I survived the Black Widow
The sunset cast a fiery orange glow across Queensland’s Moreton Bay where wealthy insurance broker John Asquith and his partner Patricia Byers were relaxing on the deck of their luxury boat after an idyllic Easter Sunday on the water.
Earlier that afternoon, engine trouble had forced Byers, an experienced sailor, to anchor the vessel in the shallow waters off Peel and Moreton Islands to see if she could identify the problem. While Byers tinkered with the engine, John fired up the barbecue and rustled up dinner. Afterwards the couple made love before sitting on the deck with a drink to watch the sun go down on a perfect day.
Byers, 47, was still finishing off her drink when John retired for the night, unaware his perfect day was about to unravel into an unimaginable nightmare that would leave him fighting for his life, and the woman he loved on the police’s radar for masterminding a chilling plot to murder him for his money.
Now, 25 years after surviving the cold-blooded shooting that nearly claimed his life, John has emerged from hiding to tell The Weekly how he became trapped in the web of Australia’s “Black Widow”, and why the notorious killer should never be released from prison.
“She looks like butter wouldn’t melt – but Trish Byers is the most manipulating, lying, conniving con woman you could ever meet,” observes John, reflecting on the seemingly harmless insurance agent who set out to murder two partners in three years to swindle them out of a fortune.
While the harrowing events that unfolded on board Byers’ boat, Misty Blue, in the early hours of Easter Monday morning in 1993 remain a terrifying blur, the first sign of trouble in paradise emerged with a stricken SOS call that John, who was dazed and bleeding, made to the Queensland Coastguard recounting a story so bizarre it defied belief. According to John, pirates had boarded their boat in the darkness, brutally attacking them and leaving them for dead.
Was it a robbery gone wrong, pondered the astonished coastguards, trying to pinpoint the vessel’s location. John said he was not sure, but he had noticed a firearm lying on the deck.
The notion of pirates menacing the sleepy waters of Moreton Bay was beyond comprehension, and for the rescuers heading out in the darkness to find the survivors, the story was already sounding very suspicious.
“The truth is, I didn’t know what had happened and had sat up in bed feeling warm blood trickling down my forehead and thinking I must have banged my head and woken myself up,” recalls John, from an undisclosed address on Australia’s east coast.
In a daze, he had followed the sound of groans upstairs and found Byers sprawled on the deck saying she had been attacked by pirates, though she was vague about the details after suffering a blow to the head.
When the coastguards boarded the boat there wasn’t a mark on Byers, though they found her partner gravely injured and bleeding profusely from a wound on his forehead.
“The truth is, I didn’t know what had happened.”
“I was shocked when they got me to Moreton Island and a doctor noticed gunpowder around the wound and said I’d been shot in the head,” recalls John, who was astounded that he could not remember it.
While the gunshot victim underwent emergency surgery to remove bullet fragments from his skull, Byers repeated her outlandish story to the police, who were immediately suspicious.
Considering the brutality of the supposed attack, Byers’ lack of injuries wasn’t consistent with someone who had been knocked unconscious. More disturbing, the firearm John had described to the coastguards had disappeared before they reached the boat. Someone had been in a hurry to dispose of the incriminating evidence and the detectives concluded that “someone” was Patricia Byers.
Inquiries quickly revealed a motive for the bungled murder when it was discovered that John’s signature had been forged on five separate life insurance policies and that Byers stood to collect more than $270,000 if anything happened to him.
“I knew nothing about the policies, though I didn’t want to believe it when the police suggested it was Trish who had tried to kill me,” says John.
Warned not to return home with Byers, he was discharged into a relative’s care and the police continued to dig. A forensic search of the couple’s home in Yatala uncovered wood shavings from a vice in Byers’ workshop which matched the sawn-off barrel of a rifle recovered by police divers from a nearby river.
“The evidence proved crucial because it showed the crime was premeditated and that Trish had shortened the rifle before shooting me in the head at point blank range while I slept,” says John, who still has fragments of lead in his skull.
Miraculously, Byers had used the wrong ammunition in the sawn-off firearm and the bullet had shattered when she pulled the trigger – a mistake which saved the life of the man who had once been her work mentor.
Unaware of the mounting evidence, Byers resumed her murderous mission, callously watching John consuming food and drinks she had laced with Valium. A concerned friend, observing John’s drug-affected state, urged him to see a doctor and blood tests revealed such high levels of the drug in his system that she was amazed he was still standing.
Byers was finally arrested and charged with attempted murder and a string of fraud and forgery offences as part of her ruthless plot to claim her partner’s life insurance and inherit all his wealth.
In July 1994, in the Queensland Supreme Court, Byers denied everything, even accusing her victim of shooting himself in what she maintained had been a conspiracy to defraud the insurance companies out of a fortune.
To John’s relief, the jury saw through the lies and she was subsequently convicted on all counts and jailed for 12 years. But as Byers was led away, still protesting her innocence, the publicity surrounding her trial prompted the family of her former partner to contact police, saying they had not seen or heard of him since his mysterious disappearance four years earlier.
When questioned about marine engineer Carel Gottgens’ disappearance, Byers told the police what she had
“I didn’t want to believe it when the police suggested it was Trish who had tried to kill me.”
told his family and everyone else – that he had dumped her for another woman and gone to live in Thailand. But inquiries revealed that while Gottgens, 51, had purchased a plane ticket to Thailand, he had not boarded the flight on July 6, 1990, and had last been seen a few days earlier when his boss dropped him off at the home he shared with Patricia Byers.
The missing man’s former employer told police he had been surprised when, out of the blue, he had received a printed letter from Gottgens resigning from his job and saying he was leaving Byers for a new life overseas. Curiously, the letter referred to Byers in glowing terms, predicting she would not be “on the shelf” for long because she was too smart and good-looking.
“I remember the night Carel supposedly left because Trish had called me in a state, asking if she could stay over because she was upset that she had been dumped for another woman,” recalls John. “The following day she went to work as if nothing had happened and when I called around at the house in Yatala a week or so later, she had tradies there laying a concrete patio and putting up a pergola.”
Just as the letter had predicted, Byers was not alone for long. By 1992 the workmates had become lovers and John had moved in to Carel Gottgens’ former home, unaware he was about to become the next victim.
Since greed had been the motivation behind John Asquith’s bungled murder, police scrutinised Gottgens’ financial history, discovering that his bank accounts had been activated since his disappearance and that all his assets, including his luxury house and boat, had been transferred into Byers’ name.
In late 1994, four years after his disappearance, a forensic search of the missing man’s former home identified blood spatters on the walls of the master bedroom which matched DNA taken from Gottgens’ daughters. It was also found that Byers had purchased a new mattress after Gottgens disappeared, which police concluded had replaced the one from the crime scene which would have been covered in incriminating evidence.
For the second time in a year, Byers was back in the headlines – this time charged with murder.
“The DNA showed that whatever happened to Carel must have occurred in the bedroom I later shared with Trish,” observes John.
In 1999, Patricia Byers was jailed for life for the murder of Carel Gottgens, in what is still one of the most intriguing and complex forgery
cases in Australian criminal history. Although Byers maintained her innocence, the jury heard she had killed Gottgens because she was bitter about the separation and had hatched a chilling plan to get her hands on his fortune.
“If I hadn’t survived that night, the police may never have looked into Carel Gottgens’ disappearance, and she might have got away with two perfect murders,” says John, who was relieved she had been given a life sentence.
He was in court again in 2006, when Gottgens’ daughters won a lengthy legal battle to reclaim the assets Byers had swindled from their murdered father.
However the story was not over and in 2009, the manipulating Byers wangled a transfer to a prison in South Australia to be closer to her son, a move many believe was motivated by Queensland’s strict “no body no parole law”, which prohibits early release for convicted killers who refuse to disclose the location of their victims’ bodies.
Ironically, in 2015, after four failed parole bids, the same law came into force in SA. A year later, Patricia Byers finally confessed to the murder of Carel Gottgens.
In what appears to be another tall story, the killer told police she had struck Gottgens on the head with a machete during an argument behind the Beenleigh Hotel and that he had fallen into the Logan River, never to be seen again. But while her son, Alan Byers remains convinced his mother has falsely confessed to a crime she did not commit to secure parole, her surviving victim believes she is guilty, but lying because it’s what she does best.
Now, bracing himself for Byers’ fifth bid for freedom, John is urging the parole board to keep the killer behind bars, saying her lack of conscience and remorse makes her as dangerous as she was three decades ago.
“Apparently she’s a model prisoner and has even got herself a law degree at the taxpayer’s expense,” says
John, who has received threats from the killer and fears what she might do if she is released.
“She is a clever, convincing con artist who is capable of anything and I’d be looking over my shoulder if she got out,” he says.
Today, the scar on John’s forehead is a reminder of the fateful night he almost died and leaves him constantly wondering whether he and Carel Gottgens were Byers’ only victims. He fears if she is released, they may not be her last.
“So after all the lies, I don’t believe she’s telling the truth about what she did to Carel and, as I’ve repeatedly told the police, I believe he was murdered at Yatala and is still under the patio there. It’s the only place they haven’t looked, but they should because his family deserve the truth – and they won’t get it from Trish.”
“His family deserve the truth – and they won’t get it from Trish.”
John Asquith fears what his former partner Patrica Byers (below) will do if she’s released from prison.
From top:John and Patricia Byers before she attacked; a similar boat to the one the couple were on when she attacked; John shows his gunshot wound – he still has fragments of lead in his skull; Byers appearing in court.
Clockwise from top: Carel Gottgen’s former home in Yatala, as pictured in 2006; Carel Gottgens, Byers’ first victim; Ella Celon, one of Carel’s daughters, attending court.