Dogs deployed to sniff out technology as mushroom lunch cook quizzed

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Mushroom meal cook Erin Patterson was hauled into police custody in a dramatic day of developments that saw investigators deploy specialist dogs that can sniff out phones, laptops, SIM cards and USB sticks in a search of her home.

Homicide detectives interviewed Patterson over the circumstances of a suspected poisonous mushroom meal that allegedly resulted in the deaths of three people in Victoria’s south-east.

Homicide detectives and police dogs were at the home of Erin Patterson on Thursday morning.Credit: Luis Ascui

Detectives arrested the 49-year-old on Thursday morning and spent several hours searching her sprawling Leongatha property, where the fatal lunch took place on July 29.

Investigators brought in specialist technology detector dogs to look for any computers or phones that might provide new evidence in the death cap mushroom case. The dogs are trained to detect unique odours excreted by the technology.

They spent several hours searching the house and the land surrounding the property, including Patterson’s car, a garage, outdoor furniture, and a meter box located on the back deck. An armchair and bushes close to the house received particularly close attention from the canines.

A source with knowledge of the search but not authorised to speak publicly said the highly trained canines included the Australian Federal Police’s top electronics sniffer dog, Georgia, who was flown down specially from Queensland.

Patterson, whose home was also searched in August, had already handed over her mobile phone to police for examination shortly after detectives began investigating the deaths.

Her estranged partner, Simon Patterson, also provided his phone to investigators more than a month ago, a source with knowledge of the investigation told The Age.

Detectives were seen bagging evidence collected from the property and storing it in an unmarked police car parked in the driveway.

About 2pm, officers quietly ushered Patterson to a second police vehicle and drove her 30 minutes south-west of Leongatha to Wonthaggi’s 24-hour police station for questioning. She has not been charged.

Don Patterson, Gail Patterson, Heather Wilkinson and Ian Wilkinson were poisoned by the mushroom meal.

Curious locals gathered outside the station, phone in hand, hoping to get a glimpse of the woman at the centre of the biggest mystery to rock South Gippsland in decades.

Scores of journalists, TV crews and photographers also camped out on the nature strip outside the building, awaiting an update from investigators.

Heather Wilkinson, 66, Gail Patterson, 70, and Don Patterson, 70, all died in hospital days after the lunch, where beef Wellington was served. Baptist pastor Ian Wilkinson, 68, was released from Austin Hospital after seven weeks of treatment, most of which he spent in a coma.

Investigators believe the group ate death cap mushrooms, a variety of deadly fungi responsible for 90 per cent of mushroom poisoning deaths. One bite is enough to kill someone, causing severe gastroenteritis and eventually organ failure.

Police take evidence from Erin Patterson’s Leongatha home.Credit: Luis Ascui

Detective Inspector Dean Thomas said Patterson’s arrest was the next step in what had been a complex and thorough investigation by homicide squad detectives and one that was not yet over.

“Over the last three months … this investigation has been subjected to incredibly intense levels of public scrutiny and curiosity,” he said.

“I cannot think of another investigation that has generated this level of media and public interest, not only here in Victoria, but also nationally and internationally.”

Thomas said that while police wanted to provide timely updates about the matter, it was critical that it was done in a way that did not adversely impact the investigation or any future processes.

“I think it’s particularly important that we keep in mind that at the heart of this, three people have lost their lives,” he said.

“These are three people who, by all accounts, were much beloved in their communities and are greatly missed by their loved ones.”

Police had previously named Patterson – the estranged wife of the Pattersons’ son, Simon – as a suspect because she cooked the meal suspected of poisoning the group.

She strenuously denied wrongdoing and said she could not explain how the meal caused the group’s illnesses and deaths.

Erin Patterson’s lawyer Ophelia Hollway leaving the property.Credit: Luis Ascui

In a statement provided to the police documenting her version of events, Patterson said she had purchased the mushrooms from an Asian grocery store several months before the lunch and mixed them with button mushrooms from a local supermarket.

Patterson claimed she had also eaten the meal and developed gastro-like symptoms, but that they had subsided after she was given a liver-protecting drug in hospital. The mother of two said she had scraped the mushrooms off the dish and fed the leftovers to her children, who did not fall ill.

In the statement, Patterson also admitted she had intentionally dumped a food dehydrator found by police in a skip bin at the Koonwarra Transfer Station after being accused of intentionally poisoning the meal.

Police have conducted forensic testing of the dehydrator but have not released the results.

Investigators had previously interviewed Patterson, in the days after the deadly lunch, but released her without charge.

“In smaller communities such as Leongatha and Korumburra a tragedy such as this can reverberate for years to come,” Thomas said.

“I encourage people to be particularly mindful of unnecessary speculation and the sharing of misinformation … at the heart of these matters are the recent deaths of three people, and families and loved ones who are trying to come to terms with this.”

With Alex Crowe

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