The drinks were flowing and guest of honour Samantha Kelly didn’t have to lift a finger.
As soon as her glass was empty, it was whisked away and returned full. She was being thoroughly spoilt by her neighbours.
Samantha, 39, rented a bungalow in the backyard of a home in the suburb of Kangaroo Flat, in Bendigo, Australia, that belonged to Christine Lyons. Christine, 47, invited Samantha for drinks with Christine’s boyfriend Peter Arthur and their housemate Ronald Lyons, 45.
Ronald and Christine had once been related through marriage – and they’d also dated at one point in the past. But now Christine was with Peter and the unlikely trio lived happily together.
It was January 2016 and as Samantha chatted away, drinking from her glass, she felt strangely groggy. Looking around, Samantha felt confused and wary, a feeling that had become increasingly familiar to her over the previous months.
She couldn’t quite put her finger on what was going on lately, but she knew for certain that something wasn’t right…
Single mum Samantha had moved from Ballarat to Bendigo to start a new life with her four children. She’d had problems with an ex who had been found guilty of assaulting her and she wanted a fresh start.
Samantha, who had some learning difficulties, was easily led and considered vulnerable to some, but she was a kind and loving mum to her kids, aged 11 months, four, five and six. Samantha thought she had found a sanctuary with Christine, who had been generous with her welcome.
Christine was unable to have children of her own and seemingly doted on Samantha’s offspring. The truth was Christine was desperate to have kids. She had approached around 10 people asking them if they would have a baby for her.
When trusting Samantha turned up, she saw an opportunity to get the family she desperately wanted. If Samantha were gone, there would be four children who would need a new mum – and Christine was more than happy to step in.
Christine told Peter and Ronald that her friend Samantha ‘had to go’. They hatched a plan to kill Samantha so that Christine could take her children.
In January 2016, they invited Samantha over, crushed up drugs and mixed them into her drinks. It was a cocktail of around seven medications, including sedatives, beta-blockers and antihistamines. Some had been prescribed to Christine in the past.
Samantha started to feel the effects of the medications, but the combination wasn’t enough to make her fatally ill. Christine grew frustrated and Samantha grew suspicious.
Samantha told her brother over the phone that perhaps it was time she moved on. She said that the trio were ‘starting to take over’. Christine had the children in her house more and more – while Samantha felt she was losing control.
Impatient Christine told Peter and Ronald that Samantha had to go on a ‘permanent holiday’ and their plan stepped up a gear. On the night of January 22, or in the early hours of January 23, Peter attacked Samantha and hit her around the head seven times with a hammer. Samantha didn’t stand a chance and the blows were fatal.
Ronald bought two shovels from a hardware store and helped Peter bury Samantha in a dry creek in bushland south-west of Bendigo. Then the three told everyone that Samantha had ‘run off’ with a man in the middle of the night and had left her kids because she didn’t want them.
They said she had started using drugs and had become violent towards her kids. They were terrible lies to discredit her and cover the crime.
The last sighting of Samantha was on January 20 when she was captured on CCTV using a cash point machine. Her disappearance was investigated.
Friends, family and even the police didn’t believe that Samantha had left of her own accord. Police put pressure on the three and it was Christine’s boyfriend Peter who would crack after just a few weeks.
At first, Peter admitted he had killed Christine and insisted that he’d acted alone. He said that Samantha had lashed out at him and he’d acted in self-defence. He even took officers to where Samantha’s body was buried.
But after being charged, he admitted that although he’d been the one who had beaten Samantha to death, Christine and Ronald were all part of the sickening plot.
Peter told them all about the drugs they had spiked Samantha’s drinks with, how Ronald had helped with the plan and that Christine had been the mastermind because of her obsession to become a mum.
By now, Christine had changed the names of two of Samantha’s children to the favourite names she’d picked out for her future children – and had enrolled them into a new school.
Samantha had family who would eventually take the children in and they were heartbroken that although the youngest were too young to know any different, the eldest reacted strongly to their original names being used.
In 2017, as part of a plea deal, Peter Arthur pleaded guilty to murder and received 16 years in prison, with a parole period of just 13 years. The judge called the crime ‘vicious, calculated and planned’.
He said that while Christine had been the architect of the crime, Peter had made a ‘conscious and selfish choice’ to go ahead with the murder because of his ‘foolish and pathetic devotion’ to her. After an appeal by the prosecution, who were unhappy at his vastly discounted sentence, Peter’s sentence was later increased to 22 years with a parole period of 18 years.
Christine and Ronald went to trial in 2018 and both denied their part in the killing. Peter was the key witness as part of his plea deal and implicated them in the murder.
The prosecution said that the motive was clearly down to Christine. ‘Christine Lyons was unable to bear children herself and she was desperate for children of her own,’ the prosecutor said. ‘She wanted to raise Samantha’s children as her own children.’
The court heard about the plan to drug Samantha and showed evidence that Christine went to her GP to get prescription drugs that she would go on to use. There were text messages between the three accused as well, and everyone knew about Christine’s obsession with having a family.
Peter had no reason to kill Samantha. Ronald had been part of the drugging and disposing of the body. He had known what was going on and did nothing to stop it.
But the defence said that Peter had been the one who had hammered Samantha to death and had acted alone. They said that Peter’s story had inconsistencies and he’d only blamed Christine and Ronald once he was on remand, simply to get a reduced sentence. The jury disagreed.
Christine was found guilty of murder and attempted murder. Ronald was found guilty of attempted murder and assisting an offender but not guilty of murder.
At the sentencing, Christine’s lawyer claimed that her below-average intelligence and difficult upbringing should be taken into account. But Samantha’s mum Vivienne gave a statement to remind the court just how horrific the crime was.
‘You have stolen the life of my beautiful daughter,’ she said. ‘I will never forgive you for what you’ve done to my family… I hope Samantha haunts you until the day you die.’
The judge said that Christine was the architect and was ‘involved in the administration of each stage’. He described the killing of the ‘loving, caring and devoted mother’ as ‘heartless and thoroughly evil’, adding, ’Samantha was vulnerable and, for all intents and purposes, defenceless. You sought to rob an innocent woman of her children so you could take them as your own.’
Christine was sentenced to serve 30 years with the chance of parole at 23 years. Ronald was sentenced to 12 years and six months. He will serve a minimum of nine years.
Outside court, Samantha’s brother Michael, who had taken in his sister’s four children, called the sentences ‘ludicrous’. ‘Knowing one of them will be out before the youngest baby actually turns 10 is very gut-wrenching,’ he said. ‘Definitely I think it should have been life behind bars.’
In March this year, Christine and Ronald Lyons both appealed their sentences. Christine claimed she was falsely implicated in the murder. The appeal suggested that Peter Arthur had acted alone, and lawyers said that the conviction was ‘unsafe and unsatisfactory’ simply based on Peter’s evidence and nothing else.
‘Peter Arthur had a strong self-interest in falsely implicating Christine Lyons in the murder of Samantha Kelly,’ the appeal court heard from her lawyer. ‘He altered his version of events in order to assist himself in order to secure a more beneficial sentencing outcome.’
But the court was reminded of the only motive. Christine wanted to be a mum, and nothing was going to stop her. The power she held over her boyfriend and ex-lover was clear. They’d helped her murder. The appeals were rejected.
Samantha’s murder remains one of Australia’s most shocking cases. She was looking for a safe place to raise her family. But Christine knew what a blessing it was to be a mum and her jealousy led to the darkest of plots.