Poisoning investigation flawed - police

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The first police investigation in to the sudden death of Phil Nisbet, which concluded he had taken his own life, was seriously flawed, an internal police probe has concluded.

Helen Milner, 50, was today found guilty by a jury at the High Court in Christchurch of murdering her 47-year-old second husband.

The Crown proved that the woman known as the Black Widow had slipped the sedative Phenergan into Mr Nisbet's evening meal and, while he was heavily sedated, finished him off with a pillow.

She then made his death on May 4, 2009 look like suicide in the hope of cashing in the life insurance cash. She nearly got away with it when police referred the Christchurch delivery driver's death as a suicide to a coroner.

That was even after the first two constables who arrived on the scene - Milner phoned police "distraught'' at 5.45am that morning - raised suspicions over what they saw.

They thought Milner's hysterical actions amounted to "acting", the court heard.

She switched on her cellphone in front of them to receive a supposed suicide text from Mr Nisbet, they thought it was all too "convenient''. However, their suspicions were not acted upon.

"Police considered Phil Nisbet had likely taken his own life and did not consider anyone else involved. They reported his death to the coroner who directed a post mortem,'' Coroner Sue Johnson said in her inquest findings where she refused to call it a suicide.

"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. As I can take this no further I leave this point open.''

Police have now confirmed an internal police probe into how Mr Nisbet's death was first investigated found major flaws.

APNZ understands faults included Milner not being correctly interviewed, and that the alleged suicide note she found - believed to have been one of several forgeries and given to police some six weeks later - was hole-punched and not put into an evidence bag.

Canterbury Police district investigations manager, Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald confirmed to APNZ today that the first investigation was badly flawed.

"It wasn't treated as a homicide. Unfortunately, that was the mistake that was made,'' he said.

"Therefore all those parts of an investigation which we would expect, with interviews, exhibit handling and everything that goes with that to a standard I would expect, weren't conducted.

"It was treated as an unexplained death and it wasn't given the normal investigation we would expect of a homicide investigation. That's where it starts and stops really. Because of that, the investigation wasn't done as it should have.''

He expressed concerns that the first two police officers on the scene, who had suspicions over how things were playing out, did not have their concerns taken on board properly by senior officers.

"As I think you've seen from the evidence, that wasn't the case,'' Mr Fitzgerald said.

"The initial investigating officers didn't treat it as a homicide. 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.''

An internal investigation was carried out and the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

The IPCA did not take things further, but the first officers in charge of the investigation - detectives Richard Prosser and Scott Anderson - have been "counselled over their treatment'' of that initial investigation, Mr Fitzgerald confirmed.

"They were spoken to in respect of their shortcomings and everything was made clear as to what those shortcomings were.''

A spokeswoman for the IPCA confirmed a complaint was received in August this year relating to "an allegation of an inadequate police investigation''.

"Because police had already investigated the substance of the complaint and had effectively upheld it, and taken disciplinary action against the officers involved, the IPCA referred the matter back to police to engage with the complainant to resolve the matter,'' the IPCA said today.

A homicide investigation wasn't launched until two years after Mr Nisbet's death.

Detective Inspector Greg Murton was tasked with reviewing the case in May 2011.

Mr Murton personally reviewed the coronial file and saw glaring holes in the original investigation.

He then put together a team of eight detectives to chase up a range of leads he identified had been overlooked.

It included interviewing all of Mr Nisbet's and Milner's workmates, friends, family and Checketts Ave neighbours who may have been able to shed light on the case.

Mr Murton, an experienced officer of more than 20 years, also ordered a full financial analysis of the couple's accounts and finances, as well as computers, hard-drives and memory sticks.

Experts from Microsoft sifted through Milner's Hotmail email account while others dragged records of all text message data for them both in 2009 - and any subsequent data from Milner's cellphone.

Linguistic studies of an alleged suicide note and suicide text were also carried out to to verify authorship, while he also wanted to get hold of a 111 call transcript made by Milner, which had not previously been done.

He also wanted to know where and when the fatal dose of Phenergan was purchased, and by whom.

"I considered that a priority,'' Mr Murton told the trial.

The extensive homicide investigation - codenamed Operation Checketts - eventually led to Milner's arrest.

Mr Fitzgerald praised the eventual homicide investigation which brought the prosecution.

"That is what I would expect. It was done thoroughly, by a very good team, and consequently, we got the right result.''

Milner will now spend at least 10 years behind bars - the minimum period for murder in New Zealand.

"I'm very proud of our investigators here in Canterbury. It's very, very unusual for them to get it wrong,'' Mr Fitzgerald said.

"Any death where there is any hint of suspicion, under my watch, is treated as a homicide.''

He hoped that Mr Nisbet's family would take heart that they got the right result in the end.

"The officers involved in the initial investigation now acknowledge that things could have been done better, and I'm sure they now regret how it was handled initially,'' he said.

"I hope that the investigation that has been conducted since has shown them what should have been and, fortunately in this case, has been done.''

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