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A Japanese woman at the centre of a multiple murder case who reportedly coerced people into starving family members to death has been found dead in her cell, a police spokesman said on Wednesday.
Miyoko Sumida, 64, was the chief suspect in a probe that has transfixed low-crime Japan since three decaying corpses were discovered in an empty house where she once lived.
Sumida's lifeless body was found in bed in the cell she shared with two others on Wednesday morning. A long-sleeve shirt was wrapped tightly around her neck, a police spokesman and media said.
Newspapers reported that she likely killed herself, quoting her lawyer as saying that she had often said she wanted to die.
“An autopsy is now being undertaken on her body, and police will decide if it was suicide or not after the autopsy,” a police spokesman said.
Print media and television news programmes have offered extensive coverage of the case since the gruesome find of three rotting bodies at an empty house in Hyogo prefecture, west Japan, in October.
Another body encased in a concrete-filled drum was pulled out of the sea west of Hyogo later that month as police said more people were missing, presumed dead.
Sumida, the main suspect in the case, has been in custody since early in the probe, which began last year shortly before the first body was found.
A total of six bodies have been found, with police reported to believe more will be uncovered as their investigation progresses.
Reports have said Sumida would approach strangers, initially picking a quarrel with them before befriending them.
She would build a rapport that allowed her to exert enormous control over her victims, which reports say escalated to the point where she was able to move into the family home or have families go to live with her.
Sumida would then punish any who tried to escape by coercing family members to inflict physical hardships on them, in some cases torturing and starving people to death.
Several members of her own extended family are also in custody in connection with the deaths. - Sapa-AFP