Monday, February 2, 2015

Ivan Milat: The Backpacker Murderer.

Ivan Milat

Belangalo State Forest is like many forests around Australia – large and dense with long walking tracks used for mountain biking, orienteering and bushwalking.  However Belangalo is now infamous as the dumping ground of Australia’s worst known serial killer.



The first bodies were found towards the end of 1992 by some bushwalkers.  The discovery launched the biggest murder investigation Australia has ever seen.  By the end of the search, seven bodies had been located at Belangalo; all of them backpackers from around the world (England, Germany and Australia) who had been hitch hiking along a popular freeway.

I remember at the time hearing of the missing British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters.  Their disappearance was highly publicised and it was fairly obvious they had met with foul play.  When the first two bodies were found at Belangalo, the media immediately speculated about their identity, and were sadly proven to be right.  What no one could have known was the violence which had been inflicted on two young women, who up until then had been enjoying the holiday of a lifetime.

It wasn’t long before more bodies were found.  James Gibson and Deborah Everist were found next.  They had last been seen hitchhiking near the forest in 1989.  Then the body of Simone Schmidl, a hitchhiker who disappeared in 1991, was discovered.  Under Simone’s  body were a pair of jeans identified as belonging to yet another missing person.  The search was not over yet.  The body of Anja Habschied, the owner of the jeans, and her boyfriend Gabor Neugebauer were found nearby.  They had been missing since December 1991.

All of the victims were last seen hitchhiking on the highway near the forest.  This was not the only similarity – they were all young, fit travellers.  Most of the victims were visiting Australia, backpacking around the country as so many young people do.  James and Deborah, the only Australians, were travelling from Melbourne to Sydney.

There were, however, some differences in the method of death:  Joanne Walters had been gagged and stabbed in the chest area; Caroline Clarke had been stabbed and shot in the head several times; James Gibson had been repeatedly stabbed; Deborah Everist had been slashed in the face in addition to her stab wounds; Simone Schmidl had also been stabbed; Anja Habschied was decapitated; and Gabor Neugebauer had been shot in the head five times with the same weapon that killed Walters.  All of the victims had fought hard for their lives. 

There were campsites near the bodies indicating that the killer had spent considerable time with the victims, both during and after the murders.  All of the deaths were extremely violent.  The terror these young people experienced in their final moments was horrendous.

The known victims.

The discovery of the seven bodies led to a two-year manhunt for the person responsible for what was now known in the media as “The Backpacker Murders”.  Media campaigns with photos of the victims brought forward many stories from people who had seen them hitchhiking.  The first witness to come forward who had seemingly seen the killer was a very lucky man called Paul Onions.

Hitchhiking near the Belangalo forest in January 1990, on a holiday from his native England, Paul had been picked up by a man called “Bill” in a silver Nissan 4WD.  After travelling for a short time “Bill” had pulled over, pulled a gun from the glove box and told Paul that he was being robbed.  Rather than follow the driver’s instructions, Paul got out and ran through the bush, bullets flying past him.  He managed to get back to the road and flag down another motorist, who took him to safety.  He filed a report at the time, but it was not until he contacted the police in NSW (for a second time) from his home in England that the significance of this event was finally realised.  He was able to assist police prepare a sketch of the suspect, including a distinctive handlebar mustache.

Police showed Paul a line-up of photos of suspects matching his description.  He picked out a man named Ivan Milat.

Milat had a violent criminal history dating back to the 1970s, mostly sexual assault.  In 1971 he had been charged with the abduction and rape of two women.   He came from a large family and Ivan and his brothers were known to have a love of guns and hunting.  Milat had been known to use the alias “Bill”.  He had also sold his silver Nissan 4WD shortly after the discovery of the first bodies.

Police raided 7 properties in May 1994 belong to various Milat brothers.  They found guns and other weapons, including a .22 calibre rifle which matched the murder weapon.  They also found clothes and other items identified as belonging to the victims.  They arrested three people, one of which was Ivan Milat.  He was charged with armed robbery and discharging a firearm over the incident with Paul Onions.  He was eventually also charged with seven counts of murder.

After a fifteen week trial, Milat was found guilty on all counts.  His defence had argued that there was no proof that Ivan was the perpetrator, and instead implicated one of his brothers.  Milat was sentenced to seven life sentences, plus six years each for the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of Paul Onions.  His sentences are to run consecutively.

I suspect many facts have never come to light about Ivan Milat and the Backpacker murders.  One of his brothers suggested that Ivan had killed up to 28 people, and there are certainly other missing people who were last seen in a similar area, who went missing in similar circumstances.  However, I can’t imagine Ivan ever being honest about the crimes he hasn’t been charged with.  Milat has consistently denied any knowledge of these other cases, as well as protesting his innocence in the crimes he has been charged with.  I can only hope police are able to one day find enough evidence in these other cases, for the sake of the victims’ families.  Like many criminals, Milat is under the delusion that he might be released someday, and admissions of guilt or knowledge of other crimes would hinder that.  Of course, in reality, Ivan Milat will die in prison.  And even that fate is too good for him.

The other unanswered question is whether he acted alone.  The way so many of the victims were so thoroughly over powered, and tortured for lengths of time, suggests that more than one perpetrator was involved.  I firmly suspect that another Milat family member may have been involved in some or all of the murders.  Of course unless someone decides to confess, we will probably never know for sure.

 

Milat has hardly been a model prison.  He attempted to escape from prison almost one year into his sentence and on Australia Day 2009 he cut off his little finger with a plastic knife, with the attention of mailing it to the High Court.  I’m sure the High Court would have been touched by the gesture.  Doctors were unable to reattach it.  He has also swallowed razor blades, staples and other metal objects.

As a post script to the story of Ivan Milat, his nephew Matthew Milat was sentenced in June 2012 to 43 years in prison for murdering one of his childhood friends.  According to court documents, Milat boasted to a friend the day after the murder: "You know me, you know my family ... I did what they do."  In a chilling epitaph, nine months after the killing Matthew Milat wrote this:

Click-clack
hear that,
stopping in the, middle of the track,
Are you Getting Nervous in the back,
Should be C your getting wAcked,
talk s here, talk s there,
No-one'z really gunna care,
but talk s with every breath,
You just signed away your health,
I can see you start to sweat,
Wanderin what your gunna get,
hopin 4-1 in the head,
C ILL Put it in Your Leg,
tell me, ARE YA HAVIN FUN,
get up C, And start to run,
how fAr are ya gunna get,
Your Match C you have just Met,
stumblin all OVA the place,
Hear the crunch of leaves and feet,
feel your heart, skip a beat,
Are ya gunna get away,
No hope kid this is your day,
The day that you wont be found,
Six feet under Neath the ground."

Awesome.

Sources
Murderpedia
Crime Library

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