Real Life

Sleeping with the enemy

By Andrew McNulty

Andrea Phipps tried to drug her lover, Darryl French, then burn him to death as he slept

Darryl French felt a familiar chill of horror as he read a newspaper article and learned that his former lover Andrea Phipps had been jailed for two years on 70 dishonesty charges.

Just five years earlier, Andrea, then with the surname de la Hunt, had been given a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for stealing money and for the cold-hearted attempted murder of the man she was supposed to love. Her sentence was cut to two-and-a-half years on appeal.

"I thought she would probably reoffend," Darryl (34) says. "There were so many similarities in the recent case to how she conned people five years ago. Every time she covered things up, I could logically dismiss the strange incidents."

one night in March 2001, Darryl remembers, Andrea arrived home in a distressed state, claiming she had had a disagreement at work. She refused to tell him any more and the couple went about their weekend plans, including bidding at a home auction on the Sunday.

They had been saving hard for a house deposit for 18 months, each of them putting $500 a fortnight into a joint bank account. "I thought it was odd when, an hour before the auction, Andrea started asking me if we were doing the right thing," says Darryl, who's a credit recovery manager.

"I thought she was simply nervous, because she had been the one saying that we needed to buy a house as a sign of commitment."

He had no idea Andrea was hiding a terrible secret - one that could have cost Darryl his life. The couple lost the bid but Darryl was determined to find a dream house for Andrea, who he had met in Christchurch in 1996, while playing soccer with her first husband.

When Andrea's marriage broke up in 1999, a romance had blossomed between the two bank employees.

"We chilled out at home after the auction and that evening I noticed an awful, pungent smell of fuel through the house," Darryl explains. "I had my jet ski and 40 litres of fuel in the garage and I thought the containers must be leaking, so I took them outside."

The couple then ordered Indian takeaways but as Darryl was about to tuck into his butter chicken, the phone rang. "After taking the call, I sat back down and had a mouthful of food but it was disgusting," Darryl recalls. "It tasted like someone had poured washing-up liquid on it so I spat it out. Andrea didn't believe me and encouraged me to have some more. I said no and vowed never to eat from that takeaway place again."

Heading to bed for an early night, Darryl found Andrea dousing his pillow with lavender oil. "You're so tired," she said kindly. "This will help you get a good sleep."

"She always seemed to be looking after my wellbeing and I had no reason not to trust her," says Darryl. The smell of fuel still permeated the house, but Darryl had no luck locating the cause and drifted into a deep sleep.

He awoke once in the night to catch Andrea out of bed. "Andrea was staring right through me with a blank look on her face," Darryl says, shivering at the memory. "I rolled onto my side without saying anything. I thought to myself how good it was that I was in a trusting relationship, or that kind of look could have been really scary."

Darryl drifted back to sleep, waking around 5.30am for his morning gym session, but Andrea beat him out of bed - something which was out of character for her - and headed downstairs. Darryl says she returned looking shocked. "She said, 'oh, my God. There's a whole lot of smoke damage downstairs'."

The couple's rented North Shore home was covered in black soot. Five of the stairs were burnt, with fire damage up the wall. As Andrea lay on the couch complaining of smoke inhalation, Darryl racked his brains as to what could be the cause of the fire. When the fire brigade acted on their suspicions by calling two detectives to the scene, Darryl was even more confused.

"The detective asked about the fire and my job as a credit recovery manager," Darryl recalls. "I told him I offended a lot of people but that was my job and I didn't think it was relevant. He said there was no sign of forced entry into the house, so either Andrea or I had started the fire."

The police escorted Darryl to the police station where he spent two hours being questioned. Andrea was also questioned after a trip to the hospital. To Darryl's horror she confessed to starting the fire.

"I was gobsmacked," Darryl admits. "I just didn't understand why, or what her motive could have been."

But the more he thought about it, the more the puzzle started falling into place. "I had seen some tablets in the study before we had the Indian meal," Darryl says. "I used to take the sleeping pills to help me sleep and once bit into one by accident - it tasted like dishwashing liquid. I then started thinking about her behaviour and realised I wasn't going mad. She really was trying to kill me."

It wasn't the first time Andrea had acted maliciously. In 1998, while working at a Christchurch bank, Andrea became jealous of Darryl's friendship with another woman at the bank despite the fact he was also friends with the woman's boyfriend. Andrea manipulated the woman's credit card to send Darryl flowers. She was caught and sacked from her position.

"I confronted Andrea and at first she denied doing it. But in the end she said, 'I just wanted to let [the woman] know I was onto her'."

The pair spent a few months apart before a reconciliation that saw them move to Auckland for Darryl's new job. Having thought this over, Darryl revisited the detectives. "Get your notebook out, because I've solved the case," he remembers saying to the police.

"I told them about the Indian food, which they did tests on. I was told that fuel from my jet ski had been found on Andrea's nightgown and her fingerprints were found on the knife used to stab the fuel containers.

"It appears she had dripped fuel throughout the house. She also soaked four rags in fuel and hid them in the garage. In the middle of the night she got the fuel-soaked rags and lit them in the stairway."

Later that day, Darryl was told Andrea had owned up to everything and had been attempting a murder-suicide. "Her motive was that she didn't want me to find out what she'd got up to at the bank, which included stealing money and getting fired again," says Darryl.

"She believed if she couldn't have me, nobody else could which is obviously why she tried to kill us both."

In 2002, Andrea was jailed on charges of attempted murder, theft, forgery and arson. She had forged documents to obtain $165,000 using a customer's details and transferred $52,100 from another customer's account.

It was found that Andrea suffered from bipolar affective disorder so she was able to serve her prison time in a mental health hospital.

"I now know she planned to use the stolen money to cover her share of the house deposit we were saving. It was uncovered that Andrea had been using the money we saved fortnightly for a house deposit to pay off her four credit cards. I used to quiz her about why we never received any bank statements."

once all the dots joined up, Darryl's love eventually turned to loathing. He visited Andrea when she was in custody, to try and get some answers about that fateful night but he says Andrea was making no sense.

"She claimed she couldn't remember trying to kill me and that she didn't plan the fire," says Darryl. "To my mind, she planned it pretty damn well. She soaked the rags with fuel, laced my dinner with 16 sleeping pills and put strong-smelling lavender which is known to help people sleep on my pillow."

Darryl has rebuilt his life since the horrific event and is now happily married, but wishes to keep his wife's identity a secret for fear of retribution. "oy parents were probably more upset at the time than I was," Darryl remembers. "They wanted to know what right Andrea thought she had to take the life of their son. I felt relief more than anything. I kept thinking to myself over and over, 'Thank God we didn't end up buying the house, getting married or having any children together'."

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