Cold-blooded, calculated murder comes from a very dark heart, writes Ruth Wykes, you may think you know your partner but maybe you never did at all.
When the Queensland Coastguard received a distress call from a yacht in Queensland’s Moreton Bay their reaction was swift. Pirates, it was reported, boarded the yacht and attacked a middle-aged couple. The man, John Asquith was shot in the head while his partner, Patricia Byers, was assaulted. They both survived.
Investigators were disbelieving from the start. Asquith reported seeing a gun in the cabin but by the time the Coastguard arrived there was no weapon on board the yacht. Pirates, in the calm waters of Moreton Bay were unheard of. The couple told investigators they’d had dinner and a few drinks on the yacht, then made love and gone to sleep. Or at least John did. Patricia Byers waited until he was asleep then put a loaded sawn-off shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
This week’s Crimes That Shook Australia explores the theme of greed and tells the story of a woman, dubbed by the media as The Black Widow, who methodically set out to murder two men in three years. For their money.
The program focusses on the police investigation, on the careful build-up of circumstantial evidence against Patricia Byers. Detective Sergeant Rosemary Walker lays out the evidence police gathered. She has a cynical twist to her mouth as she reveals Byers’ motive for shooting Asquith. Byers had forged Asquith’s signature and taken out five life insurance policies worth more than $270,000. It was the painstaking work of former chief document examiner, Greg Marheine, that provided crucial evidence to the court that saw Byers jailed for twelve years.
At first John Asquith refused to believe his partner tried to kill him. It was only when he felt sick, when blood tests revealed high doses of valium in his system that the horrible truth set in. Asquith walked away from the woman he believed he loved.
The publicity generated by Byer’s court case triggered another family to contact police. Carl Gottgen’s daughters told police they hadn’t seen their father for four years, that the last time they heard from him he was in a relationship with Patricia Byers.
When she was interviewed about Carl’s disappearance Byers told police he had left her and flown to Thailand to live with his new girlfriend.
Byers seemed to have few friends, certainly none that wanted to appear on camera. Former neighbours talked about Byers as a nice woman, socially outgoing, fun to be around. They found it difficult to fathom her crimes. I got the sense they were still lost for words all these years later.
Crown Prosecutor, Paul Rutledge, suggested the motives were greed, jealousy and bitterness. I liked his insights into the crimes, his measured delivery. He explains why it’s tough to build a case for murder when there is no body. Then he laid out the complex layers of evidence: forged documents, activated bank accounts, a missing mattress, and the title of Gottren’s house fraudulently signed over to Patricia Byers.
While still serving time for the attempted murder of John Asquith, Byers was charged with the murder of Carl Gottren and sentenced to life in prison, despite her protestations of innocence. That should have been the end of the matter.
Somehow Byers secured a transfer to a South Australian womens’ prison, so she could be closer to her son. Police officers tell viewers that South Australia has a “no body, no parole” law. In 2016 she revealed she was ready to confess to Carl’s murder.
She told her story to Detective Sergeant Scott Chapman from Queensland Police: she and Carl met up at Beenleigh, had a few drinks, then went and sat on the wharf at Logan River. They argued, she got up and left. As she walked past her car she got a machete from under the passenger seat, went back and struck him in the back of the head with the blunt side of the blade. Then he fell into the Logan River and she never saw him again.
Even as fairytales go it isn’t a good story. Byers describes a crime that was committed in the heat of the moment, paints herself as the heartbroken lover who reacted badly to being dumped. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: planned, premeditated, cold as ice.
The program puts the spotlight on a crime that is, thankfully, rare. I’m still shaking my head. Perhaps it’s because I don’t understand how anyone can value money above human life, let alone try and kill two men she had shared intimate and happy years with. If they were crimes of passion, if she was a victim of violence who fought back I might make sense of it.
But cold-blooded, calculated murder comes from a very dark heart.
Read more of Ruth Wykes’ Crime That Shook Australia Recaps: