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