An Australian woman is under investigation after her in-laws died after consuming a meal she made that’s suspected of containing highly poisonous mushrooms, police said.
Erin Patterson, 48, served lunch for her mother- and father-in-law and two of their relatives at her home in Victoria on July 29. Her two children were also present, but they were given a different meal and they, as well as Patterson, did not get sick, police said.
Patterson’s husband, whom she is separated from but is said to have an amicable relationship with, was not present, Homicide Squad Detective Inspector Dean Thomas said at a press conference on Monday.
“The symptoms that these people presented with are that of death cap mushrooms,” said Thomas. “It may be very innocent, but again, we just don’t know. But it’s really interesting, four people turn up and three of them have passed away with another one critical.”
Toxicology test results are expected to take some time to come back.
The deceased have been identified by local media as Gail and Don Patterson, who were both aged 70, and Gail’s sister, Heather Wilkinson, 66. Wilkinson’s husband, Ian Wilkinson, 68, remained hospitalised in critical condition on Monday while waiting for a liver transplant.
Patterson was named a suspect in the deaths because she prepared the meal. Her home was searched, and her two children were taken into state care as a “precaution”, said Thomas.
In a tearful interview with reporters on Monday, Patterson said she’s “devastated” and “can’t fathom what has happened”.
“I loved them, and I can’t believe this has happened, and I’m so sorry that they have lost their lives,” she said outside her house.
She declined to answer questions about how they may have eaten the mushrooms, only saying: “I didn’t do anything. I loved them, and I’m devastated that they’re gone.”
Local media have meanwhile narrowed in on a Facebook post by Patterson’s husband last year that described him as nearly dying in a hospital from what he described as “serious gut problems”. His illness left him in an induced coma for 16 days and required three emergency operations on his small intestine, he said.
“My family were asked to come and say goodbye to me twice, as I was not expected to live,” Simon Patterson wrote on a local basketball page while explaining his absense from the group. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Death cap mushrooms, formally called Amanita phalloides, are extremely toxic, even in small amounts, whether they are cooked, dried or consumed raw. They kill more people worldwide than any other foraged mushroom, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The mushrooms are not native to Australia but were introduced accidentally from the northern hemisphere. They can be found growing in the suburbs of Australia’s capital city of Canberra, as well as several Melbourne suburbs and nearby Victorian country towns, according to a website for the Australian National Botanic Gardens.
“It can be extremely difficult to distinguish death cap mushrooms from edible mushrooms, even for experienced collectors,” according to the Australian Capital Territory’s health department which asks people to report any that are seen growing in public areas.