It’s June 2009, and Lee-Anne Cartier is staring at a suicide note. Just weeks earlier, one of her brothers, Phil Nisbet, passed away, having seemingly taken his own life. But now, Lee-Anne notices that something is wrong. And with her startling realization comes another shock: not only was Phil murdered, but the culprit is there with her in the room.
The youngest of four, Lee-Anne spent her childhood in the suburbs of Christchurch, New Zealand, with her brothers, Andrew, Roger and Phil. The oldest of the bunch, Phil was also known as the least rebellious member of the family. “He didn’t go to a pub until he was 21,” she told the BBC in August 2018.
Lee-Anne even recalls Phil having used his motorbike to take her to Girl’s Brigade while she was little. When the rest of the family eventually decided to move to Australia, though, Phil opted to remain in New Zealand. There, he married a woman named Karen, and the couple had a son called Ben.
Meanwhile, Lee-Anne grew up and started a life of her own, ultimately going on to have four kids. Yet although Phil was hundreds of miles away, the siblings maintained a close relationship. Then in 2004 something changed. You see, during that year Phil got himself a new partner – a woman named Helen Milner.
From the time of their very first encounter, Lee-Anne was unsure about Helen. “Initially I met her in 2004, and she just seemed your average housewife-type person,” she explained to the BBC. “But the next time I met her I sort of realized that she wasn’t totally stable.” In fact, Helen appeared to be suicidal.
During one of Lee-Anne’s trips to see her brother, she arrived at the couple’s house to find Phil in a state of panic. It seems that Helen had taken an intentional overdose of insulin with the aim of killing herself. And when Lee-Anne then tried to speak to her sister-in-law, Helen apparently told her that she “may as well die.”
Concerned, Lee-Anne began to suspect that Helen may have threatened suicide before. Then in 2006 the situation grew more troubling. At the time, Lee-Anne’s son Lance was in New Zealand staying with his uncle and his wife. And one day, he called his mother with an unsettling story to tell.
According to Lance, he and Phil had been chatting in a bar when his uncle made a strange request: could Lance make arrangements to have his first wife killed? “Phil actually asked Lance if he could find a hitman to take out Karen,” Lee-Anne claimed. “Something like a house fire – so it looked like an accident.”
Distressed, Lance called his mother to tell her about the conversation. But at the time, Lee-Anne seems to have found the threat too extreme to take seriously. Instead, she advised her son to ignore the conversation. That same year, however, Helen apparently got upset with Lance while he was staying in the couple’s home.
So Helen reportedly contacted Lee-Anne in protest – only for the two women to start arguing themselves. Sadly, too, it was the start of a rift that would force a wedge between Lee-Anne and her brother. And for three years, the once-close pair did not see each other at all.
Eventually, in 2009, Lee-Anne was reunited with Phil when he came to Australia for a family visit. However, any hope that she may have had of fully reconciling with her brother was cut short that May – when she answered the phone to take a heartbreaking call. It was Lee-Anne’s father ringing to tell her that Phil had been found dead.
At the time, the 47-year-old Phil had been living in Christchurch, where he was working as a truck driver. And according to that first phone call, he had been found inside his vehicle – having apparently taken his own life. Devastated, Lee-Anne found herself having to share the news with one of her other brothers.
“I broke the news to Andrew, and that was the worst,” Lee-Anne recalled. “When I finally got hold of him and told him to make sure that his son was in another room, he just shrieked.” But although she was heartbroken, Lee-Anne was also left wondering as to what might have led her brother to take his own life.
“It was just so strange,” she explained. “I hadn’t had anything to do with Phil for a couple of years, so I didn’t really know what was going on in his life, and I was just thinking, ‘What the heck’s happened?’” Yet after an autopsy revealed Phenergan – a substance that Phil was allergic to – in his system, she adjusted to the idea that he really had committed suicide.
Still trying to come to terms with the loss, Lee-Anne arrived in New Zealand for Phil’s funeral. But there, she found herself confronted with the very woman who had effectively kept her brother from her over the years. What’s more, Lee-Anne claims that Helen prevented her from having any time alone with Phil’s body.
“It’s really hard to say goodbye when you’ve got things you really want to say – because we lost those couple of years – when the woman who had caused the rift between us is standing there,” Lee-Anne explained. Yet despite the tension between the two women, she maintained a relationship with Helen after her brother’s death.
Then, during one conversation, Helen let slip a very confusing piece of information. Apparently, she told Lee-Anne that Phil’s body had been found at home – not inside his vehicle. And soon afterwards, Helen claimed that she had discovered a suicide note – a note that contained some shocking notions about his son, Ben.
According to Helen, the note explained that Ben was not in fact Phil’s biological son. And having learned this truth, the note apparently claimed, the truck driver had felt unable to cope with the situation. It seems that these were not idle claims, either: Helen told Lee-Anne that a DNA sample extracted from Phil’s body had confirmed the truth.
Not long after Helen’s disclosures, Lee-Anne returned to New Zealand, where Lance was set to be hosting a party for his 21st birthday. And during her visit, she spent the night at Helen’s home, which gave her the opportunity to view Phil’s purported suicide note. As soon as Lee-Anne saw it, though, she knew that something was terribly wrong.
“I open the note, and it’s typed,” Lee-Anne recalled. “So that’s my next shock, and I don’t overly read it, but I look to the bottom, and there’s Phil’s signature, and it wasn’t Phil’s handwriting.” Suddenly, she found herself overwhelmed with the conviction that Helen had murdered Phil – and the realization that she was now trapped in the killer’s home.
According to Lee-Anne, Phil’s handwriting was noticeably firm – whereas the signature on the note had been written in soft, light strokes. But even though she was sure that her brother had not written the note, Lee-Anne couldn’t let on. Apparently, Helen was eyeing her carefully, and she had to be sure to hide her suspicions.
“I was just screaming on the inside and sort of paralyzed as well, thinking, ‘I can’t let her see that I know,’” Lee-Anne explained. “I’m just sitting there going, ‘What do I do, what do I do?’” So, afraid that she was in danger, Lee-Anne then apparently shut herself in the bedroom and wedged a suitcase in front of the door.
Luckily, the night passed without incident. But the next day Lee-Anne was forced to continue as normal – even taking Helen to Lance’s birthday party. “I felt like I was betraying my son [by] taking her there,” she confessed. “He had always been so close to Phil, growing up, and I took his uncle’s murderer to his 21st – but I couldn’t not.”
Somehow, Lee-Anne managed to keep up the pretense, and shortly afterwards she had the opportunity to speak to the police about her suspicions. However, even though the officer present agreed that the notion of a typed suicide note was unlikely, nothing came of the encounter. Instead, Lee-Anne had to return to Australia.
Convinced, then, that Helen was guilty, Lee-Anne began a one-woman campaign to see her brought to justice for her crime. First, she contacted the funeral director who had been responsible for Phil’s body and asked him about the DNA sample that Helen had mentioned. He denied that any such tests had taken place.
Next, Lee-Anne shelled out for a proper DNA analysis. And, using samples taken from her parents, she was able to confirm that Ben is Phil’s biological son after all. Then the story took another strange turn. Apparently, Lee-Anne reached out to Helen’s colleagues – who told her all about the nickname that her sister-in-law had earned at work.
“They’d called her the ‘black widow’ behind her back,” Lee-Anne explained. “She’d asked them about rat poison. She said to one who’d done some work around at the house, ‘Don’t worry about Phil; he won’t be around for long.’” But in spite of her ever-growing suspicions, Lee-Anne seemingly managed to remain on polite terms with the woman she believed had killed her brother.
Then, however, something in Lee-Anne snapped. Overwhelmed, she sent a text message to Helen, blaming her for Phil’s death. So, Helen then apparently responded by contacting the police – who gave Lee-Anne a warning. “She thought she was playing me, and I was her little gopher,” Lee-Anne told the NZ Herald in 2017.
Meanwhile, another bizarre story began playing out back in New Zealand. In April 2010 Helen contacted the police to tell them that her son, Adam Kearns, had been sending her death threats. And not only this, but she claimed that he had done the same to his ex-partner Kasey Woodstock.
Police initially took Adam into custody. However, after two weeks they discovered that Helen had sent the abusive messages to herself in an apparent attempt to frame her son. Outraged, Adam decided to take legal action against his mother, accusing her of having caused him both emotional and financial harm.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Lee-Anne had gathered enough evidence against Helen to go to the police – but frustratingly, they took no official step against her. Eventually, though, Lee-Anne realized that she could ask the coroner’s office to hold an inquest. And when Helen showed up with a different version of the suicide note – this time without a signature – Lee-Anne was able to question her in a formal setting.
For six months, Lee-Anne and her family were subsequently in limbo. Then, in May 2011, the coroner finally issued her report. “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 a suicide,” it read. And with that, the case was reopened.
Again, Lee-Anne approached the police with her evidence – and this time they acted upon it. That October, officers arrested Helen on suspicion of murder. They also charged her with two separate counts of attempted murder, believing that she had tried unsuccessfully to take Phil’s life on previous occasions.
Then, before Helen had even gone on trial for Phil’s murder, she was dealt another blow. In August 2012 she was sentenced to two years plus eight months behind bars – punishment for her earlier attempt to frame her own son. And at the end of 2013 Lee-Anne finally got to see her sister-in-law stand trial.
By this time, the story had become a media circus, and Lee-Anne faced severe cross-examination while in the dock. However, justice ultimately prevailed, and Helen was deemed guilty of murder. In addition, she was pronounced guilty on one count of attempted murder.
While Lee-Anne cried, her son Lance celebrated the verdict in a different way. Taking out his phone, he played a track that had been a favorite of Phil’s: the Meatloaf classic “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” “It was just such a relief that after such a long fight we’d got what we needed – the truth,” Lee-Anne told the BBC.
Helen was ultimately given a life sentence – although she would be eligible for parole in 17 years. Apparently, Lee-Anne believes that her sister-in-law had Phil’s $250,000 life insurance policy in her sights – prompting her to plan his murder. And had Lee-Anne not been so dogged in her detective work, Helen might have gotten away with it.
That said, the financial and emotional cost of the investigation had taken its toll on Lee-Anne and her family. For one thing, constantly flying between Australia and New Zealand had caused her to rack up huge debts. And the time that she’d spent away from her own children precipitated something of a rift that has seemingly still not healed.
Since Helen’s trial, Lee-Anne has at least received compensation from the police – although the officers involved in the initial investigation are yet to issue an apology. Meanwhile, Helen has lodged multiple appeals against her conviction. And she is currently attempting to secure samples from Phil’s body in an effort to prove that an undetected heart defect was the underlying cause of his death.
In 2016 Lee-Anne published a book, Catching the Black Widow, about her experiences of investigating her brother’s murder. Then, the following year, a movie adaptation aired on New Zealand television. And today Lee-Anne is working towards a degree in criminology, hoping to help victims like herself navigate the criminal justice system – hopefully without having to turn detective themselves.