Black Widow: in the home of a mur­derer

It took Lee-Anne Cartier four and a half years to bring her brother Philip Nis­bet’s mur­derer to jus­tice. He­len Mil­ner, dubbed the ‘Black Widow’, was found guilty by a Christchurch jury in De­cem­ber, 2013 of mur­der­ing her 47-yearold second hus­band in 2009 b

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

When I pulled into the drive­way at He­len’s there was a new Kia Sportage in the drive. So this boyfriend was real, and here. How awk­ward was this go­ing to be? I asked my­self.

He­len in­tro­duced me to Barry and we took my things into the spare room across the hall­way from the main bed­room that Barry now shared with He­len: the room, and the bed, that Philip died in.

I tried to sort out the phone Lance [Lee-Anne’s el­dest son] had given me as we poured drinks, but with­out any luck. He­len of­fered me Phil’s SIM card, which had credit on it that needed to be used, and a phone from her work. Ini­tially I de­clined, say­ing

I’d get it sorted with Lance to­mor­row, but she in­sisted. With an early hair ap­point­ment and so many other things to do it was prob­a­bly go­ing to be the eas­i­est op­tion, so I ac­cepted.

As I sat on the couch with my drink – vodka, crushed limes and soda water – He­len dis­ap­peared into the hall­way. As she came back into the room she handed me a piece of pa­per and said, ‘Here’s the note I found in the bed­side drawer.’

So this was the note she had told me about on the phone. But hadn’t she said she had found it in the safe? I took an­other gulp of my vodka and looked down at the note. I couldn’t be­lieve my eyes. Firstly, it was typed.

But I didn’t even bother read­ing the text; I just stared at the hand­writ­ten ‘Phil’ at the bot­tom.

There was no way Phil had writ­ten this. Phil was left-handed and wrote very firmly, al­most en­grav­ing. This ‘Phil’ was light and whis­pery – def­i­nitely not his hand­writ­ing.

I could tell that He­len knew I was up­set, but she thought it was about see­ing the note. But in fact my brain was whirring, putting to­gether all the odd hap­pen­ings and in­con­sis­ten­cies in what she’d said since Phil’s death.

I was now com­pletely sure she had killed Phil. And, I won­dered to my­self, was Barry in­volved as well?

I got an­other drink, stronger this time. He­len left the room again, this time re­turn­ing with a hand­ful of other stuff.

There was a pic­ture of Phil and a lady dressed in 1930s gear, as if they were off to a fancy-dress party. He­len pro­claimed that this was a woman he had had an af­fair with. Phil had never seemed to age much over the years, so it was hard to look at the photo and work out how long ago it might have been taken. I came up with sev­eral op­tions: it could have been taken well before He­len was on the scene, or they could have been go­ing to a fancy-dress party with a friend and He­len had taken that photo. Who would know, but one thing was for sure: I knew Phil hadn’t been hav­ing an af­fair with any­one.

He­len then opened a Christmas card that my par­ents had sent to Ben [Phil’s youngest son]. An Aus­tralian $10 note fell out, and He­len handed it to me, telling me to keep it. I sat it on the CD rack; there was no way I was tak­ing my nephew’s money. What planet was this woman on?

As I sipped my vodka she con­tin­ued her lies and a char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion of Phil. I in­dulged her with nods, sym­pa­thy and looks of shock and dis­gust about my brother’s al­leged be­hav­iour, while try­ing to work out what the story was with Barry and what part he played in this.

What was I go­ing to do? I couldn’t leave – I’d drunk too much to drive – and be­sides, what would be my ex­cuse? My gear was in the bed­room and I didn’t have a work­ing New Zealand mo­bile. My head was spin­ning – not from the vodka but this hor­rid place I was in.

Some peo­ple say ev­ery­thing hap­pens for a rea­son. Was this the real rea­son that Sean [Lee-Anne’s boyfriend] hadn’t come to New Zealand – so I could work out what had re­ally hap­pened to Phil?

I had no doubts at all: she had killed him. The au­topsy had shown high lev­els of Phen­er­gan in his sys­tem, and He­len had told me about the po­lice find­ing the empty pack­ets. So some­how she poi­soned him with Phen­er­gan. Why? So she could be with Barry?

And if so, was Barry a part of this; had he helped her? Did he know the truth or was he just re­ally dumb?

A mil­lion ques­tions were run­ning through my head, all spiked with vodka. It was all too much. Sit­ting there in her house I felt like a chicken in a lion’s cage. I needed to play her at her game – and I needed a poker face. She had killed once and so far got­ten away with it, so I couldn’t risk her sus­pect­ing I was on to her.

Us­ing the long day ahead, with er­rands to run and my early-morn­ing hair ap­point­ment as an ex­cuse, I headed for bed. I closed the bed­room door be­hind me and stood lean­ing against it, my mind racing. How could I sleep know­ing what I knew? Was I safe?

I de­cided that I was safe, on the grounds that if some­thing hap­pened to me while I was in her home the po­lice might then think she had mur­dered Phil, so she wouldn’t dare do any­thing. She seemed in­tent on fill­ing me with her lies, how­ever. I’m sure she thought I was stupid and that I be­lieved her crap and was spread­ing it for her.

As ex­tra in­sur­ance, I grabbed my Aus­tralian phone out of my hand­bag and texted Sean:

Fark He­len mur­dered Phil I’m stuck at her place I’m so scared

I pushed send with a sense of some re­lief that at least some­one else knew. But I couldn’t re­mem­ber if Sean was on day or night shift, so I wasn’t sure if he’d even get the mes­sage till the next morn­ing.

My phone beeped, but my re­lief was short-lived. I opened the text:

In­suf­fi­cient funds — please top up your ac­count.

My heart dropped. Now I had no way of con­tact­ing the out­side world.

I put my heav­i­est suit­case against the door and went and looked out the win­dow. There was about a me­tre and a half be­tween the house and the back fence that ran the length of the prop­erty. If I had to, I might’ve been able to get out the win­dow and walk some­where. But I was in Hal­swell, on the out­skirts of town, and didn’t think any­thing would be open nearby at this hour. All I could do was try to get some sleep, and hope that when I woke in the morn­ing this was all just a night­mare.

I lay in bed, still and quiet, lis­ten­ing to ev­ery sound in the house: the toi­let flush­ing, water run­ning in the bath­room and the muf­fled voices of He­len and Barry. Once there was si­lence I lay there analysing my op­tions.

What proof did I have? I pre­sumed the po­lice didn’t have the sui­cide note; what she showed me looked like an orig­i­nal not a pho­to­copy, and the po­lice would never have left her with the orig­i­nal. The con­tra­dict­ing sto­ries I had been told… well, that was just

I’m sure she thought I was stupid and that I be­lieved her crap.”

my word against hers, and were easy for her to deny.

Some­how dur­ing my anal­y­sis of the sit­u­a­tion and my op­tions I fell asleep. The next morn­ing, I woke to two voices say­ing good­bye and a car start­ing and leav­ing. Now there was just He­len to face.

The down­side of drink­ing enough vodka to get a good night’s sleep was that I now needed to go to the toi­let. There was no sneak­ing out and back in with­out He­len know­ing I was awake. So it was time to put on my poker face and get on with the day. It was Lance’s 21st birth­day and I couldn’t ruin his day with this hor­rid night­mare.

I sat on the toi­let for a minute, con­tem­plat­ing stay­ing there till He­len left for work (like that was go­ing to suc­ceed!). In the bath­room I stared at my­self in the mir­ror, won­der­ing if it showed on my face that I knew she was a mur­derer. After lots of deep breaths and curs­ing I headed out to face her.

She of­fered me break­fast, which I de­clined, us­ing feel­ing trashy from the vodka as an ex­cuse. I said I should have eaten before I started drink­ing. He­len gig­gled and said Barry was wor­ried that I might have heard them hav­ing sex the pre­vi­ous night. I just about threw up at the thought but as­sured her I hadn’t heard any­thing and at­tempted to erase the men­tal pic­ture from my brain.

He­len re­minded me I needed to come to her work to get a phone. I headed for the shower but remembering the text I’d tried to send Sean the night before, I went back to my phone and deleted it. I couldn’t risk her go­ing through my things and work­ing out I was on to her.

Get­ting into Phil’s car felt dif­fer­ent now that I knew he hadn’t taken his own life – that she had mur­dered him. If only I could put the car into cruise con­trol and let Phil take me where I needed to go to get all the an­swers.

He­len gave me the phone at her work, and checked what time I wanted Barry to take us to the 21st. Back down­stairs in the car I checked how much credit was on the phone. It said around $67 – in­clud­ing $50 added to­day. Oh my God, what game

was she play­ing? Was this her way of track­ing me, to work out if I was on to her? I’d have to be care­ful and not leave her any­thing to find.

My hair ap­point­ment was for 10am. As usual it was the first thing I’d booked after I booked my flights and ac­com­mo­da­tion. The sa­lon was just across the road from the ho­tel Sean and I were sup­posed to stay in. If only things had worked out as they had been planned, Sean and I would have wo­ken in the ho­tel, had a buf­fet break­fast, then wan­dered across the road. It would’ve been a nice ca­sual start to the day, but in­stead it was just me driv­ing into town with my mind go­ing a mil­lion miles an hour. I couldn’t stop won­der­ing why He­len had mur­dered Phil and how the hell could she do such a thing to some­one like him. Phil was a de­cent guy, prob­a­bly too de­cent and def­i­nitely too de­cent for her.

If noth­ing else that day, my hair looked great! The after­noon was filled with pick­ing up Lance’s cake and drop­ping it to the res­tau­rant, get­ting the twins [Lee-Anne’s daugh­ters La­cau and Rayon] back from Lance [they’d stayed overnight with their brother] before he and Aaron [Lee-Anne’s other son] headed to a bar with their fa­ther, and scour­ing the shops for a 21st photo frame for guests to sign. Then we headed back to He­len’s and got ready. I sorted the girls’ gear, ready for them to go home with my friend

Shel­ley after the 21st, and packed my­self a carry-on bag ready to leave early in the morn­ing for a night in Queen­stown. This was sup­posed to have been a ro­man­tic get­away with Sean but in­stead was go­ing to be my time to think.

He­len ar­rived home from work with the mail in her hand, rant­ing about Karen (Ben’s mother) want­ing Ben’s be­long­ings and money. She said Ben wouldn’t be com­ing to Lance’s 21st, and ranted about putting Karen in her place re­gard­ing Ben not be­ing Phil’s

Phil was a de­cent guy… and def­i­nitely too de­cent for her.”

son. I avoided get­ting in­volved in the con­ver­sa­tion, as I didn’t want to lose it with her.

I found out that He­len had rung and abused Karen and threat­ened Ben. I de­cided not to get into this any fur­ther, not want­ing to ruin the night for Lance.

Barry dropped us at The Gar­den res­tau­rant. Phil’s old­est son Zak, his mother Vicki and his step­fa­ther were al­ready there. He­len was overly nice to them, even invit­ing them over the com­ing Satur­day night for Zak to go through his fa­ther’s be­long­ings and take what he wanted. What game was this woman play­ing? Un­like Ben, Zak hadn’t been men­tioned in ei­ther the ‘sui­cide text’ or ‘sui­cide note’ that Phil was sup­posed to have writ­ten. If she had writ­ten those notes, as I sus­pected, was she in­tent on mak­ing sure the boys never had a func­tional sib­ling re­la­tion­ship?

We sat at two long tables, eat­ing from a smor­gas­bord. I got my­self a small plate of food but hardly touched it. I spent the night with a Smirnoff Dou­ble Black in each hand, watch­ing He­len laugh­ing and jok­ing with

Lance. All I wanted to do was scream out ‘You mur­der­ing bitch!’ to the world. She was get­ting sym­pa­thy from ev­ery­one, play­ing the poor widow, but laugh­ing and en­joy­ing the night – like she’d got away with mur­der.

I was sur­rounded by lovely friends but couldn’t say a thing. It was Lance’s night so I just had to ride it out and bite my tongue. Throwing back vodka was the only thing that got me through the night.

HE­LEN DROPPED ME AT THE air­port on her way to work. When my plane lifted off for Queen­stown for a planned ro­man­tic night in Queen­stown with Sean who hadn’t come, I felt a gi­ant weight lift.

After ar­riv­ing in Queen­stown I dropped my bag at the ho­tel and walked around the shops. At a jew­eller’s there I bought a ‘Lord of the Rings’ ring, and as I put it on I wished that, like in the book, it had special pow­ers. Right now I needed all the help I could get.

I hadn’t had much chance to talk to Sean with the busy day before. I had sent a cou­ple of texts to him from the loaner phone, and had got only a short, shocked re­ply to my al­le­ga­tions about He­len. I only had a brief win­dow to com­mu­ni­cate with him before he started work again.

After I’d had din­ner at a lovely res­tau­rant I re­tired to my room and I started to work on a plan. I needed to speak to the po­lice who had come to the house the day Phil died. I needed to work out who else to talk to about it.

I slept so well that night – no vodka re­quired. I wasn’t in the home of the mur­derer, I was safe a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres away.

While play­ing with the phone, I re­alised there were some phone num­bers saved to the SIM card, so I wrote these down on the bag­gage-check tag from the ho­tel as I waited for my flight back to Christchurch. The re­turn flight seemed far too quick; I didn’t want to have to face He­len again.

My flight landed late after­noon, coin­cid­ing with the end of He­len’s day at work, so she picked me up and we headed back to her place. Barry was there when we ar­rived home and He­len said there was some­thing she wanted to tell us both as she got on her com­puter and opened up her emails.

She said that the pre­vi­ous night she had re­ceived an abu­sive phone call from Karen, at around 2am, which Barry had slept through. She then said that the po­lice had ar­rived at her house at 6.45am with a death-threat let­ter they ac­cused her of send­ing to Karen. She opened an email at­tach­ment which she claimed to be the let­ter the po­lice ac­cused her of send­ing. It started with ‘Dear Karen’.

What sort of id­iot did this woman take me for? For starters, the po­lice never start new jobs at 6.45am un­less it’s an emer­gency call-out. Sec­ondly, the po­lice never hand over ev­i­dence to an ac­cused. And thirdly, this let­ter was iden­ti­cal in lay­out to the ‘sui­cide note’ He­len had showed me, typed in one big chunk at the top with a hand­writ­ten sig­na­ture just off cen­tre to the right. This time the hand­writ­ing said ‘He­len’. And who starts a death threat with ‘Dear Karen’?

He­len was bitch­ing that this was an at­tempt of Karen’s to set her up. I was more than a lit­tle bored with her at­tempts to dis­credit Karen and paint her as an evil, cal­cu­lat­ing per­son who wasn’t fit to be Ben’s mother.

This rub­bish gave more foun­da­tion to my be­lief that she mur­dered Phil. It was hard to keep a straight face and not call her out on her bull­shit.

I ex­cused my­self, say­ing I was al­ready late to catch up with my step­son Sam. I headed to his place, and im­me­di­ately told him and his partner Scott that I thought He­len had mur­dered Phil and all of the things that had led me to that con­clu­sion. They were blown away by my al­le­ga­tions. Sam, who was meant to come to He­len’s for din­ner on Sun­day night with the rest of the kids, now point-blank re­fused to go any­where near He­len again. The thought of be­ing any­where near her scared the hell out of him. I hung out there un­til it was late enough to go back to He­len’s and go straight to bed.

ON THE SATUR­DAY I STAYED in bed as long as I could un­til the call of na­ture blew my cover. He­len was busy sort­ing things in the spare room. She pro­duced an empty loan ap­pli­ca­tion form and made ac­cu­sa­tions that Phil had re­cently ap­plied for mul­ti­ple mort­gages on the house with­out her con­sent, tak­ing out a mort­gage for over $100,000 when he wasn’t even on the ti­tle. I thought, you’d have to be pretty clever and have con­nec­tions to pull some­thing like that and re­ally Phil didn’t have that sort of smarts. When was this woman go­ing to re­alise she was go­ing over the top with her lies about Phil?

As the sun set and the beau­ti­ful June day turned into a dark cold night I sat in the car out­side the Christchurch Cen­tral Po­lice Sta­tion, try­ing to muster the con­fi­dence to take the next big step. Re­cep­tion was well closed for the day so I pro­ceeded down­stairs to the cells. I asked a lady po­lice of­fi­cer at the desk if she could please find the of­fi­cers who at­tended my brother’s death.

She looked through her com­puter and wrote a code on a pale yel­low piece of pa­per. I thanked her and left. The fol­low­ing day I had an ap­point­ment with the po­lice and had ar­ranged to meet my brother An­drew’s friend Duane out­side the Hornby

Po­lice Sta­tion, for moral support. With Duane by my side I felt a lot stronger fronting the po­lice with my al­le­ga­tions.

Detective Sergeant Mark Keane was a lovely man. We talked about my al­le­ga­tions before writ­ing up a state­ment. When he asked where the sui­cide note was I al­most laughed; like it was my job to il­le­gally ac­quire some­one else’s prop­erty and bring it to the po­lice. I ex­plained that I only had a small win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to search for it but didn’t find it, and wasn’t that the po­lice’s job.

When I was ex­plain­ing that the let­ter was typed, Keane com­mented that in all his years in the po­lice force he had never come across a typed sui­cide note. Duane backed this up as be­ing strange. He worked in a first-re­sponse vol­un­teer fire brigade and had at­tended sev­eral sui­cides in his work and never come across or heard of any­one else com­ing across a typed sui­cide note. Dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion Duane also men­tioned He­len’s lack of emo­tion and his en­coun­ters with her after Phil’s death.

Keane hand­wrote my state­ment, out­lin­ing the fam­ily and their re­la­tion­ships to each other, the break­down of my re­la­tion­ship with Phil and He­len, and the sto­ries He­len had told me about Phil’s af­fairs and the sui­cide note. He ex­plained it would be passed on to the detective who was in charge of the file re­gard­ing Phil’s sud­den death.

I left the po­lice sta­tion feel­ing that Keane had be­lieved me.

He­len was bitch­ing that this was an at­tempt of Karen’s to set her up.”

Above: Lee-Anne and her brother Phil in 2006. Far left: A court­room pho­to­graph of con­victed mur­derer He­len Mil­ner.

Be­low: He­len with Barry, before she was charged with Phil’s mur­der.

Left: Phil and He­len’s wed­ding, Novem­ber 12, 2005.

Re­pro­duced with per­mis­sion from The Black Widow, by Lee-Anne Cartier. Pub­lished by Pen­guin/ Ran­dom House (NZ). Text © Lee-Anne Cartier, 2016.

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