THE AUSTRALIAN Blackman dynasty’s search for truth over socialite ‘suicide’ Questions have been raised about the death of wealthy Sydney socialite Kimberley Appleby, the former daughter-in-law of Australian art legend Charles Blackman. By JESS MALCOLM From Nation September 7, 2021 7 MINUTE READ To the first cops on the scene, it looked a cut and dried suicide. Wealthy Sydney socialite Kimberley Appleby, the former daughter-in-law of one of the leading Australian artists of the 20th century Charles Blackman, had been found dead in her bed with lethal drugs in her system, after a long history of depression. For her daughter Clementine, however, none of it added up. Not the sudden change of Appleby’s will just days before her death nor the drug vial that disappeared from her bedside table. Above all, not the strange behaviour of the one man who might have the answers: her mother’s long-time “house guest” and beneficiary of her new will, alleged drug dealer Philip Collingwood. For the close-knit Blackman family, one of Australia’s most renowned artistic dynasties, it was the beginning of a long and painful search for the truth. It would see Collingwood walk away with $400,000 from Appleby’s estate and spark a police investigation that has now been referred to the Unsolved Homicide Squad. Appleby, the former wife of Charles Blackman’s son Auguste, was a successful landscape and interior designer, as well as a savvy business woman through property renovations and art dealing. But the 56-year-old had suffered bouts of alcohol abuse and drug addiction and periods of hospitalisation for depression … troubles her family believed were exacerbated by her relationship with Collingwood. The pair first met in 2008 while working together at antique homewares and garden store Parterre at Woollahra in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. What started as a friendship soon developed into an intimate relationship, but its tumultuous nature made Appleby’s family increasingly uncomfortable, as Clementine Blackman’s aunt, Christabel Blackman, would later tell the inquest into her death. “Ms Blackman stated that Kimberley initially told her that ‘he was a gardener but later told me that he was her drug dealer’” the coroner noted. The family’s concern turned to alarm when Collingwood moved from a Newtown boarding house into Appleby’s Waterloo apartment in mid-2015 after suffering burns to his legs from a cigarette lighter, an incident he claimed left him unable to work. Collingwood would sleep in the living room, storing his swag bedding in Appleby’s bedroom wardrobe during the day. He says he moved in to help with the cooking, driving Appleby to appointments and supervising her medication dosage. But it seemed to the family that Appleby’s drug issues and depression were becoming worse. Much of her wealth had already dissipated. At some point, she had obtained supplies of Nembutal from Mexico. Sometimes referred to as “the suicide drug”, Nembutal is banned in Australia. Clementine Blackman says her mother used Nembutal for “sleep therapy” and cocaine as her “awake therapy”. In early May 2016, things seemed to be getting better. Clementine and Appleby spent a happy Mother’s Day together before the daughter flew back to France, where she was then living. Appleby’s mother, Shirley, had been there for lunch, where the pair had chatted about the plans to sell Appleby’s Waterloo apartment so she could move to her parent’s farm in Queensland. Plans for the move north seemed to have invigorated Appleby but Clementine had been back in France only a few days when she received an email from her father to call urgently. The shocking news didn’t make sense. Clementine felt instantly there must have been a terrible mistake. “Not that she wasn’t dead but that something had happened, because things were OK, and then they were very suddenly not OK,” Clementine said. “It was absurd to me that she would spontaneously take her life when the conditions of her life were in fact improving.” Most disturbing of all was the behaviour of Collingwood. Clementine said he had becoming increasingly angry about her mother’s plans to move to Queensland, which was set to displace him from the apartment. “He stood to be homeless, and had not been making any alternative arrangements, even though Mum had been very certain about the changes she was making,” Clementine said. “Kimberley was weak, and he was very opportunistic in all the circumstances I’d ever known him.” Just three days before her death, police were called to Appleby’s apartment over an alleged domestic violence incident. Appleby told police the pair had been arguing about finances and she wanted Collingwood to move out of the flat. But it was a litany of inconsistencies in Collingwood’s account of events that concerned the Blackmans. Five years later, that account would be examined in a coronial inquest. A week before her death, Appleby had gone to see her long-time solicitor Philip Sim to complete a power of attorney to her mother, who was helping her sell her apartment in preparation for the move to Queensland. Appleby said nothing to Sim – who had prepared all her previous wills – about wanting to change her existing will. Two days before her death, Collingwood drove Appleby to inner-city Surry Hills, where she bought a will kit from the post office while he waited outside. The pair then went to a pharmacy to fill a prescription. One of the staff would later recall the transaction because she felt the relationship between the pair was “odd”, with Collingwood talking on behalf of Appleby. At 12.30pm on the day of her death, Appleby and Collingwood again went to Surry Hills, this time to a different pharmacy. CCTV footage from the visit shows Appleby unsteady on her feet and being held up by Collingwood. At the counter, Appleby asked the two attending pharmacists whether they would witness a new will. Neither looked to see if there was any writing on the first two pages of the document, and signed only the final page. One later described Appleby as looking “unwell, tired and a bit sickly” as if suffering from a terminal illness. The CCTV footage shows Appleby handing the will to Collingwood, who would later maintain she did not tell him about her new will. That evening, Collingwood said, Appleby went to bed early. He said he could hear her snoring when he went down to the underground garage at 11pm to meet a friend who had arrived “to deliver some extractor fans”. After that, he said, he watched television until 2am when he went in to Appleby’s room to collect his bedding. He said he thought she was still asleep. Collingwood said he found Appleby in her bed at 8.45am the next morning, not breathing and unresponsive. He called triple-0, sobbing. “I just came to wake my partner up and she’s cold, I can’t find a pulse … she’s stiff,” he told the operator. He went on to tell the operator “she’s probably taken an overdose, she’s depressed ... she’s been in bed for two days.” Police attended later that day and photographed the scene, including a small, empty bottle on the bedside table, but did not seize any items. Collingwood later told police during his recorded interview that he noticed the bottle only after the police left, and threw it away. On Saturday afternoon, more than four hours after calling triple-0, Collingwood telephoned Appleby’s parents – who had flown in from Queensland the night before to help prepare for her move – to tell them that their daughter was dead. Two days later, on Monday morning, Collingwood arrived at lawyer Sim’s office to declare himself the sole beneficiary of Appleby’s estate. He produced the will kit booklet, saying: “I have just found this.” Sim, who had provided legal advice to Appleby since the late 1990s and knew her very well, had doubts that the will was authentic and went down to the Surry Hills pharmacy to review the CCTV footage. “I just wanted to confirm it with my own eyes because I just didn’t believe it. It seemed too unbelievable,” he told The Australian. “I knew if she wanted to change her will, she would have come to see me, and she would have mentioned a will when she came and saw me a few days beforehand. “Her affairs were in order, they always were. “When I saw the writing, I just thought wow. It looks terrible. “When you’d look at it, you’d think, ‘Who could possibly write this?’ It was a mess.” At the inquest, finalised in July this year, Deputy State Coroner Joan Baptie found the use of a handwritten and shop-purchased will by Appleby did not appear “consistent with her history and nature”. She observed it was clear from the CCTV footage that Collingwood “was shown, or was in possession of, the then witnessed handwritten will, as he and Kimberley left the pharmacy.” Baptie pointed to the evidence of a police handwriting and document expert who had examined the will that “makes the veracity of the document highly - questionable”. She noted that Collingwood had told various police that Appleby had spent most of her time in bed in the few days before her death, when CCTV footage revealed her movements “appear inconsistent with some of Mr Collingwood’s assertions”. The coroner submitted that in addition to the possibility of suicide or accidental overdose, there was also “a competing inference … The person who last saw her alive has given inconsistent and varying versions at different times.” After noting it would be “inappropriate, in those circumstances, to comment further”, Baptie handed down an open finding and referred the case to the NSW police Unsolved Homicide Unit.