Australia: Woman arrested in deadly mushroom case

Australian police on Thursday arrested the woman at the heart of a deadly Wellington beef lunch laced with poisonous mushrooms that killed three people and left a shepherd in critical condition.

Erin Patterson, 49, was arrested Thursday morning and police began searching her home with dogs capable of sniffing electronic devices such as USB drives.

Once the search is complete, she will be questioned, said Inspector Dean Thomas of Victoria Police’s crime squad.

“Today’s arrest is just one step in this complex and in-depth investigation being carried out by crime squad inspectors, which is not yet complete,” Thomas told reporters, without answering questions.

The investigation had attracted “incredible” media and public interest in Australia and overseas, he added.

“I think it’s especially important to note that at the heart of this case, three people lost their lives,” Thomas said.

The arrest is the latest twist in a saga that has the country in suspense and has highlighted the small rural town of Leongatha, located 110km south-west of Melbourne.

Ms Patterson, who has not been charged, has always maintained her innocence.

On July 29, she prepared her recipe for beef Wellington, a specialty of English cuisine, for her parents-in-law, Don and Gail Patterson. She was married to her son Simon, but the couple had been living apart for some time.

A Baptist minister, Ian Wilkinson, and his wife Heather completed the guest list.

“Cruel Rumors”

The fact that her four guests quickly fell ill, unlike her, who remained in good health, fueled the rumours, naming her as a suspect.

The pastor’s in-laws and wife died a few days later, after suffering symptoms of food poisoning. Only Pastor Wilkinson, 69, survived after being hospitalized for nearly two months.

Released from hospital on September 23, he appeared in public for the first time in early October at a memorial event for his wife, and one newspaper said he appeared “frail” and was walking with help of “a walker”.

Her symptoms matched those caused by ingesting Amanita phalloides, said police, who named Ms Patterson as a suspect shortly after the fatal meal.

He has always maintained his innocence, claiming in August that he bought these mushrooms at an Asian grocery store and that it was an accident.

“I’m devastated to think that these mushrooms could have contributed” to the fatal outcome. “I want to reiterate that I had absolutely no reason to hurt these people that I loved,” he continued.

At Don and Gail Patterson’s funeral, Reverend Fran Grimes said the community was trying to “protect the family from cruel speculation and rumours”.

Phalloid amanitas, also known as green orange and death chalice, can easily be confused with edible spices.

Its powerful toxins severely damage the liver and kidneys. There is currently no real antidote for phalloidin poisoning.