Helen Milner was found guilty by a jury in 2013 of fatally poisoning her second husband, truck driver Phil Nisbet. It was a sensational case that police originally ruled was a suicide, before some amateur sleuthing by Nisbet's sister helped prompt a coroner to suggest cops take a second look. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer who covered the case for years takes a look back at New Zealand's infamous "Black Widow".
It was an ordinary suburban house on an ordinary suburban street. Brick houses, tidy gardens. The middle-aged woman who answered the door looked suitably ordinary too, somewhat frumpy, brushed thick hair and glasses, perhaps interrupted from her baking.
But there was nothing ordinary about Helen Milner.
She slammed the door on me.
"Did you kill your husband?" I asked, seeing her shadow through the frosted glass.
Milner, who workmates called the "Black Widow" because of her constant talk of topping second husband Phil Nisbet, exploded.
"Get out! Get out!" she screamed. "I'm ringing the f****** police".
Days later, she was arrested for murder.
When Nisbet was found dead in his bed on May 4, 2009 at the home he shared with Milner in the Christchurch suburb of Halswell, it looked like suicide.
He'd left a note.
Wife Milner wailing, distraught.
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It appeared to police that the father-of-two had purposefully ingested up to 50 anti-histamine pills, Phenergan.
When Milner's teenage son Adam Kearns got a call from police to say his stepfather was dead, he immediately knew she'd done it. Kearns had even tried to warn Nisbet one day, telling him: "She's trying to kill you, mate." He'd laughed it off.
"After police told me, I went to mum's house. She was acting all upset, but I could fully see through it," Kearns would say later.
The police came round with Nisbet's wedding ring. Kearns gave it to his mother and suggested she wear it as a necklace. She refused.
"I walked out knowing that she'd definitely done it."
Nisbet's sister Lee-Ann Cartier had been living in Queensland and rushed over for the funeral.
When she got to Christchurch, Milner, 50, passed her a suicide note she claimed to have found. It was a separate one to the text message she'd supposedly found on her phone when she switched it on in front of police officers called out to Nisbet's sudden death.
The text said: "I'm sorry honey, I can't keep going like this. I love you so nuch [sic]. Please take care and tell Ben [his son] I love him."
Cartier immediately smelled a rat. She thought the handwritten signature on the note, which was otherwise typed, was a fake. Police didn't see that note for some six weeks.
Cartier didn't believe her brother would have taken his own life – and then there was the $250,000 life insurance payout.
"It didn't add up," she would tell the jury in Milner's High Court trial in Christchurch in late 2013.
Four days after the funeral, family members including son Kearns approached police with concerns.
But with detectives calling it a straightforward case of suicide without any hint of foul play, Cartier decided to do her own digging.
She decided to stay close to Milner, sympathise with her, mourn their loss together, and hope that she would "let something slip".
Back in Queensland, she kept in touch by phone. And she started ringing round Milner's other family members and workmates. The work colleagues told her the "Black Widow" had talked about "getting rid" of her husband and had even asked ways of poisoning or drugging him.
Neighbours reported seeing a bedroom light early on the morning Nisbet had died - about 90 minutes before a hysterical Milner phoned emergency services to say she'd found him dead.
When Cartier came over for a visit a month after the death, Milner gave her a sim card and phone to use. She wrote down all the contacts on the sim card and handed them over to police – along with all of the other material she had gathered.
But Cartier said police "just didn't give a s***".
"I'd be telling them what I found out and they just waved me off, thinking I was just some little bitch in Australia trying to tell them how to do their job."
Meanwhile, Kearns was telling anyone who would listen that his mum was a murderer.
She needed him out of the picture, too. And so she set him up.
Milner bought a sim card and texted herself death threats, pretending they were from her son. It got him arrested and he spent his 19th birthday in prison.
Milner would eventually be jailed for two years, eight months for perverting the course of justice – and costing her son the last of his youth.
When an inquest by Coroner Sue Johnson was held in November 2010 to establish the cause and circumstances of death, the family were able to outline their own findings and concerns.
After looking at the case, the coroner agreed things didn't add up.
"I consider that on the facts, as established by the evidence before me, I am unable to reach the threshold required for a finding of suicide," Coroner Johnson concluded.
She found Milner to be an "unreliable witness" and the findings led to police reviewing the case and ultimately launching a homicide probe.
Led by senior Christchurch cop, Detective Inspector Greg Murton, the case was looked at afresh and soon Milner was charged with murder.
Her trial at the High Court in Christchurch was sensational.
The Crown said she had murdered Nisbet, 47, by crushing up Phenergan and slipping it into his evening meal and, while he was heavily sedated, probably suffocated him.
They alleged she made his death look like a suicide in the hope of cashing in his $250,000 life insurance policy.
The defence maintained that Nisbet had taken his own life.
But the evidence mounted heavily against Milner.
There seemed to be stories of up to four suicide notes, which was ridiculed by the Crown, and all believed to have been faked.
Workmates and family members painted stark portraits of Milner hating Nisbet and often talking about wishing he was dead.
Then there was the buying of the Phenergan, which Murton felt from the outset, was critical to get to the bottom of.
Her murder trial heard that a woman calling herself Andrea Wilson used a fake address and cash to buy a box of the 25mg sedative Phenergan at a chemist at South City mall in Christchurch on April 14, 2009 - the day before Nisbet died. Milner's bank card had been used minutes earlier to make a $20 withdrawal at an ATM metres away.
In a stunning twist, it was revealed that seven years earlier an Auckland personal banker called Andrea Wilson had been convicted of trying to kill her partner by lacing his dinner with sleeping tablets.
In the end, the jury delivered a unanimous guilty verdict and Milner was later jailed to life in prison with a 17-year minimum non-parole period.
Within hours of Milner's guilty verdict, Canterbury police district investigations manager Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald admitted to the Herald that the first investigation was badly flawed.
"It wasn't treated as a homicide. Unfortunately, that was the mistake that was made," he said.
Fitzgerald expressed concern that senior staff did not listen to worries raised by the first two officers on the scene who had suspicions about how things were playing out.
They thought Milner's hysterical actions amounted to "acting" and found it too "convenient" that she switched on her cellphone in front of them to receive a supposed suicide text from Nisbet.
"Taking into account what was said by those that first attended, that should have certainly pushed them in that direction. Unfortunately, in this case it didn't happen.
"There were a number of points that were not done correctly."
Milner has unsuccessfully appealed against her sentence.
However, she has won a bid for further scientific testing of her dead husband's body parts, which she hopes may support an application to the Governor-General for an exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, which provides a special avenue for criminal cases to be reopened "where a person may have been wrongly convicted or sentenced".
The door on the Black Widow case has not yet been slammed completely shut.