Spotlight back on Leongatha after alleged mushroom murder charges

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Life was just starting to settle down in Leongatha. And then the woman who had been the talk of the town, and captured international attention, was front page news once again.

As Erin Patterson sits in a cell awaiting her next court appearance over the alleged murder of three people with a meal of mushrooms, locals are still coming to terms with what happened at that now infamous gathering three months ago.

The main street of Leongatha, a town thrust into the spotlight by the alleged murder of three people with mushrooms.Credit: Chris Hopkins

“It’s put Leongatha on the map for all the wrong reasons,” real estate agent Chris Fitzgerald said.

“Even my Irish cousins have been in touch with me because they’ve heard about it.”

Everyone from Korumburra and Leongatha who spoke to The Age this week said the mania around the mushroom incident had only recently settled down.

And then the helicopters circling overhead this week sent the rumour mill back into overdrive, as this small Gippsland community of less than 6000 people was once again thrust into the spotlight.

Since July 29, when the alleged poisonings took place in Leongatha, it’s what most people have been talking about. On Thursday, Victoria Police swooped on Patterson’s house before charging her with murder.

The deaths of Korumburra residents, Don Patterson, 70, and Gail Patterson, 70, as well as Gail’s sister, Heather Wilkinson, 66, have attracted worldwide attention that none of its residents anticipated.

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

Police also accuse Patterson of attempting to murder her estranged husband Simon Patterson four times, which has sent fresh shockwaves through the town.

Clients at a hairdresser in nearby Korumburra were wondering if fresh evidence from toxicology or technology forensic analysis had emerged to lead to the charges.

Erin Patterson, seen here outside her home in August, has appeared in court.Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

Resident Liz Harris said she hoped the intrigue hadn’t detracted from the tragedy that had affected so many people.

Harris’ children were taught at Korumburra Secondary College by Patterson, where he’d once worked alongside his wife Gail.

“Three people died and all those families are affected,” Harris said.

“Everybody’s intertwined and everybody knows everybody. You can say 10 family names and there’ll be 100 relations. City people just don’t get it.”

Leongatha local Julie Dean said she had been relieved the town was beginning to move on before this week’s arrest.

The national and international spotlight was once again on the regional Victorian towns.Credit: Chris Hopkins

“Mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms … people are not going to eat mushrooms,” she said.

“It’s just really heartbreaking, she’s got two kids as well.”

When news first broke that four locals had been hospitalised with food poisoning, there was a scramble to work out what happened.

A local pub’s employee WhatsApp group chat blew up the night the first reports trickled in.

Leongatha was once again in the spotlight this week after resident Erin Patterson was charged with murder and attempted murder.Credit: Chris Hopkins

“How many wild-mushroom pastas went out tonight?” the boss wanted to know.

The pub has since removed its wild-mushroom fettuccine from the menu due to a “steep decline in demand”.

Ian Wilkinson, 68, was the sole survivor of the deadly lunch after spending almost two months in hospital.

Wilkinson has recently been seen out and about, with churchgoers attributing the Korumburra Baptist Church pastor’s faith to his surprising recovery.

“Hopefully, he gets on with his life as much as he can,” Fitzgerald said.

“It’ll be a lot of mental scars … who knows whether or not they heal in time. Hopefully, they do for him.”

Parishioners of St Paul’s Anglican Church were setting up for their free community dinner on Friday. The church has been supporting members of the Baptist church in the absence of Wilkinson.

Reverend Fran Grimes said combined sadness for the Pattersons and Wilkinsons and concern for young people connected to the church had brought their community closer.

“It’s been earth-shattering, I suppose,” she said.

“Everybody who lives in Korumburra has had a call from somebody either interstate or overseas or something because the word story has spread so far and wide.

“It was a big earthquake that’s leaving a lot of debris behind and we’ll never really recover. We’ll always feel so heavily for the ones we’ve lost.”

Grimes said the church and town were now thinking ahead and planning for Christmas, in need of something positive to start looking forward to.

“In spite of this we have a real hope that we can still have some joy and some peace in our lives,” she said.

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