A meal of suspected death cap mushrooms served at a family lunch in late July is at the center of a homicide investigation in Australia following the deaths of three guests less than a week later.
Erin Patterson served the meal to her former parents-in-law and her mother-in-law’s sister and husband, who were guests at her home in the town of Leongatha in southern Victoria, on July 29, according to Victoria Police.
Within days, Gail Patterson, 70, and her sister Heather Wilkinson, 66, died in hospital, followed by Gail’s 70-year-old husband, Don, a day later.
A fourth guest, Wilkinson’s husband, Ian, a 68-year-old reverend, remains critically ill in hospital.
Their deaths have shocked the small town and in recent days parishioners at the nearby Korumburra Baptist Church have gathered to pray for the recovery of their reverend, who reportedly needs a liver transplant.
Combined, the towns of Leongatha and Korumburra are home to just over 10,000 people, according to the latest census.
In a tearful exchange with local media outside her home on Monday, Erin Patterson denied any wrongdoing.
“I’m devastated. I loved them. And I can’t believe that this has happened and I’m so sorry,” the 48-year-old told reporters.
At a news briefing Monday, Detective Inspector Dean Thomas with the Victoria Police homicide squad, said Patterson is a suspect because she cooked the meal, and is the only adult at the lunch who didn’t fall ill.
He said Erin Patterson had separated from her husband, Simon, who lost both his parents, but described their relationship as “amicable.”
The former couple’s two children were also at the lunch, he added, but they ate a different meal and showed no sign of illness.
“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 Patterson’s guests are consistent with poisoning by death cap mushrooms, Thomas said, though toxicology reports are yet to show exactly what they consumed.
Victoria Health issued a warning about death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides) in April, describing them as “extremely poisonous” and listing symptoms of consumption including violent stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
“Even if initial symptoms subside serious liver damage may have occurred that may result in death,” the warning said.
Native to Europe, death cap mushrooms were first confirmed in Australia in the 1960s, and they almost always grow near introduced trees, namely oaks, according to Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.
It’s not clear where the mushrooms consumed at the Leongatha lunch came from, or what type they were. Toxins in death cap mushrooms cannot be destroyed by boiling, cooking, freezing, or drying and eating only a small portion can lead to death.
When asked by reporters what meal she had cooked, Patterson didn’t answer, instead retreating inside her home with the request to leave her alone.
Police said they searched Patterson’s home on Saturday and seized a number of objects for forensic testing. Local media reports suggested a dehydrator was found at a nearby rubbish dump though police wouldn’t elaborate on specific items.
“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.
While police work to confirm what Patterson’s guests ate, they’re urging people to stay away from wild mushrooms.
“I do ask people out in the community to think about mushrooms that they may have picked out at paddocks, farms, whatever it might be. Please think about whether they you should eat them,” Thomas said.
“My suggestion is if you haven’t purchased them from a supermarket or something like that, perhaps stay clear of them.”