Killer's web of lies
It was a poisonous plot conjured up by a murderous woman. 'The Black Widow's' forged suicide notes, a bogus text message and lies initially fooled police, but not some of her family.
The emergency call is barely audible but one sentence is clear: "I think my husband is dead".
When attending police constables Chris Barker and Grant Cowan arrive at 70a Checketts Ave in Halswell, shortly after 6am on May 4, 2009, they find Helen Milner in a white dressing gown, sitting on a couch in her living room, hysterical. It's freezing inside the home and next to her is a thick, multi-coloured duvet.
Barker asks her what's happened, but she is inconsolable and unable to hold a conversation.
He establishes that she went to bed the previous evening about an hour after her husband. About 2am she got out of bed because she was diabetic and needed insulin. She administered it in the kitchen and then, not wanting to wake her husband, fell asleep on the couch.
She woke to find him dead.
Philip Nisbet is lying diagonally on his back in the couple's double bed. He is covered with a white duvet and Milner's side of the bed looks unslept in.
In Nisbet's bedside drawer are two empty packets of Phenergan - an antihistamine and sedative drug.
A half empty glass of water is within arm's reach.
While Barker tries to call his sergeant, Cowan looks for a number to contact one of Milner's friends.
The grieving widow has her back to him when she cries out: "He's done it, he's killed himself." She'd switched on her phone to find the message: "I'm sorry honey, i can't keep going like this."
Both officers are becoming concerned about how events are unfolding, particularly Milner's prolonged grief.
Barker has never seen anything like it. Milner is wailing, but there are no tears. She seems to be almost acting, he thinks.
However, when their supervising sergeant arrives at the scene he dismisses their concerns, saying the death is a suicide and detectives are not needed.
Autopsy results show Nisbet likely died of an overdose of Phenergan and his death is reported to the coroner.
Helen Milner's first statement to police came eight days later when she spoke to Detective Richard Prosser at the Hornby police station.
She told him she met Nisbet in about 2001.
Family and friends were present when the couple married in a ceremony at their Halswell home in November 2005. Nisbet grew up in Christchurch's eastern suburbs, went to Burwood Primary and Shirley Boys' High School, and had two children from previous relationships.
He was a keen golfer who also enjoyed playing pool, squash, riding motorbikes and collecting model cars.
The couple had their ups and downs and split up for about four months a year after they married.
However, they got back together and "on the whole we were very happy", Milner told Prosser.
They had a "lovely day" before he died, she said. She thought he died of an overdose of pills.
"I am angry at him for leaving me. We had made so many plans together, " she said.
"I feel like I have let him down in some way to think he didn't feel he could talk to me if he was that low."
About the same time, Milner began exchanging text messages with former boyfriend Barry Hayton.
Within weeks he had moved in to the home at Checketts Ave in Halswell.
On July 12, Hayton bought Milner a gold diamond ring worth more than $2000 from a jewellery store, which she wore on her ring finger.
It was not an engagement ring - there had been no proposal - but the pair discussed getting married.
Five weeks after her brother's death, Lee-Anne Cartier flew from Australia to New Zealand for her son's 21st birthday and stayed with Milner in the Checketts Ave home.
On the night she arrived, the widow handed her a glass filled with vodka and then a suicide note typed on A4 paper with "Phil" scrawled by hand at the bottom.
Milner had phoned Cartier and told her about the note about a fortnight earlier, but this was the first time she had seen it. But Cartier did not recognise the signature as her brother's.
"I threw back a bit more of my drink and bit my tongue," she later told The Press.
The note, which Milner said she found in a safe, included revelations that Nisbet had discovered his son Ben Porter was not his biological child and could not face him again. Before she returned home, Cartier went to police with concerns about what she had seen and other stories she had heard.
Milner had also spoken of finding a small black book belonging to Nisbet that detailed affairs with other women and an instruction manual on how to become a male prostitute.
When Milner gave detectives the suicide note, eight weeks after her husband's death, the wording had changed. The handwritten signature had also vanished.
Lee-Anne Cartier wasn't the only one with concerns.
Milner's son Adam Kearns was suspicious the moment police knocked on his door and told him about the suspected suicide. He was part of a group who went to the Papanui police station on May 13, 2009, and told a detective they believed Milner had attempted to kill her husband in the middle of April, three weeks before his death. In a formal statement to police later, Kearns said his mother had talked to him about wanting to kill her husband and even suggested the idea of hiring a hitman.
"I didn't take much notice because she was my mum," he told police. "I kept asking her why she didn't just break up with him, but she was worried she would lose half her house if they got divorced." Kearns' partner at the time, Kasey Woodstock, told police Milner also used to talk regularly about her husband's life insurance policy, worth $257,000.
On the night of April 15, 2009, Kearns said he saw his mother in the kitchen with two clear capsules. She was putting one of them together at the time and wiping residue off the bench. Both capsules were stuffed with a pale blue powder. It did not look like Panadol, he said.
"She said Phil had a headache and then I started going nuts at her. It was obvious what she was up to." An hour later he was woken by Milner who told him she was taking her husband to hospital because he was pale and feeling sick. He had been throwing up in the toilet.
Kearns moved out the next day. "I told Phil what she had done but he just shrugged it off and laughed at me, as if I was making it up. That was the last time I saw Phil." The night before Nisbet died, Milner was at her son's house. She wanted to know where the closest chemist was to get Phenergan.
Helen Milner's 82-year-old mother, Anne Milner, was with her grandson Adam when he first went to police. She told a detective that it would come as no surprise if her daughter had been involved in Nisbet's death because she had caused problems since she was 10 years old. She claimed to have a list documenting her daughter's behaviour.
The Press has obtained a letter written by Anne Milner in 2006, stating that she wanted her daughter cut from her will.
The document reveals that while Helen Milner was at Hillmorton High School she stole from her classmates and cleaned out her mother's bank account, but her parents chose not to press charges. She was eventually removed from school and sent to Ritchie Secretarial College.
After graduating, Milner worked as a typist, but was fired for forging a letter from the Ministry of Health to her employer about smoking in the staff room.
She then worked at United Building Society as a teller where she took money from the till to buy an engagement ring for a man she'd fallen in love with. She was caught and fired. Her parents spent thousands of dollars to prevent the case going to court.
Milner then shifted to Wellington with her fiance, but the engagement broke off and she came home to Christchurch. She was deep in debt.
"We continued to have money dramas," her mother wrote in the letter.
"Whilst her father was in the shower she would steal from his wallet. She was caught several times, but showed no remorse."
The family also believed Milner stole a large amount of money from her mother's invalid sister while cleaning her home.
"I have at last faced the fact that my daughter is either mentally ill or, as my best friend says, 'is evil'," Anne Milner wrote.
She later told The Press that her daughter had been a lovely little girl.
"But then I realised she wasn't my child."
After seeing her brother's supposed suicide note, Lee-Anne Cartier, who was living in Queensland at the time, knew something was wrong. She spent thousands of dollars on flights and phone calls trying to find the truth about his death.
She suspected Milner of the killing, but sympathised with her in the hope she would let something slip. Cartier arranged for DNA tests, which later proved Ben was her brother's son.
She then contacted Milner's office manager at Christchurch-based company Grounds & Services and discovered she had been talking about poison and killing someone.
Gavin Moffat was among many work colleagues who would later give statements to police. He told them of a conversation he had with Milner, who worked for the company as an administrator, where she said she was diabetic and feared her husband was trying to poison her with sugar.
"She asked me if Mitre 10 sold rat poison. I laughed and asked her, 'What the hell would you want that for?' and she just grinned and walked out," he said.
"I hate to say it but she implied she might use it to poison her husband."
Milner resigned suddenly from Grounds & Services a few months after her husband's death.
By that stage she had been dubbed "The Black Widow". She was later convicted of stealing nearly $30,000 from the company.
Cartier also met with Milner's neighbour, Raymond Carey, whose wife Karen thought something was wrong when she saw most of the lights on next door about 4.20am on the morning of Nisbet's death.
Milner called 111 about an hour and a half later.
Helen Milner gave her second statement to police on January 30, 2010, after a detective rang wanting to clarify matters that had arisen from his investigation.
By that time Milner's view of her marriage had changed.
"I have never said it was good," she the detective.
Milner spoke of the suicide note Cartier had raised concerns about. The widow said she found it in Nisbet's briefcase and the hand-written signature at the bottom looked like his. When told there was no signature, she said: "I haven't looked at the copy I have for so long I had convinced myself there was a signature, but I obviously remember it wrongly."
During the interview, Milner said she felt hurt because her husband's family had turned on her.
"I feel so beaten by it all," she said.
Lee-Anne Cartier broke down in tears when her family met with Coroner Sue Johnson two days before the November 2010 inquest into her brother's death. Cartier and her family wanted another look at the suicide note Milner had shown them. They believed it was fabricated and had brought documents to the meeting to prove it.
However, when Johnson showed them the note she had on file their hearts sank. The signature had vanished.
"How the hell could she [Milner] do this?" Cartier said.
At the inquest in the Coroner's Court at Christchurch, Milner took the stand and said her husband was very highly strung and it did not take much to upset or stress him. She said the couple had been to Australia in March, 2009, for Nisbet's birthday and spent time visiting his family. While there he was bitten by an insect, took a tablet of low-dose Phenergan, and it knocked him out for at least six hours.
The day before Nisbet was found dead, Milner said the couple had one of the better days they had had in a while. They went shopping, had lunch and talked about things they were going to do around the house.
"I remember having a really nice day, and just thinking, 'well, maybe we are going to get on top of things here'," she told the court.
"Looking back now, he was too calm."
The couple had dinner and watched television before Nisbet showered and went to bed about 9.30pm. Milner said she joined him about an hour later and gave her husband a kiss before going to sleep.
Coroner Johnson mentioned a text message Nisbet sent his son Ben before he went to bed. It said he had washed his hoodie and would take it around the next day. Milner said she knew nothing of the text or the hoodie.
Milner said her husband had been unwell three weeks earlier. On April 15, 2009, Nisbet collapsed at work and was taken to hospital. Experts told her they could not figure out what was wrong, but it might have been an infection from the insect bite in Australia. Nisbet's condition improved, but deteriorated that night and Milner took him back to hospital.
During a heated exchange in the court, Nisbet's family raised concerns with Milner about the suicide note, supposedly written by her husband - a man regarded by his family as a quiet, laid back sort of guy with a tight group of friends.
"Where is the suicide note that we were shown? The coroner hasn't got it, she has got something different altogether," Nisbet's father James said.
Milner said she gave the original to police.
Coroner Sue Johnson delivered her findings six months later based on the inquest and other documents she had been provided.
"I have no evidence of any weight that Mr Nisbet intended to commit suicide," she concluded.
Detective Inspector Greg Murton's interest in the case was sparked after reading about the finding in The Press. After reviewing the file in May 2011, Murton came to the conclusion Nisbet's death was suspicious and launched a homicide inquiry.
Family, friends and work colleagues of the couple were interviewed. Financial, phone and email records were examined and Milner's home searched twice before she was arrested on October 27, 2011, and charged with her husband's murder and his attempted murder three weeks earlier.
By the time the trial began on December 2, police uncovered an intricate web of lies and deceit and built a case based largely around circumstantial evidence.
Investigators had found that on April 15 and again on May 2, 2009, a woman bought Phenergan using cash from Christchurch pharmacies using false details, including the alias Andrea Wilson. An Auckland woman with the same name was convicted of trying to poison her partner with sleeping pills more than a decade ago.
Milner's bank card was used nearby about the same time on each occasion.
Police interviewed at least eight people who had seen the suicide note with a hand-written signature.
Friends and family revealed that Milner had talked about ways she could drug her husband so he would crash his delivery truck. Milner's oldest son Greg Kearns also said his mother offered him $20,000 to get rid of her husband.
Then, after his death, she had told friends and family conflicting stories about how and why he died.
She told some that he had a rare sleeping disorder and was upset he might lose his job, which was untrue.
Crown Prosecutor Kathy Basire told the jury Milner poisoned her husband because she was unhappy with her marriage, had been spending beyond her means and was financially motivated to claim on her husband's life insurance policy. A non-suicide clause had expired two months before his death.
The night before his body was found, Milner likely crushed up Phenergan tablets then mixed them in with his dinner - Chicken Tonight on rice. It either killed him outright or she may have suffocated him while he was sedated.
Milner then set the scene of a suicide - putting a half empty glass of water next to his bed and two empty packets of Phenergan in his bedside drawer. She also sent a text to herself from his cellphone suggesting he had committed suicide.
In the morning, she dialled 111 and said she had found her husband dead in bed. This week, Milner wept in the dock as a jury confirmed what many already knew - she was guilty of the murder and attempted murder of her husband. It was a rare display of emotion by the killer who painted a placid, yet very unglamorous figure, during the high-profile three-week trial.
For the most-part she sat calmly at the back of the court, flanked by a security guard, scribbling down notes for her legal team.
Justice David Gendall remanded her in custody for sentencing on February 20.
At the time, Milner was serving a jail sentence at Christchurch Women's Prison for trying to set up her son for a separate crime he never committed.
In March 2010, she bought a cell phone and sent abusive text messages to herself, pretending to be her son Adam Kearns.
At the time, Kearns was the subject of a protection order and banned from contacting his mother.
He was held in custody for 16 days before he was released. Milner later pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice and was jailed for two years and eight months in August, 2012. She was denied release in June because the Parole Board felt she posed an undue risk to the community.
A death notice in the The Press read: NISBET, Philip James (Phil) - On May 4, 2009, at his home, aged 47 years. Dearly loved and loving husband of Helen.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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