A small family lunch in a quiet Australian town is now at the center of a deadly mystery, thanks to wild mushrooms that were apparently on the menu for everyone except the hosts.
A homicide investigation has been launched after three guests died and a fourth became critically ill in the days after the meal, all with symptoms that police say were consistent with death cap mushroom poisoning.
Police have interviewed the 48-year-old woman who cooked and hosted the meal for her in-laws and another couple on July 29. She was released without charges pending further inquiries, but her residence has been searched and some items have been removed for testing, Victoria police said in a statement.
Speaking outside her home in the town of Leongatha, in the southern state of Victoria, Erin Patterson tearfully told reporters that she was “devastated” by the deaths. “I didn’t do anything,” she said Monday, adding that the victims were “some of the best people I’ve ever met” and describing her mother-in-law as “the mom I didn’t have.”
She did not respond to reporters’ questions regarding the origin of the mushrooms or what meals she served to which guests.
Patterson and her two children, who were also present at the lunch, did not fall ill. Police said they believe the children were served a different dish than what was given to the other guests, according to The Associated Press.
Victoria police say they are working closely with the health department and medical professions in their investigation. Detective Inspector Dean Thomas told reporters at a news conference that it was too early to bring any charges.
“We have to keep an open mind,” he said. “It could be very innocent, but again we just don’t know at this point,” he added.
Among the guests at the lunch were Gail Patterson, 70, her husband, Don, 70, and her sister Heather Wilkinson, 66. They were taken to a Melbourne hospital the day after the meal, and all three died a few days later.
Heather Wilkinson’s husband, Ian, 66, who also attended the meal, is still in hospital in a critical condition awaiting a liver transplant.
The group lived in the small nearby town Korumburra, Victoria, where Ian Wilkinson served as a pastor at the baptist church.
In a statement to the local newspaper, both families requested privacy in “this challenging time.”
They remembered the victims for “their love, steadfast faith, and selfless service.”
Police say all four guests showed symptoms consistent with poisoning by death cap mushroom, a particularly deadly variety, although the official cause of death has not yet been confirmed.
The Victoria health department advises that death cap mushrooms (amanita phalloides) are “extremely poisonous” to animals and humans. It warns that consuming just one of these mushrooms can kill an adult, with symptoms including violent stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Death cap mushrooms are most common between March and May in southeast Australia. The health department warned there are currently no home tests which can accurately distinguish between edible and poisonous mushrooms.
Thomas said that testing and toxicology reports will likely take some time before they can confirm the source of the symptoms and cause of death, and urged caution while foraging for 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 you should eat them."