A well-respected pastor and three beloved teachers were among those who sat down together for a home-cooked family lunch apparently involving wild mushrooms in rural Australia at the end of last month.
Within days, the teachers were dead and the pastor left fighting for life.
The tight-knit community in Leongatha, in Victoria state, has been shaken to its core, with the mystery also gripping the attention of people around the world as police opened a homicide investigation and searched the home of the host, 46-year-old Erin Patterson.
With Victoria Police describing the incident as a “suspected mushroom poisoning”, detective inspector Dean Thomas said it was not clear what type of mushrooms the guests had eaten on 29 July, but their symptoms were consistent with those from a death cap, a particularly deadly variety.
Police took several items from Ms Patterson’s home on Saturday, before questioning her the following day. She was released without charge but police said she remains a suspect.
However, Ms Patterson, who did not get ill herself, told media outside her home that she did not know what had happened, declining to answer questions about what meals were served to which guests or the origin of the mushrooms. "I didn't do anything," she told Network Nine on Monday. "I loved them and I'm devastated they're gone."
The 46-year-old had been hosting her in-laws, Gail and Don Patterson, both 70, and Gail’s sister Heather Wilkinson, 66, with her husband Ian, 68.
The four who ate the dish - a beef Wellington pie, according to the Guardian - all fell mysteriously ill over the following days. Shortly after, Gail and Heather passed away in hospital on 4 August, while Don died on 5 August. Ian, a pastor from the local Baptist church in Korumburra, remains in critical condition.
Ms Patterson’s ex-husband Simon Patterson, with whom police said she has an “amicable” relationship, was supposed to be at the lunch but could not make it “at the last minute”, according to Daily Mail Australia. Ms Patterson’s son and daughter were also at home, but the pair ate a different meal than the rest.
The Mail quoted a close family source as saying Ms Patterson and her ex-husband had separated years ago but wanted to keep the relationship amicable for their children’s sake. “I think he was really trying to facilitate a healthy co-parenting arrangement,’ they said. “Basically all of his choices and everything he was doing was to keep things stable for the kids.”
Interest in the case soared on Wednesday after police searched a local refuse centre for a dehydrator believed to have been used in the preparation of the lunch, which they later conducted forensic tests on, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Speaking to The Independent, local mayor Nathan Hersey told of the utter “shock, disbelief and grief” reverberating throughout their close community and more widely in the wake of the tragedy.
“I’m hearing from people regularly about their shock and disbelief and how they’re coming to terms with such loss,” he said. “People so well connected, loved and respected in the local community have been struck down and died so suddenly.”
Mushroom foraging is popular in the area even though “there’s risk involved”, said Mr Hersey, adding that “a lot of people would know what they’re looking for”.
He said he had personally met the Wilkinsons, describing them as “lovely and caring people with integrity”. He said a close friend of the couple had told him, “We’ve lost a real level of kindness in our community this week because of these deaths.” But he added: “The community is rallying around and supporting one another.”
The Patterson and Wilkinson families said in a statement in a local newspaper on Sunday they were grateful “to our wider communities for their outpouring of love, support, and prayers”, adding: “This support extends not only to those we have tragically lost but also to our family member who continues to bravely fight for his life in the hospital.”
Deaths from consuming mushrooms are relatively rare in Australia, which has several species including the "death cap" mushroom that can be deadly if ingested. The deaths have led to warnings from health experts across the country not to forage for wild mushrooms and to buy from reputable sellers.
DI Thomas said on Monday it would take some time to determine what happened and police are keeping an open mind. "We presume at this stage it was mushrooms but it's a complex investigation that I think will take some time," he said, adding: “It could be very innocent but, again, we just don’t know.”