Murder accused 'blase' after husband's death

05:43, Dec 05 2013
Philip Nisbet , left, and Helen Milner
MURDER TRIAL: Philip Nisbet, left, and Helen Milner, cut from a family photo taken in late March 2009.

The sister of alleged murder victim Philip James Nisbet broke down in tears when she saw the handwritten signature on a suicide note had vanished, a court has heard.

Lee-Anne Cartier made the discovery when she met the coroner in November 2010 shortly before an inquest into her brother's death.

She believed the handwritten signature "Phil" on the bottom of a suicide note she had seen after he died was fake and had brought evidence – birthday cards with his signature on them – to prove it.

"How the hell could she [murder accused and Nisbet's widow Helen Milner] do this?" she recalled saying at the time.

"This isn't it [the suicide note she saw]."

Cartier told the jury the content of the note had also changed.


"It [the second note] is a wee bit more soppy," she said.

The evidence emerged during the fourth day of the murder trial, which is set down for three weeks in the High Court in Christchurch.

Milner, 50, is on trial for the murder and attempted murder of Nisbet, 47, her husband, at their Checketts Ave home in Halswell.

The Crown alleges Milner drugged him by mixing Phenergan with his food and then may have suffocated him while he was sedated.

Cartier, formerly from Queensland, said she first heard about a suicide note when Milner phoned her within days of her brother's death.

Milner read it to her and said she found it in a locked safe after working out the combination.

The note said Nisbet's son, Ben Porter, was not his biological son and he could not face him again.

Milner told her she would have a DNA test done to see if it was true, with funeral director Glen Rossiter-Campbell apparently able to get one done cheap.

At the same time she told Cartier about documents she said she had found in Nisbet's briefcase. They allegedly included a little black book that showed he had been having affairs, and an instruction book on how to be a male prostitute.

"I was shocked, because Phil wasn't that sort of guy," Cartier told the jury.

"He was more of a shy person. He wouldn't be able to lie and get away with it."

Cartier first saw the typed suicide note with "Phil" handwritten at the bottom about five weeks after her brother's death.

She had flown to New Zealand for her son's 21st birthday and was staying with Milner at her Checketts Ave home.

Barry Hayton was there and sleeping in the same bedroom as the accused killer, Cartier said.

The suicide note was consistent with what Milner read to her on the phone, but she did not recognise the signature as her brother's.

She was with her son, Lance Connelly, when he was shown the same note a few days later, she said.

Cartier also approached Rossiter-Campbell about the DNA test Milner had talked to her about. He denied any knowledge of it.

"He was very, very angry. He said: 'that would destroy my career'."


Alleged murder victim Philip James Nisbet was not depressed in the lead up to his death and unlikely to have been suicidal, a court has heard. 

The Crown has alleged that Milner made two attempts on her husband's life on April 15, 2009, using the anti-allergy and sedative drug Phenergan.

It says she knew Philip James Nisbet, 47, had a bad reaction to the drug.

Milner is also charged with Nisbet's murder on May 4, when the Crown alleges she drugged him with Phenergan in his evening meal and smothered him as he lay in bed unconscious.

"He [Nisbet] was very resilient. He had a few knocks and would usually get up and look life in the face and carry on," close friend Joseph Power told the High Court in Christchurch this afternoon.

Milner called Power on the morning of Nisbet's death and said he had committed suicide. It seemed "completely out of character" that Nisbet would end his life like that, Power said.

"I can't say she [Milner] was devastated [during the phone call about her husband's death]. She may have come across as shocked, but she certainly wasn't emotional."

Milner later asked Power to be a pall-bearer at her husband's funeral.

Power and Nisbet lived together about 2002-2003 for eight months. Nisbet met Milner on his rounds as a courier driver while she working as a receptionist.

Their relationship developed reasonably quickly, he said.

"I thought they were rather besotted with each other," Power said.

Nisbet's relationship with Milner's sons was not great and it stressed him out a little, the court heard.

Under cross-examination Power confirmed Lee-Anne Cartier contacted him and told him she thought her brother was murdered.

The court also heard this afternoon that Helen Milner bought an engagement ring just two months after her husband's death.

The ring was worth $2299 and bought at a jewellery story in Christchurch on July 12, 2009, former police officer Hugh McLachlan said.


A funeral director has described Milner's behaviour on the morning of her husband's death as "blase" and "totally out of character" for a grieving wife.

"She didn't cry or anything with me," Glen Rossiter-Campbell said in evidence at the High Court in Christchurch this afternoon.

"Normally you would get some tears when there's been a suicide in the family - it's a devastation, it's a shock, it's grief," he said.

Rossiter-Campbell said Milner appeared to be sidetracked about buying baby clothes for her unborn grandchild.

He had limited contact with her in the lead-up to Nisbet's funeral on Saturday, May 9, 2009.

At the funeral, one of Milner's sons would not sit with her, which Rossiter-Campbell found unusual.

Defence counsel Margaret Sewell asked him whether he had contact with Nisbet's sister, Lee-Anne Cartier, about the nature of Nisbet's death.

He said she told him it was unexplained and not a suicide.

This morning the court was told that Nisbet appeared anxious and "terrified that he was incredibly unwell" when he was taken to hospital on the day his wife is accused of attempting to murder him.

Nisbet was taken to Christchurch Hospital by ambulance after becoming ill during his work as a truck driver. He believed he had a spider or insect bite.

Dr Shamil Macbool Mohamed Haroon, giving evidence by video link from Birmingham, England, said he had worked at Christchurch Hospital.

He had no recollection of treating Nisbet but had the medical notes.

Nisbet's vital signs were normal, but he complained of dizziness and nausea at work.

Checks showed his blood pressure and heart rate were low.

The doctor recorded that he appeared anxious, but there was no record of what was causing the anxiety.

Nisbet believed he had been bitten on the shin by an insect or spider as he gardened two days before.

He had developed pain and swelling in his leg and felt weak and nauseated. He had noticed he found it slightly difficult to speak.

Haroon had noted a red area on Nisbet's shin, but had not noted it as being the mark of a bite or sting.

In cross-examination, defence counsel Rupert Glover said a defence expert witness would say Nisbet's symptoms were "more consistent with an insect bite".

Dr Jamie Strachan gave evidence by video link from Britain about working as a medical registrar at Christchurch Hospital in 2009.

He had the medical records but had little recollection of seeing Nisbet when Nisbet attended the emergency department for the second time on April 15.

The notes recorded slurred speech, but Nisbet was able to talk in complete sentences, and his observations were stable. Tests showed nothing abnormal.

Nisbet again spoke of a spider bite, but the doctor noted he was "terrified he was incredibly unwell". He was "catastrophising the situation".

He was reviewed by a doctor and discharged at 11pm and sent home with his wife, for review by his own doctor if required.

Cross-examined, Strachan said he had heard that some antihistamines, such as the Promethazine administered by ambulance staff earlier in the day, could cause anxiety. It was a rare effect.

Today is the fourth day of Milner's trial in the High Court in Christchurch before Justice David Gendall and a jury. The trial is scheduled for three weeks.

The Press