A forensic psychiatrist reveals his most disturbing case
Early in 2011, 36-year-old Toowoomba resident Melissa Englart decided that she had to kill her husband, Scott. Levi had asked her to do so, and she didn’t want to disappoint him. She loved Levi completely and knew she could trust him with her life. He was not physically present at that moment, but he sent thoughts into her mind assuring her that he would deal with the situation. Thoughts of her future life with Levi and her four children swamped Melissa’s imagination. She pictured the pretty farmhouse where they would make their future together. Of course, she still had to work out how to do it. It wasn’t as if she had any experience in such matters. But she tossed up a few alternatives and soon decided on a plan.
Two weeks earlier Melissa had told Scott, 33, to leave the family home, and he was now living with his parents. He hadn’t worked for two years because of his bad back and had time on his hands, so Melissa rang him and asked him to come around the next morning, a Tuesday, to babysit the two youngest children, aged four and one, while she took the older two (aged seven and six) to school and did some shopping. They would also have a chance to talk about the sale of their house.
As soon as Scott arrived, Melissa left to do the school drop-off; she was shopping when she received another mental message from Levi asking her to kill Scott. At Subway, she bought two meatball sandwiches before returning home. Earlier that morning she had crushed up some of Scott’s painkillers, and now she put the powder into his sandwich before giving it to him. After a couple of mouthfuls he made a face and said, “This doesn’t taste good. Are you trying to poison me?” Then he laughed, and she laughed too.
Melissa had to quickly come up with another plan. She asked Scott to stay a bit longer, suggesting they have a barbecue. The two younger children were in the lounge room watching cartoons and Scott was sitting on a stool at the kitchen bench while Melissa was getting things ready for the barbecue. She passed him a carving knife and some sharpening steel and asked him to hone the blade. When he’d finished, she sharpened the knife some more and suggested Scott sit at the dining table. She started massaging his head and shoulders, trying to get him to relax by making him think they might have sex. Scott said, “Do you want to get onto the bed?”
It was at that moment Melissa picked up the carving knife and sliced Scott’s neck from left to right. She had killed sheep in the past and knew what it took to cut a throat. Things now happened very fast. Scott was down on the floor on all fours, making a gasping noise. He’d somehow managed to get his hands on the knife, but after a brief struggle Melissa regained it. Scott didn’t seem to be dying quickly enough, so she pulled his head back by his hair and hacked into the side of his neck.
She continued to hold his head off the floor to encourage the bleeding, until finally he was dead.
Melissa slowly became aware that their four‑year-old son had come around the corner of the kitchen bench and was standing there, staring, not saying anything. She told him to go back to the lounge room and watch TV. There was blood everywhere, and Melissa wasn’t sure what to do next. She went into the bathroom, removed her clothes and put them into a plastic bag, and had a shower, scrubbing the blood from her body. She felt shocked, in a bit of a trance, but she had to get busy. She took Scott’s car keys, grabbed his body by the legs and dragged him out of the house to the carport, where, with a lot of effort, she heaved him into the boot of his car. She cleaned up the mess in the house and then put the children into her husband’s car, and set out to dump his body.
At this point, she received another mental message from Levi, telling her to drive to the farm where they would live their future life together, a lovely acreage in the Great Dividing Range 20km outside Toowoomba. When she got to the farm she stopped the car halfway up the driveway, told the children to stay inside, then got out and dumped Scott’s body under a lantana bush. Then she went to collect her older children from school. Running a bit late, she was thanking another mum who had stayed behind to mind them when her four-year-old suddenly piped up: “Mummy killed Daddy.” Melissa was stunned, and there was an awkward moment before she laughed and said, “Oh, kids and their imagination!”
That evening, she was bathing the kids when Scott’s mother rang, asking where he was. Melissa said she didn’t know, that she hadn’t seen him since that morning. At 7am the following day, the police arrived. They saw that Scott’s car was there, and when they looked inside they found his wallet. Melissa said she had no idea where he could be.
After the police had left, Scott’s parents and his sister came to the house. Melissa then received further instructions from Levi: he told her to tell them the truth. When Melissa walked up to the gate, Scott’s father said, “You must know something.” She replied, “I’ve killed him. OK? Now f..k off !”
While Scott’s parents called the police, Melissa put all four children into her car and drove off towards the farm where she’d dumped Scott’s body. Levi had spoken to her some more and she’d decided she should show the children their father’s body. That would rid them of the demons she’d come to believe were inside their bodies. When they arrived at the lantana bush, she got the kids out of the car and made them stand beside Scott. Melissa said simply, “Look.” The children just stared at their father’s body, silent, except for the seven-year-old, who said, “Oh no!”
After a minute or two, Melissa walked the children up to the farmhouse. She told them this was going to be their new home. It was then that Levi told Melissa she had to sacrifice the chil‑ dren, “like Abraham and Isaac”. She was con‑ fused. She walked the children down to a dam behind some trees but felt unable to harm them, deciding instead to leave them there so Levi could decide what to do with them – although somewhere in the back of her mind she had the idea that they would be OK.
Melissa drove home, stopping four times along the way to dry-retch. She arrived to find the police waiting for her. They urgently wanted to know where the children were and Melissa told them she’d left them at a dam; the hot, tired and distressed children were eventually found there.
After interviewing Melissa, police charged her with murder, plus three counts of endangering children by exposure – relating to the three youngest – and one count of leaving a child under 12 unattended. During the interview, Melissa referred to the children as “the spawn of Satan”. I was asked to assess Melissa about seven months after the offence. When I arrived, she was sitting in a courtyard wearing a yellow sunhat and reading a book. She was slim, with a freckled face and auburn hair. During the inter‑ view she was friendly and cooperative. She told me that up until two years before Scott’s death, she’d worked as an enrolled nurse at the Baillie Henderson Hospital – a psychiatric facility – in Toowoomba. She’d left that job when she was expecting her youngest, but had then enrolled to do studies to complete a Bachelor of Nursing. She’d had to suspend those studies about a month before the killing because she wasn’t able to concentrate and wasn’t coping.
When I asked Melissa to tell me what she could remember of the period leading up to Scott’s death, she said she thought things were fairly normal until about six months beforehand. She recalled that she’d started to spend hours surfing the internet, looking at conspiracy sites, and had become paranoid about “Luciferians” (devil worshippers). She’d also developed some strange ideas about vaccines; she’d come to believe “they” were killing people through vac‑ cines in an attempt to depopulate the planet. When I asked who “they” were, she indicated “the rich elites who were persecuting Christians”. She regarded those people and their aims as “the New World Order”, and had become convinced they were coming to get her and her children. She’d then started to believe her computer, car and house were all bugged.
Melissa had talked to Scott about these fears, and she thought that although he was initially sceptical he’d started to believe her a little. How‑ ever, she didn’t tell Scott about her belief that she had special powers, including the ability to cast out demons. She thought she was a prophet or something similar. These ideas became extremely intense in the fortnight before Scott’s killing, which is when Melissa started having an auditory hallucination that she identified as “Levi’s voice”.
Levi – the real Levi – was an evangelist who worked with a local Pentecostal church with which Melissa and Scott had become affiliated. Some years earlier, the couple had been having marital problems and Levi had come to their house to counsel them. Melissa came to like Levi
very much; she found him warm and good-looking. As she became more paranoid in the months before the murder, she sent him a message saying that she loved him, and always had. In response, Levi blocked her on Facebook and there was no further communication, either direct or indirect, until she started hearing his voice in her head.
This voice started urging Melissa to separate from Scott, which she did two weeks before the killing. She talked back to Levi in her head, as if he was standing next to her. However, Melissa made no attempt to contact Levi in reality – she didn’t need to, not with all the conversations she was having with him in her mind. She continued to hear Levi’s voice after she’d been arrested and locked up in the Brisbane watch-house.
Melissa was transferred to prison and seen by a psychiatrist. Her thoughts were disorganised and often went off at tangents. She expressed a whole range of religious, spiritual and persecutory delusions. The psychiatrist could see that she was out of touch with reality and experiencing a range of psychotic symptoms, including command auditory hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder, and passivity phenomena – the experience of being controlled from outside one’s own body and mind. Her wildly variable emotional state was also typical of acute psychosis. Melissa had no insight into her own state and for two days refused to take any medication to help control her psychosis and settle her emotions.
Melissa had never before shown any hint of violent behaviour, but her mother had noted some particularly unusual ideas and behaviour in the weeks leading up to Scott’s killing. Melissa had got rid of her chickens, claiming they’d been fed too many hormones (which was not true). She also got rid of her dog for unknown reasons, done the same with her favourite horse’s saddle and bridle, and talked about having to stockpile baked beans for hard times.
She’d become preoccupied with religious ideas and obsessed with the internet, and slowly withdrew from her friends. She talked about home-schooling her children, became very concerned about vaccinations and food tampering, and had some weird idea about Muslims joining the Pope. Her general practitioner said Melissa’s psychotic illness “came out of the blue”; yet the GP, along with one sister and Melissa herself, were able to throw light upon a very relevant history of mental illness in Melissa’s family.
Her maternal grandmother had suffered from postnatal depression and some maternal aunts had also suffered from depression and been on antidepressants. But it was Melissa’s mother who’d been most severely affected. At age 36, the same age at which Melissa had become ill, the mother had been diagnosed with either bipolar affective disorder (previously called manic depressive psychosis) or schizo-affective disorder (with features of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia). She had a number of episodes of illness, manifesting in bizarre ideas and disturbed behaviour. Within two weeks of Melissa being treated in prison, she stopped hearing Levi’s voice and her delusional beliefs started to disappear. With this came the realisation of what she’d done.
She felt a huge sense of shock and disbelief. Even seven months after her arrest, when I saw her, she still found it hard to believe what had happened. The fading of the psychosis was replaced by depression, tearfulness, and a feeling that everything was getting on top of her. She told me that she would never recover from the shock of what she’d done during the deepest throes of her illness. Her actions had greatly traumatised her own family and Scott’s, and left her separated from her children, with great uncertainty as to whether she’d ever be able to have a meaningful relationship with them again.
At the time I assessed her, Melissa was having weekly visits from members of her family. It was clear that all these people loved and appreciated the woman she had been before and after the tragic episode of illness that had taken her husband’s life and shattered her family. Melissa’s children were in the care of Scott’s family. Melissa had been allowed to send them, via her family, presents and also messages in which she told them how much she loved them.
It was gratifying to see how complete a recovery Melissa had made with treatment. Getting control of the symptoms had been relatively straightforward in her case; in other words, her illness was in remission, fully controlled, because of her treatment regimen. She was found to have been unsound of mind at the time of the offences under the Mental Health Act. As such, she would be detained with no immediate leave. Her progress to graduated leave and an eventual return to community treatment would be dependent upon the treating psychiatrist’s advice.
Without the illness, this murder would never have occurred. It was a classic illustration of the power of a psychotic illness to completely subvert the normal function of the mind and result in behaviour that is out of character and unpredictable. Melissa responded to delusional reality as if it were true. Her normal good judgment was destroyed by her illness.
Was Scott’s death preventable? Probably not, even with the greatest foresight. Given her family’s history of mental illness, it is possible that Melissa’s illness could have been treated sooner, and that might have prevented the final outcome. But that would have required a degree of insight that Melissa had lost very early in the process, and she would not have cooperated. And her previous high level of function would have meant it was hard for those around her to take too seriously the early signs of deterioration.
It is easy to look back with the wisdom of hindsight and say something should have been done. It is a lot harder to predict a disaster when you are in the midst of the events that come before it.
It illustrates the power of a psychotic illness to completely subvert the normal function of the mind Insights: Dr Donald Grant
Closing in: a detective approaches Melissa