Inside the mushroom death mystery that’s gripping Australia

The mushrooms were to die for.

An alleged poisoning is dominating Australian media, as authorities suspect Erin Patterson, 48, of Leongatha, intentionally laced a lunch for her former in-laws — killing three people and critically wounding a Baptist pastor.

The lethal serving of death cap mushrooms — a highly toxic fungus typically found near oak trees — occurred on July 29 at Erin’s home in Leongatha, where she prepped a meal that led to gastrointestinal problems for Gail and Don Patterson, the 70-year-old parents of her ex-husband.

Gail’s sister, Heather Wilkinson, 66, and her husband, Ian Wilkinson, a 68-year-old pastor in nearby Korumburra, were also struck down.

The Pattersons and Heather later died at a hospital, while Wilkinson fights for his life at a Melbourne facility as he awaits a liver transplant.

Homicide detectives are now investigating after Erin, who remains a suspect, was released without being charged. 

Erin Patterson prepared a lunch featuring wild mushrooms for her former in-laws on July 29 at her home in Leongatha, Australia. Within days, three of them were dead.
7 News

A fifth person who attended the lunch was also sickened, but discharged a short time later, according to the Times of London.

Erin prepared the deadly dish — beef Wellington with mushrooms — but served a different meal to herself and her two young children, who were also at the gathering, authorities said. She denied wrongdoing this week, telling reporters she cooked the meal for the “best people” in her life.

“I can’t believe that this happened, and I am sorry that they have lost their lives,” Erin said outside her home. “I didn’t do anything; I loved them. I just can’t fathom what happened.”

The ongoing criminal probe is rocking Leongatha and Korumburra, where detectives last responded to a homicide probe more than two decades ago, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Heather Wilkinson, Gail Patterson, Don Patterson, Ian Wilkinson
Heather Wilkinson (left) and Gail Patterson (right), died on Aug. 4 of suspected mushroom poisoning. Don Patterson (second from right) passed away the following day. Ian Wilkinson (second from left) is fighting for his life.

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen here,” one Leongatha resident told the newspaper Monday.

But this wasn’t the first time Erin’s cooking allegedly made someone sick.

Her ex-husband, Simon Patterson reportedly spending 16 days in an induced coma with a mysterious gut illness last year after eating food served by her.

“Simon suspected he had been poisoned by Erin,” a source told The Herald Sun. “There were times he had felt … a bit off and it coincided when he spent time with her.”

After recovering, Simon writing about his puzzling May 2022 ailment on Facebook.

Simon Patterson on a camel
Erin’s ex-husband, Simon Patterson, previously suspected he may have been poisoned by her after developing a mysterious gut illness that landed him in an induced coma.

“I collapsed at home, then was in an induced coma for 16 days through which I had three emergency operations mainly on my small intestine, plus an additional planned operation,” he reportedly wrote. “My family were asked to come and say goodbye to me twice, as I was not expected to live.”

Patterson suspected his unforeseen illness had been linked to eating nightshades, a family of plants that includes tomatoes, potatoes and peppers.

All nightshade vegetables contain alkaloids like solanine, a chemical that can be toxic in high concentrations.

Investigators say Simon and Erin had separated amicably after living in separate homes for years.

Erin’s in-laws and several church elders had reportedly gone to her home on the 29th to discuss new arrangements for Simon to see the former couple’s children.

Simon was supposed to attend the recent fateful fête, but canceled at the last minute.

Erin refused to tell investigators how she got the death cap mushrooms after initially suggesting she bought them at a local supermarket, but no other customer illnesses were reported.

Authorities now believe a food dehydrator used by Erin to prepare the lunch was tossed away the following day and are scouring CCTV footage around the trash area.

Amanita phalloides, or "death cap" mushroom held by a gloved hand
Amanita phalloides, also known as  “death cap” mushrooms, are responsible for the majority of mushroom-related deaths worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
AFP via Getty Images

Patterson, who remains free after being interviewed by police, met with an attorney Thursday, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Her two children have reportedly been taken into state care as a precaution.

So-called “death cap” mushrooms cause more deaths of people who ingest foraged mushrooms than any other variety worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just one — whether cooked or raw — is believed to be enough to be fatal.

Locals in rural southeastern Australia said any seasoned Aussie would know to stay away from death cap mushrooms while foraging.

Heather Wilkinson, Ian Wilkinson
Ian Wilkinson, a pastor, remains hospitalized awaiting a liver transplant after eating mushrooms prepared by Erin Patterson.

“A field mushroom is very obviously a field mushroom and most people would never pick something else,” Bonnie Cook, 76, of South Gippsland, told The Times Friday. “I know that I would never eat or pick or touch, even … So I don’t know — it’s just a terribly sad situation.”

Authorities are awaiting results of a toxicology report to confirm the exact cause of the suspected poisonings.

Residents of Korumburra, a tight-knit agricultural town known for dairy farms, are still struggling to process the sensational alleged triple poisoning.

“This is something nobody will ever forget,” one told the Morning Herald.

The three dead relatives were selfless people who spread positivity at every chance, sources told the newspaper.

The surviving man, Ian Wilkinson, works as a pastor at Korumburra Baptist Church and regularly mowed neighbors’ lawns. His late wife, Heather, reportedly taught courses at a community center.

Korumburra Baptist Church
Korumburra Baptist Church, where Ian Wilkinson serves as pastor.
google maps

The couple also greeted newcomers along their street with cookies and provided hot water to neighbors in need, source said.

Don and Gail Patterson, both of whom were former teachers, ran a local publication called The Burra Flyer for several years before giving the reins to Erin, the Morning Herald reported.

“[Don] did not have an evil bone in his body,” former student Sam Provan told the newspaper. “If there were more people like Mr. Patterson, we wouldn’t have half the trouble we have here in this world.”

Erin Patterson crying
Erin Patterson, 48, has been released without charges and denies wrongdoing in the three suspicious deaths. “I didn’t do anything; I loved them,” she told reporters in Australia.
7 News

Erin maintains her innocence, telling reporters outside her home:

“Gail was like the mum I didn’t have because my mum passed away four years ago and Gail had never been anything but good and kind to me. Ian and Heather were some of the best people I’d ever met. They never did anything wrong to me.

“I’m so devastated about what’s happened and the loss to the community and to the families and to my own children, they’ve lost their grandmother.”

Neighbors have helped shoo away reporters from the Wilkinson and Patterson homes since the deadly intimate gathering seemingly ripped from a lurid Hollywood thriller.

“It’s a personal family tragedy and it reaches out to all the people who touched their lives,” close family friend Jenni Keerie told the Morning Herald. “We are trying to come to terms with what that means for our own lives.”

“People are talking because the only person who didn’t get any sort of illness from the mushrooms is the person who cooked it,” Max Vella, 16, who works at the supermarket in Korumburra, told the Times of London. 

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