived after he was released by a court last month, leading to the discovery of mass graves in Kilifi’s Shakahola village.

On March 23, Mackenzie had left a Malindi court a happy man after securing freedom on a Sh10,000 police bond in a case in which he was linked to the murder of two children in Shakahola village filed under OB No. 12/17/3/2023.

Court documents said the parents of the two children, on advice from Mackenzie, had starved and suffocated them to death on March 16 and 17. 

The decision to arrest him was mooted days later but, with no legal backing, police could not execute their plan. Detectives investigating the deaths believe it is after his release that Mackenzie retreated to his Shakahola home to further plan and execute his murderous plot.

Nation understands that, while police quietly continued with the investigations, they were thrown off-tangent even as they closely monitored the cult leader and his associates’ whereabouts.

The job of guaranteeing that he was not arrested was assigned to some of his trusted collaborators who did not leave his side and ensured he remained incognito as his lawyer worked on a suit to prevent his rearrest.

Activities went undetected

A detective yesterday said it appears the suspect succeeded in this plan as the cultic activities went quietly and undetected in the village. But tension soon rose after more than 10 people in Shakahola and Msimba villages were seriously injured when neighbours attacked them for being followers of the church.

Locals bumped into the victims who were shopping for food for Mackenzie and his associates.

This incident, Nation understands, proved to be the turning point for investigators as, after questioning, some of the victims laid bare the secretive activities happening in the forest.

Also on April 14, police acting on intelligence made a shocking discovery after four people died of suspected starvation while 10 others were rescued at night.

They died in a prayer session.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki is shown some of the mass graves by DCI Homicide Director Martin Nyuguto

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki (in white shirt) is shown some of the mass graves by DCI Homicide Director Martin Nyuguto (right) on April 25, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

“The team were unable to identify the mass grave by virtue of vast land and hostile residents in the forest. It is further suspected that there are many victims in the forest,” a police report filed under OB No.07/14/4/2023 says.

Deaths happened within a month

Based on this new piece of evidence, police traced and arrested Mackenzie in Chakama in a hideout. On Tuesday, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki corroborated Nation’s investigations into the cult, saying, many deaths could have happened within one month.

“He has been arrested and arraigned in court three times but always released on small bonds. Most of the deaths that have happened here in Shakahola occurred after the last payment of the Sh10,000 bond. Had he been jailed at the time, this loss of lives would not have happened.”

The death toll rose further yesterday with the discovery of five bodies of children next to Mackenzie’s homestead. Three others were found in different parts of the compound. Coast Regional Coordinator Rhoda Onyancha said police have combed the forest halfway. Journalists were barred from accessing the crime scene as the government declared Shakahola village a disturbed area and an operation zone. 

"Curfew orders have also been declared and gazetted within the said area between [6 pm and 6 am] for 30 days."

Kilifi County Government also received 200 capacity refrigerated containers from the Kenya Red Cross Society to preserve bodies from Shakahola, where dozens of followers of a cult fasted to death and were buried clandestinely.

County Health Executive Peter Mwarogo said the mortuary at the Malindi Sub-county Hospital was full and cannot accommodate more bodies.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) yesterday obtained orders to search and seize Mackenzie’s properties. Malindi Court Principal Magistrate Ivy Wasike also ordered that the search be extended to his seven associates.

The search is to be conducted by the DCI where the cult leader lives or conducts his business in Furunzi-Malindi and Shakahola for purposes of retrieving bank balances, title documents, sale agreements and motor vehicle details "or any other document and item linked to the offences of terrorism, radicalisation, murder or any other charges that will be preferred against the accused persons."