On July 30, five people sat down for a lunch of beef wellington pot pie in Leongatha, a town southeast of Melbourne, Australia. Within a week, three of the guests were dead and a fourth was in hospital in critical condition.
Police said they suspect the meal contained Amanita phalloides, better known as death cap mushrooms, one of the most poisonous varieties in existence.
Erin Patterson, the woman who cooked the meal and claims to have eaten some of it, is fine.
After being interviewed by police and released pending inquiries, speculation has swirled around Ms. Patterson, who said she had initially been told not to comment, something she now regrets “given the nightmare that this process has become.” This week she provided an extensive statement to the authorities, which was subsequently acquired and published by public broadcaster ABC.
“I am now wanting to clear up the record because I have become extremely stressed and overwhelmed by the deaths of my loved ones,” she said of the incident, which killed her former parents-in-law, Don and Gail Patterson, and Gail’s sister Heather Wilkinson. Ms. Wilkinson’s husband, Ian, remains in critical condition.
“I am now devastated to think that these mushrooms may have contributed to the illness suffered by my loved ones. I really want to repeat that I had absolutely no reason to hurt these people whom I loved.”
Ms. Patterson said she prepared the meal using a mix of button mushrooms from a local supermarket and dried ones bought at an Asian grocery store in Melbourne months ago. Guests fixed their own plates, and she took the last one, she said. Contrary to earlier reports, her children were not present at the lunch but did eat leftovers the following night – though not the mushrooms.
Ms. Patterson said she was also hospitalized after the lunch with stomach pains and diarrhea. According to ABC, the local health service confirmed that a fifth person was treated at Leongatha Hospital on July 30 for suspected food poisoning.
After her guests fell ill, Ms. Patterson said she was contacted by the Department of Health about the incident and provided what was left of the meal for examination. She said she told investigators where she had bought the mushrooms, though she was unable to remember the name of the shop in Melbourne.
Police said an investigation into the deaths remains under way.
Ms. Patterson has not been charged with any crime. Speaking to The Australian newspaper outside her house Wednesday, she complained about media harassment and said she had been “painted as an evil witch.”
In her statement, she said she hoped that “if people understood the background more, they would not be so quick to rush to judgment.”
But aspects of what she wrote have only raised more questions.
In particular, she admitted to lying to police about when she had disposed of a food dehydrator found at a local dump. While in hospital, she said, she and her children were “discussing the food dehydrator” when her former husband, Simon Patterson, asked, “Is that what you used to poison them?”
Fearing she might lose custody of their children, Ms. Patterson said she panicked and dumped the food dehydrator. She initially told police she had disposed of it “a long time ago.”
Mr. Patterson was to attend the fatal lunch, his former wife said, but told her “prior to the day” that he wouldn’t make it. In the statement, she appeared to reference media reports that he spent two weeks in hospital last year with a severe stomach illness, saying she had nursed him for three weeks before deciding to finally end their relationship.
“I had been close with Simon’s parents for a long period of time. Our relationship had continued in a fairly amicable way after I finished the relationship with their son,” Ms. Patterson said. “I had a deep love and respect for Simon’s parents and had encouraged my children to spend time with their grandparents as I believed they were exceptional role models.”
In a news release Tuesday, the Australian Mushroom Growers Association also cast doubt on Ms. Patterson’s claims to have bought the deadly mushrooms.
“This fungus only grows in the wild,” the industry body said, adding that it was “impossible” it could have entered the commercial supply chain. Death caps do grow wild in the area around Leongatha, and the association advised against foraging for mushrooms due to the risk of a fatal poisoning.