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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Adeshola Ore

Suspected mushroom poisoning: months of intrigue culminates in Australian court hearing over fatal lunch

Erin Patterson speaking to the media.
A case of suspected mushroom poisoning deaths has captivated Australia and Erin Patterson, pictured, has appeared in court in Victoria after being charged with murder. Photograph: 10 News First

Hushed whispers fell silent as Erin Patterson – the woman at the centre of a fatal mushroom lunch that left three people dead – entered a rural Australian courtroom.

Images of Patterson have appeared under headlines around the world and led Australian TV bulletins, with the case captivating audiences keen for answers about what happened at her home on 29 July and the mushrooms used in the beef wellington served up to her guests.

But, despite all the fascination and speculation, no one had seen her like this.

On Friday morning, she was escorted into the dock at a small rural Victorian courtroom, glancing at the media throng that filled three out of the four public gallery seating rows.

She was dressed in a grey jumper and glasses, her emotionless expression offering no clues as to her thoughts about the three charges of murder and five counts of attempted murder laid against her.

After months of police investigation, media attention and public fascination, her first hearing in the Latrobe Valley magistrates court lasted less than 15 minutes.

“Good morning,” was the longest sentence uttered by the 49-year-old to the court.

She spent her first night behind bars on Thursday, after being charged with murdering Gail and Don Patterson, both 70, and Gail’s sister, Heather Wilkinson, 66, over lunch in her home in the rural Victorian town of Leongatha.

Patterson, who has previously denied any wrongdoing, is also charged with five counts of attempted murder. Four of those relate to her former partner Simon Patterson – whose parents were among those she allegedly killed. The last relates to Heather Wilkinson’s husband, Ian, who survived the meal.

Police, who have long been tight-lipped about their investigation, broke their silence soon after Patterson was arrested at her home.

Det Insp Dean Thomas, from Victoria police’s homicide squad, said he could not recall an investigation that generated the same level of media and public interest domestically and internationally.

“Over the last three months … this investigation has been subject to incredibly intense levels of public scrutiny and curiosity,” Thomas said, hours before Patterson was charged.

“I encourage people to be particularly mindful of unnecessary speculation and the sharing of misinformation.”

The mushroom mystery

About 45 minutes’ drive from the Latrobe Valley courthouse is the small religious town of Leongatha, where the deadly lunch was hosted on a Saturday afternoon late July.

Police allege the lunch is central to an alleged plot to poison Patterson’s former family members. Patterson herself previously confirmed the meal at question was a beef wellington.

Gail and Don Patterson – the parents of Patterson’s former husband – and Wilkinson died in hospital after eating beef wellington at lunch. Police previously said the three people who died had symptoms consistent with eating death cap mushrooms – responsible for 90% of mushroom-related deaths.

A single bite can be deadly.

Court documents reveal one of the four counts of attempted murder of Patterson’s former partner relates to the day of the fatal lunch. He was not present for that meal. The other attempted murders are alleged to have taken place over the past two years.

Ian Wilkinson, a Baptist Church pastor, is still recovering after spending almost two months in hospital and the majority of time in a coma.

On Friday, police sought a 20-week adjournment to allow sufficient time to analyse computer equipment seized at Patterson’s home during a property search on Thursday, where the Australian federal police force deployed technology detector dogs, trained to sniff items such as phones, laptops and USBs.

A police officer and dog during a search of the property of Erin Patterson.
A police officer and dog during a search of the property of Erin Patterson. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Patterson has maintained her innocence, including in a televised interview on a national current affairs program.

According to comments published by the ABC and some other media outlets earlier this year, Patterson said the mushrooms were a mixture of button mushrooms bought at a major supermarket chain and dried mushrooms bought at an Asian grocery store in Melbourne months previously.

She said she also went to hospital after eating the meal after experiencing gastro-like symptoms but that they subsided after she was given a liver-protecting drug. She claimed she had scraped the mushrooms off the dish and fed the leftovers to other family members, who did not fall ill.

After months of speculation, police will now have months, before the next hearing date set for 3 May, to finalise their own theory about what happened.

Only theirs will be tested in court to determine if it stacks up.

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