Mushroom Poisoning Suspected in 3 Deaths, Australia Police Say

In the quiet Australian town of Leongatha, a woman hosted her in-laws and another couple for lunch at her home, nestled amid the gum trees.

A day later, the four guests, all in their 60s or 70s, were in the hospital, with symptoms that the police say were consistent with mushroom poisoning. Within a week, three would be dead, the fourth in critical condition.

The police in the state of Victoria have questioned Erin Patterson, 48, who hosted the July 29 gathering and prepared the meal, but have not charged her in the deaths, which have become national news in Australia. Ms. Patterson did not fall ill after the lunch, nor did her two children, who were also there.

“She hasn’t presented any symptoms, but we have to keep an open mind,” Detective Inspector Dean Thomas of the Victoria Police said at a news conference on Monday. The events, he stressed, “could be very innocent,” but “we just don’t know at this point.”

He said the authorities had removed Ms. Patterson’s children from her home as a “precaution.”

In video recorded by news outlets at Ms. Patterson’s home on Saturday, she said through tears that she “didn’t do anything” and had loved both couples.

“They’re some of the best people I ever met; they never did anything wrong to me,” she said. She described her former mother-in-law, Gail Patterson, one of the guests who died, as “the mother I never had.” The police said Erin Patterson had separated from her husband but had maintained an amicable relationship with him.

“I can’t believe that this has happened and I’m so sorry,” she said. She did not answer reporters’ questions about what had been served at the lunch or where the mushrooms, if any, had come from.

Inspector Thomas said that while the two couples’ symptoms were consistent with poisoning by death cap mushrooms, the police had yet to confirm that that had caused the deaths, or that such mushrooms had been served at the lunch. He said they had not determined what Erin Patterson had eaten, but believed that her children had not been served the same dish that the four guests were.

All four, who lived in a nearby town, Korumburra, fell ill hours after the meal. They went to local hospitals and were later transferred to one in Melbourne.

Gail Patterson died on Friday, as did her sister Heather Wilkinson, one of the other guests. Don Patterson, Gail’s husband, died on Saturday, and Ms. Wilkinson’s husband, Ian Wilkinson, was in critical condition awaiting a liver transplant, the police said on Monday.

The deaths shocked the small, tightknit community of Korumburra, where Mr. Wilkinson served as a Baptist pastor and the three others were well known. In a statement to a local newspaper, the Wilkinson and Patterson families said that their relatives were “pillars of faith within our community.”

“Their love, steadfast faith, and selfless service have left an indelible mark on our families, the Korumburra Baptist Church, the local community, and indeed, people around the globe,” the statement read.

Death cap mushrooms are responsible for more than 90 percent of deaths in mushroom poisonings worldwide. They can be found in Victoria and other parts of Australia.

A few months ago, Victoria’s health department cautioned residents against foraging for wild mushrooms. Poisonous mushrooms, including death caps, grow in the state during the March-to-June autumn period, the department warned, adding that there are no at-home tests that can distinguish between safe mushrooms and poisonous ones.