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
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.