The mushroom poisoning mystery confounding Australia

Detectives said the three deaths ‘could be very innocent but we just don’t know at this point’

Death cap mushrooms
Victoria police are urging people to only eat mushrooms bought in stores
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

A police investigation has been launched in the Australian state of Victoria after a family lunch led to the death of three people from suspected mushroom poisoning in a case that has gripped the nation.

On 29 July, Erin Patterson served a meal to her former parents-in-law and her mother-in-law’s sister and husband at her home in Leongatha, 85 miles from Melbourne.

Within a few days, Heather Wilkinson, 66, and her sister, Gail Patterson, 70, died in hospital, followed by Gail’s 70-year-old husband, Don, a day later. A fourth guest, Wilkinson’s husband, Ian, 68, remains critically ill in hospital.

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Erin Patterson and her two children, who were also present at the lunch, did not fall ill afterwards.

“She hasn’t presented any symptoms, but we have to keep an open mind,” Detective Inspector Dean Thomas of Victoria Police said at a news conference on Monday. The whole incident “could be very innocent”, Thomas stressed, but “we just don’t know at this point”.

Deadly fungi

The deaths have sparked national media attention, which in turn led Victorian police to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Erin Patterson has been questioned extensively, but despite her involvement in preparing the meal, no charges have been filed against her.

In a video recorded by news outlets at Patterson’s home on Saturday, she insisted that she “didn’t do anything” and had loved both couples.

Thomas said that the symptoms suffered by Patterson’s guests “are consistent with poisoning by death cap mushrooms”, CNN reported, though toxicology reports have not yet been concluded.

In April, Victoria’s department of health issued a warning about the mushrooms, whose botanical name is Amanita phalloides, describing them as “extremely poisonous”. “Consuming just one mushroom can kill an adult,” it said. Symptoms of poisoning include violent stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Death cap mushrooms are responsible for more than 90% of deaths from mushroom poisonings worldwide, The New York Times reported. They are prevalent in Victoria as well as other parts of Australia.

According to CNN, when she was asked by reporters what meal she had cooked, Patterson didn’t answer but retreated into her home, asking to be left alone.

A bizarre twist

The “deeply unusual case has gripped Australia”, MailOnline said, and has “baffled police and left a closely-knit community desperately seeking answers”.

The site went on to point out that “MailOnline does not suggest Ms Patterson was responsible for Simon’s illness or the three deaths”.

In what the site called a “bizarre twist”, Erin Patterson’s former husband Simon (they separated a year ago), was revealed to have suffered from a mysterious stomach illness in June 2022. He fell into a coma and was in ICU for 21 days in a case that, according to MailOnline, “is yet to be explained by doctors”.

While police continue their investigations into what Patterson’s guests ate, they have urged people to stay away from wild 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,” Thomas said.

“My suggestion is if you haven’t purchased them from a supermarket or something like that, perhaps stay clear of them.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.