A couple of Saturdays back, a group of five individuals gathered for a familial feast in a quaint Australian village.
In the span of a mere seven days, tragedy struck as three of them succumbed to death’s grip, a fourth valiantly battled for survival, and the fifth came under scrutiny for the suspected administration of poisonous wild mushrooms to her guests.
Despite her role as the culinary architect behind the lunch, the 48-year-old woman remains perplexed by the unfolding events. She vehemently asserts her love for her kin and disavows any intent to inflict harm upon them.
This enigmatic incident has seized the entire nation’s focus, confounding law enforcement, and sending shockwaves through a closely-knit community left in turmoil.
The unusual tale began when Gail and Don Patterson stopped for lunch with their grandchildren at their daughter-in-law Erin Patterson’s home in Leongatha – a two-hour drive south-east of Melbourne.
With them were the Wilkinsons – Heather, Gail’s sister, and her husband Ian.
All four were much-loved members of the nearby town of Korumburra, where Ian was the local Baptist church pastor.
But it was no ordinary lunch. Hours after the meal, all four guests took themselves to the local hospital with what they first believed was severe gastro.
It quickly became clear it was something far worse, and they were transferred to a hospital in Melbourne to receive the best medical care the state had to offer.
Despite that, Heather, 66, and Gail, 70, died on Friday, and Don, 70, on Saturday. Ian, 68, remains in a critical condition in hospital, awaiting a liver transplant.
According to authorities, it is their belief that the quartet consumed death cap mushrooms, a perilous ingestion with a high fatality rate.
Curiously, Erin and her two offspring remain unscathed by this ordeal.
Law enforcement explains that both children, who have been placed in state custody as a precautionary measure, partook of a distinct meal.
Yet, the situation remains veiled in uncertainty.
Investigators express their uncertainty regarding whether Erin shared the same sustenance as her guests or if the poisonous fungi were present in the dish she prepared.
Additionally, they highlight the separation between Erin and her husband, who incidentally happens to be the Pattersons’ offspring, portraying it as an “amicable” parting.
“Nefarious activity” has not yet been ruled out though.
“At this point in time, the deaths are unexplained,” the homicide squad’s Dean Thomas told reporters on Monday.
“It could be very innocent, but we just don’t know.”
Ms Patterson says she “can’t fathom what has happened”.
While addressing journalists outside her residence, tears welled up in her eyes as she chose not to respond to inquiries regarding the specific meals provided to individual guests or the origin of the mushrooms.
However, she did firmly assert her innocence.
“I didn’t do anything; I loved them.”
As word of the incident circulated within the local vicinity, a sense of shock and dismay also began to take hold.
“No-one would ever expect that to happen here,” the regional mayor Nathan Hersey told the BBC.
“Who in their right mind would expect that they would lose… people who contribute and give so much… in such a way?
“People are grieving and extremely sad.”
In a statement, the victims’ families paid tribute to them as “pillars of faith” within the community.
“Their love, steadfast faith, and selfless service have left an indelible mark on our families, the Korumburra Baptist Church, the local community, and indeed, people around the globe,” the statement published in the South Gippsland Sentinel Times said.
But also distraught, is Erin.
“Gail was the mum I didn’t have… my own children have lost their grandmother,” she said.
“They were some of the best people I’ve ever known… I’m devastated they are gone.”
The incident is not the first instance where the state of Victoria has been shaken by mushroom-related poisonings. With the growing popularity of foraging, the misidentification of death cap mushrooms as edible fungi is on the rise.
These deadly mushrooms thrive in cool, damp environments across the world, their innocuous appearance often leading to mistaken identity among other toxic species. Responsible for a staggering 90% of fatal mushroom poisonings worldwide, even a small piece as tiny as a coin can prove fatal to an adult if consumed.
In 2020, a series of poisonings in Victoria resulted in eight individuals being hospitalized, tragically claiming one life.
Once again, authorities emphasize the importance of refraining from consuming wild mushrooms that have been foraged, issuing a stern warning to the public.
“If you haven’t purchased them from a supermarket, perhaps stay clear of them,” said Dean Thomas, of the homicide squad.