Horror in the country: Inside the town at the centre of a poisonous mushroom mystery

By Marta Pascual Juanola

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In the quiet town of Korumburra, where Victoria’s coast and country meet, criminal investigations are rare. The last time the town was at the centre of a homicide squad probe was more than two decades ago – until this week.

Simon Patterson was playing with his two children outside his single-storey home, a picture of country serenity nestled in the middle of the state’s dairy farming country just last month. Nothing could have pointed to the drastic, tragic turn of events his life was about to take.

Sheep grazed in the paddocks nearby, kookaburras nested in the trees, his next-door neighbours were puttering in their sprawling garden, and a punctured bike tyre was his son and daughter’s biggest source of concern.

Simon Patterson’s home in Korumburra, where he was spotted playing with his children before the tragedy unfolded.Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

Now Patterson finds himself thrust into the centre of the mystery gripping Victoria.

His parents and aunt are dead, his uncle clings to life in hospital awaiting a liver transplant, and his estranged wife is the subject of a homicide squad investigation.

Police and health authorities suspect Don and Gail Patterson and Ian and Heather Wilkinson fell ill after ingesting death cap mushrooms, a variety of toxic fungus that generally grows near oak trees in the state’s forested areas.

All four are believed to have eaten the deadly ingredient at the Leongatha home of Simon’s ex-wife, Erin Patterson, during a family lunch on July 29. Simon’s young children were also present during the meal but did not fall ill.

Now their toys lay behind a locked gate and Simon hasn’t been spotted in town for over a week. He and the Wilkinson children, grieving and unsure of what to say publicly, have kept to themselves, appointing a media adviser to deal with the throngs of reporters flocking to town.

Meanwhile, Erin has also spent the week battling the relentless media requests of journalists camped outside her front door. She said she hasn’t been able to leave her house to feed her sheep or go to the supermarket.

On Thursday, Erin said she was driving to Melbourne to spend the afternoon meeting with a lawyer. Publicly, she has told reporters she denies any wrongdoing. She says she loved her guests and would never hurt them. That she too is grieving.

Floral tributes left outside Korumburra Baptist Church for the mushroom poisoning victims.Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

“I didn’t do anything; I loved them. I just can’t fathom what has happened,” she told reporters.

After a press conference on Monday, homicide detectives revealed the barest of details of the case: that Erin was a suspect because she had cooked the meal and that Ian was fighting for his life. Police have been otherwise tight-lipped.

Investigators said they did not know what the meal was or even if mushrooms were served. But that did not keep the town’s rumour mill from swirling. The dish was a beef Wellington, say some. Others are adamant it was stroganoff.

Simon and Erin’s fractured relationship and subsequent separation have also become the subject of widespread speculation, with no official word from police except to say that they believed the separation was amicable. The couple had been living in separate homes for years before their break-up.

The apparent lack of answers about the suspected poisoning has left locals in the close-knit country town scrambling to understand how the unthinkable could occur in a place where nothing much ever happens.

The worst tragedy to sweep through the deeply conservative and religious community was the shooting of a publican at a local hotel more than two decades ago, and the torching of the newsagency on the main strip.

“This is something nobody will ever forget,” one local said.

In a town like Korumburra, where residents are classified as either long-term locals or recent arrivals, relationships run deep.

Ian, a pastor at the Baptist church, volunteered his time mowing the lawn of neighbours and the local aged care home. His wife Heather, a former high school teacher, helped teach courses at a community centre. When their neighbours ran out of hot water, Heather and Ian would invite them in. The couple also welcomed new faces to the street with freshly baked biscuits.

Victorian Police returned to an East Gippsland tip on Wednesday as part of an their ongoing investigation.Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

Don and his wife Gail, former teachers at the local secondary college, ran the local gazette, The Burra Flyer, for years – before passing the baton to Erin. Former student Sam Provan said Don “did not have an evil bone in his body”.

“If there was more people like Mr Patterson we wouldn’t have half the trouble we have here in this world,” he said.

So, when a grief-stricken Simon begged the community to respect his privacy, locals heeded the call and refused to refer to Gail, Heather and Don by name. Later, as the media descended upon the town, neighbours guarded the Wilkinson and Patterson family homes against inquisitive reporters.

“We just want to protect them,” a neighbour told The Age this week.

With the answer about what occurred at the lunch potentially weeks away, locals say it will be a long time before they begin to heal.

Korumburra is the unlikely site of horror.Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

“It’s a personal family tragedy and it reaches out to all the people who touched their lives,” South Gippsland councillor and close family friend Jenni Keerie said.

“We are trying to come to terms with what that means for our own lives.”

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