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.
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.
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.