A small town in Australia is reeling after three people died in quick succession, with another fighting for his life, after they went to lunch with their relative who still remains unharmed. The case has captured international attention over speculation that the host may have poisoned her guests with death cap mushrooms.
Erin Patterson, 48, hosted her former parents-in-law and her mother-in-law’s sister and husband for a midday meal in the town of Leongatha in southern Victoria on July 29, police said. Shortly after, the four guests were hospitalized with severe gastrointestinal problems.
Days later, Gail Patterson, 70, and her sister Heather Wilkinson, 66, were dead. The next day, Gail’s 70-year-old husband Don also died.
The fourth guest, Wilkinson’s 68-year-old husband Ian, remains in critical condition and is in need of a liver transplant.
Erin cooked the lunch and was the only adult who didn’t fall ill after eating. Her two children were also at the lunch but ate a different meal. They show no signs of illness.
Speaking to reporters outside her home on Monday, Erin denied involvement in the deaths.
“I’m devastated. I loved them. And I can’t believe that this has happened and I’m so sorry,” she said.
Erin is separated from her husband, Simon, whose parents died after eating the fatal lunch, but police described their relationship as “amicable” in a Monday news briefing.
Det. Insp. Dean Thomas of the Victoria Police added that Erin is a suspect in the homicide investigation, but no charges have been laid thus far.
“We have to keep an open mind in relation to this. It could be very innocent,” Thomas said. “But again, we just don’t know at this point.… Four people turn up and three of them pass away, with another one critical, so we have to work through this.”
The symptoms suffered by the lunch guests are consistent with death cap mushroom poisoning, Thomas said, though police are waiting on toxicology reports to reveal an exact cause of death.
Death cap mushrooms are one of the deadliest mushrooms in the world, and may be responsible for about 90 per cent of all fatal fungi poisonings worldwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
Symptoms of death cap mushroom poisoning include nausea, vomiting and low blood sugar, though liver and kidney damage can start to set in three to six days after ingestion, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control states.
“Death cap mushrooms are extremely poisonous. In October 2016, a child died after eating a mushroom that was picked in downtown Victoria, B.C.,” the agency writes.
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Another mysterious element to this case is the fact that Erin’s husband nearly died last summer from “serious gut problems.” He wrote on Facebook that he collapsed at home and spent 16 days in an induced coma. After three surgeries, mostly on his small intestine, and a month in the hospital, he recovered.
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“My family were asked to come and say goodbye to me twice, as I was not expected to live,” Simon wrote.
Police searched Erin’s house on Saturday and seized some items for further testing as the homicide investigation continues.
“Obviously a lot of the items that we have seized will be forensically tested in the hope that can shed some light on what has occurred at the lunch,” Thomas said.
When speaking to reporters outside her home, Erin refused to answer what meal she cooked for her relatives and retreated back inside.
In an interview with the BBC, Regional Mayor Nathan Hersey said he’s stunned at the unfolding events.
“No one would ever expect that to happen here,” he said. “Who in their right mind would expect that they would lose … people who contribute and give so much … in such a way?”
The only guest of the lunch that remains alive, Ian Wilkinson, is the reverend at the local Korumburra Baptist Church. Parishioners have gathered in recent days to pray for his recovery as he awaits a liver transplant.
“People are grieving and extremely sad,” Hersey said.
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