true crime

7 murders in 2 years. How a body in a mine shaft led police to Cyprus' first serial killer.

In mid-April this year, two tourists exploring an abandoned mineshaft in Cyprus spotted a woman’s body – naked, arms and legs bound, and wrapped in a sheet. Distinctive heart-shaped earrings found on the body helped identify her as Mary Rose Tiburcio.

The discovery of Tiburcio’s body would lead to the discovery of more bodies of women and children, and some very uncomfortable questions for the people of Cyprus.

Tiburcio, a domestic worker originally from the Philippines, had been reported missing in May 2018, along with her six-year-old daughter Sierra. According to the Cyprus Mail, Tiburcio’s roommate told police that she’d gone to meet a man she’d connected with on a dating app, taking her daughter with her. They’d never returned. The roommate had been able to tell the police the online name used by the man she’d gone to meet: Orestis. Staff from Sierra’s kindergarten also contacted police to report the girl hadn’t turned up.

When Tiburcio’s body was found, nearly a year later, suspicion fell at first on her Romanian ex-partner. But within days, another man was arrested – a Greek Cypriot army officer, Captain Nikos Metaxas, a 35-year-old father-of-two estranged from his wife.

Questions were soon being asked as to how much investigating the police had done when the mother and daughter were first reported missing – and whether that had anything to do with them being from overseas.

“Would investigations be of the same ‘intensity’ if it were a Cypriot mother and her child?” asked child protection activist Anastasia Papadopoulou.

After questioning Metaxas, police began searching further into the flooded part of the mineshaft, using underwater cameras. They soon found a second body. To the shock of locals following the case, it was not six-year-old Sierra, but another Filipina domestic worker, Arian Palanas Lozano.

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Lozano had been reported missing in July 2018. According to the Cyprus Mail, she had also gone to meet a man she’d connected with on a dating app, a man using the same online name: Orestis.

It was beginning to look like the tiny island country of Cyprus, with a population of just one million, had its first serial killer.

Soon, local media were reporting that Metaxas had confessed to police – not just to the murders of Tiburcio, her daughter, and Lozano, but of another three women and an eight-year-old girl, all foreigners living in Cyprus.

“I am bored,” Metaxas was quoted as saying by newspaper Politis. “I want to go to prison. Bring some paper so I can write it all.”

Metaxas reportedly took police to a well at an army firing range where a third woman’s body was discovered. She’s thought to be Ashita Khadka Bistra, from Nepal.

Metaxas also claimed to have dumped three of his victims in artificial lakes used for copper mining. Over a matter of weeks, three bodies were found curled inside suitcases in the lakes’ toxic waters. They are believed to be Livia Bunea and her daughter Elena, from Romania, and Maricar Valtez Arquiola, from the Philippines.

“We’re professionals but there have been tears,” fire chief Marcos Trangolas, who was overseeing the search, told The Guardian. “Emotions have run high when the suitcases come to the surface and we have seen what we have seen.”

Finally, last week, the body of Sierra was found at the bottom of another lake, wrapped in a sheet and tied to a cement block.

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The people of Cyprus have been left in shock by the killings, which took place over a two-year period. It’s believed that Metaxas deliberately targeted migrant domestic workers – and that in the case of Tiburcio, he asked her to bring her daughter along to their meeting, saying he had children of his own. Doros Polycarpou, from migrant support group Kisa, says these women work in conditions of “extreme exploitation” and don’t have the same rights as Cypriots.

Bunea and her daughter were the first to go missing, back in September 2016. A worried friend reported their disappearance to police, noticing that they’d left all their belongings behind. But says she wasn’t even called in to make a statement.

“They never asked me for an official testimony,” the friend told CyBC. “They were reassuring us they are doing their job.”

Opposition politician Aristos Damianou said police didn’t even do basic checks following Bunea’s disappearance.

“Insufficiency, racism and criminal neglect, gave a killer ample time to become a serial killer,” Damianou told the Cyprus Mail.

Cyprus’s justice minister has resigned over the handling of the case, and the police chief has been dismissed.

The people of Cyprus have held vigils for the victims. At one vigil, protestors held up placards complaining about “sexist, misogynist and racist” attitudes towards migrant domestic workers.

“I felt obliged to do something for these women, all the missing women, all the killed women,” vigil organiser Maria Mappouridou told The Telegraph. “I think deep down, all that we want, what everybody wants, is justice.”

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