Helen Milner was jailed for a minimum 17 years. Picture: NZ Herald
Helen Milner was jailed for a minimum 17 years. Picture: NZ Herald

Proving the grieving wife was actually calculating murderer

IT was Helen Milner's workmates who first called her "The Black Widow".

The sinister name came about because the New Zealand woman used to talk so often of the most evil of crimes. Murder.

Milner was known to speak about killing her husband, Philip Nisbet, so much that the name stuck - and when she was eventually convicted of murdering him she became known as New Zealand's Black Widow killer.

The now 53-year-old is now serving a life sentence with a non-parole period of 17 years for the crime. But it was one she very nearly got away with.


It was May 2009 when truck driver Philip Nisbet died. His family, understandably, were devastated with the loss of the 47-year-old. His manner of death just added to their grief.

It appeared he had taken his own life. Empty Phenergan bottles were found nearby and there was a typed suicide note that was signed with a handwritten "Phil".

Phenergan is an antihistamine that Mr Nisbet was allergic to. Milner 'discovered' the body and made the tearful, panicked call to emergency services who rushed to their Christchurch home. But he couldn't be saved.

The police case against Milner was that she crushed the drugs up and sprinkled them in his dinner. Once he was subdued enough or asleep, she may have also suffocated him to finish him off.

His 'grieving' wife, Milner, showed the suicide note to Mr Nisbet's sister Lee-Anne Cartier after he died as proof that his death was self-inflicted. She said she found it in a bedside drawer.

All it told Ms Cartier though was that her brother hadn't killed himself. And she knew at once who did.

Writing in her 2016 book The Black Widow, she told of reading the note and the sinking feeling that came over her when she realised her fears that her brother had been murdered were reality.

The first clue was Milner initially told her she had found it in the safe. Now though, she was saying it was in a drawer.

"I took another gulp of my vodka and looked down at the note. I couldn't believe my eyes. Firstly, it was typed.

"But I didn't even bother reading the text; I just stared at the handwritten 'Phil' at the bottom. There was no way Phil had written this. Phil was left-handed and wrote very firmly, almost engraving. This 'Phil' was light and whispery - definitely not his handwriting," she wrote.

She was upset and Milner was watching her closely.

"I could tell that Helen knew I was upset, but she thought it was about seeing the note. But in fact my brain was whirring, putting together all the odd happenings and inconsistencies in what she'd said since Phil's death," Ms Cartier wrote in The Black Widow.

"I was now completely sure she had killed Phil."


Police initially ruled the death was a suicide. To investigators, it was a relatively open and shut case. Except that it wasn't.

There were many mistakes made by detectives as they made their initial inquiries. The Christchurch Press reported in 2014 details of a police internal report that found basic errors had been made as they came to the conclusion that he had died of an intentional overdose.

They were later forced to admit if it hadn't been for Ms Cartier's own detective work and also of a coroner - who ruled in May 2011 there was no evidence to suggest suicide - Milner may never have been brought to justice.

The remarkable story for her fight for justice and to expose an evil killer has this week been shown on New Zealand television.

Catching the Black Widow was a dramatised version of her quest to prove Milner was a murderer. But like so many true crime stories, it needed no beating up as the truth was stranger than any fiction writer could have hoped for.

For two-and-half years Ms Cartier investigated her brother's death. It cost her big time - financially, her time, and her own personal relationships came under strain as he obsessed over tracking down witnesses and even commissioning a DNA report.

At the time she was living on the Sunshine Coast and she was constantly crossing the Tasman to meet with people.

The DNA test was to prove that his teenage son Ben, from an earlier marriage, was in fact his biological son. Milner claimed that he wasn't, and it was that realisation that caused him to kill himself.

"I paid for a DNA test to prove that Ben was Phil's son, to prove that was a lie," Ms Cartier told the Herald on Sunday.

It wasn't the only lie she exposed. One by one she managed to disprove much of what Milner claimed, things the police had taken at face value. And as she did so, a sinister picture began to emerge.

The extraordinary lies just kept on adding up. That Mr Nisbet had narcolepsy and that he was a male escort. She was constantly on the phone to police, telling them what she had found, and eventually they had to take her evidence seriously enough to reopen the case.

That was the beginning of the end for Milner.

Ms Cartier managed to keep her investigation from Milner until the moment she accused her of being the killer.

She sent her a text message telling her she knew that she had killed her brother.

Milner forwarded the message to police who warned Cartier over her communication.

"She thinks she's so much more intelligent than anyone," Cartier said. "She thought she was playing me and I was her little gopher."

Cartier continued to gather evidence until police finally investigated her claims and eventually charged Milner with murder.

There is no doubt how she feels about Milner or what she wants to see happen to her.

"I hope she dies in there."


Milner was arrested and charged with murder in October 2011 and she went on trial in late 2013.

Her 13 day trial heard the gripping details of the police case. The court was told of the lengths she'd gone to cover her tracks, but it was the planning that went into the killing that were just as confronting.

The Crown said she obtained the phenergan over time in a series of purchases. All in false names. They alleged she was motivated by a $250,000 life insurance policy, and the jury was told she tried to kill him in a similar way a month before she was finally successful.

Justice David Gendall told Milner at sentencing poisoning involved planning and subterfuge against an unsuspecting victim, according to stuff.co.nz.

He said: "There can hardly be a clearer case of calculated pre-planning than the case before me."

The day he jailed her for life, Justice Gendall singled out the bizarre way Milner told people of her desire to kill. She insisted that had been in jest, but it came back to haunt her.

"It is rare for a victim to tell so many people of a desire to kill her victim, as she did in this case," he said.

It will mean Helen Milner will forever be known as The Black Widow.

News Corp Australia

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