Hand-written signature 'vanished'

Sister recalls seeing Nisbet's 'suicide' note

BLAIR ENSOR AND DAVID CLARKSON
Last updated 17:45 05/12/2013

Audio: Murder accused Helen Milner answers questions about the suicide note at a Coroner's inquest

Lee-Anne Cartier
Kirk Hargreaves
SISTER: Lee-Ann Cartier gives evidence at the trial of her brother's alleged murderer.
Glen Rossiter-Campbell
Kirk Hargreaves
UNUSUAL BEHAVIOUR: Funeral director Glen Rossiter-Campbell says Helen Milner "didn't cry and anything" while she was with him after her husband's death.
Wayne Temple
Kirk Hargreaves
CONSISTENT: National Poison Centre director Wayne Temple told the court Philip Nisbet's symptoms were consistent with an overdose of Phenergan.

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

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

She believed the hand-written 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 [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 at 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 found in Nisbet's briefcase, which 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'' hand-written 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.

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

Suicide 'completely out of character'

Nisbet was not depressed in the lead up to his death and it would be difficult to fathom him committing suicide, the court was told earlier today.

"He 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 jury.

Milner called him 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.

Accused killer was 'blasé'

Funeral director Glen Rossiter-Campbell told the court Milner was "blasé" on the morning of her husband's death and her behaviour was unusual for a grieving wife.

"She didn't cry or anything with me," he said.

"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.

Rossiter-Campbell said Milner appeared side-tracked about buying baby clothes for her unborn grandchild.

He described Milner's behaviour on the morning of her husband's death as "blasé" and "totally out of character" for a grieving wife.

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

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

Defence counsel Margaret Sewell asked him whether he had contact with Nisbet's sister Lee-Anne Cartier about the nature of his death. He said she told him it was unexplained and not a suicide.   

Family questions Milner at Coroner's inquest

The trial was played a recording of Milner's evidence at a Coroner's inquest into her husband's death.

She said he had become depressed and dispirited because he wanted to move to Australia and she was reluctant to go because she was going to become a grandmother.

On a visit to Australia, he had an insect sting and had taken a Phenergan tablet which had "really knocked him", she said. He had slept for six hours.

The day before his death, they "had a nice day", she said, going to Coffee Culture which was one of their favourite haunts.

Milner told the coroner: "He seemed very calm. Looking back now he was too calm."

The coroner noted from a text message that he planned to see his son the next day to return a sweatshirt that he had washed.

The coroner asked: "He was thinking ahead to the morning at that time. What happened to make him change his mind?"

Milner replied that in the evening he had seemed fine - calm and organised.

The suicide note she found in his briefcase had referred to his son not being his son.

A Nisbet family member asked at the hearing about a suicide note they had been shown at the funeral, which was different to the note before the coroner. The earlier note made no reference to his son not being his son, and was signed by hand.

Another member said she had seen a note where there was an attempt to write Mr Nisbet's signature, but it was not his signature.

Milner said at the hearing that she was only aware of one suicide note, and she had given the original copy to the police.

Nisbet was 'terrified' at hospital

Nisbet appeared anxious and "terrified that he was incredibly unwell" doctors noted 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.

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

It says she knew from experience that Nisbet 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, then smothered him as he lay in bed unconscious. 

Dr Shamil Macbool Mohamed Haroon, giving evidence by video-link from Birmingham, said he had previously 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 he 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 anti-histamines, such as the Promethazine administered by ambulance staff earlier in the day, could cause anxiety. It was a rare effect.

Nisbet's symptoms consistent with Phernergan overdose

National Poison Centre director Dr Wayne Temple said Phenergan was developed about the 1950s designed for treatment of allergic conditions and as a sedative. Its effects were pretty rapid after it was ingested and peaked about 3-5 hours later.

A mild dose of the drug could make someone drowzy, their pupils could widen and their heart rate could increase. Anxiety was uncommon, but could occur. An overdose could make someone become unconcious, lapse into a coma and die if left untreated.

Nisbet's symptoms were consistent with an overdose of Phenergan. It was unlikely a spider bite made him unwell, Temple said.

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

- The Press

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