In the late 1980s tourism was growing in Australia. It was seen as a safe destination for backpackers who came to Downunder in increasing numbers lured by the promise of sunny beaches, cute animals, and friendly locals.
So friendly were the locals that hitchhiking was a popular way for young tourists to save money on transport and get around the country.
One man, however, changed that reputation forever.
From 1989–1992, several young backpackers went missing near Sydney.
First were a young couple from Melbourne, Australia, Deborah Everist and James Gibson, both 19, who were reported missing on December 30, 1989. This was thought to be a regular missing persons case, and their fate remained unknown for some time.
However, concern grew when several more backpackers went missing. Solo German tourist Simone Schmidl, a German couple, Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied, and British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, all in their early twenties, went missing from Sydney across 1990 and 1991.
No bodies were found, and no leads were forthcoming as the whole country worried a killer was targeting young travellers.
In September 1992 two runners came across a concealed corpse while in Belanglo State Forest, about 100 miles from Sydney. Police were called and soon found a second body — these were identified as Clarke and Walters. They had both met gruesome deaths. Walters had been stabbed fourteen times while Clarke had been shot ten times in the head, in what police believed was a form of target practice.
Australia was shocked, but there was more to come.
More bodies found
Twelve months later in October 1993, a local man discovered bones in a particularly remote section of Belanglo. Police found two more bodies — Gibson and Everist. Gibson had been stabbed eight times, and Everist had been savagely beaten — her skull was fractured in two places, and her jaw was broken.
A couple of weeks later police found the body of Schmidl, who had been stabbed eight times. Nearby were the bodies of Habschied and Neugebauer. Habschied had been decapitated, and despite an extensive search, her skull was never found. Neugebauer had been shot in the head six times.
Court documents would later state that all but one of the victims had been subjected to “sexual interference, either before or after death”.
A nation was in shock. Police believed all murders were connected and that there was a serial killer on the loose. They believed that there might be two or more serial killers were working together as six of the victims had been killed in pairs. The murders became the focus of intense international media scrutiny as the world became interested in the Backpacker Murders.
A task force was created and a reward of $500,000 offered.
The first break came from a British backpacker named Paul Onions. He saw the item on the news in the United Kingdom and immediately called the police in Sydney. He recalled that in 1990 while hitchhiking from Sydney, he had received a lift from a driver who called himself ‘Bill’. After a couple of hours, when they were only one kilometre from Belanglo Forest, Bill stopped the car and drew a knife on Onions. The young Brit managed to escape while “Bill” fired shots at him. Onions flagged down a passing driver and reported the incident to police, who unfortunately never followed up.
Another victim came forward claiming to have accepted a lift from a man who pulled a gun on her near Belanglo forest. She also escaped amidst several gunshots fired at her.
Police received several more tips all pointing to the same man — Ivan Milat.
A killer arrested
Ivan Milat was the son of a Croatian immigrant and was drawn into crime from an early age. In his late teens, he was jailed for a series of armed burglaries and spent much of his twenties in prison.
As he got older, his crimes became more violent. In the 1970’s he was arrested for the violent rape of an eighteen-year-old hitchhiker he had picked up. He escaped conviction but would brag about his capacity for violence, once describing how to turn a person into “a head on a stick.”
He had a love of guns and knives and would also have photographs taken of himself in a cowboy hat brandishing guns.
Onions flew back to Australia on May 5, 1994, and identified ‘Bill’ from a series of photos. Bill was indeed Ivan Milat. Following a few weeks of surveillance, police raided Milat’s home and found a range of incriminating evidence including clothing, camping equipment, and other possessions that had belonged to the murder victims. They also found rifles and guns that matched the ones used in the murders. They extended the search to the homes of his mother and five brothers and found a total of 24 weapons and 250kg of ammunition.
Australia’s two-year-long manhunt for its worst serial killer was over. Ivan Milat was arrested on seven charges of murder and remanded in custody to await his murder trial — which began on March 26, 1996.
From the outset, he proclaimed his innocence and tried to shift the blame onto his brothers, claiming it was a conspiracy to set him up.
The case lasted over four months and included nearly 150 witnesses, but Milat was found guilty and sentenced to seven life sentences with no opportunity for parole. He also received six years in jail for the attempted murder, imprisonment, and robbery of Onions.
Presiding Justice David Hunt told the court when delivering his finding, “In my view, it is inevitable that the prisoner was not alone in that criminal enterprise.”
Were there more?
This last comment opened the door for Milat to appeal. In February 1997, he appealed his conviction on the grounds that he did not act alone in the murders. This seemed unusual as he had pleaded not guilty and denied involvement in the murders, but now his appeal rested on the fact that he was one of a few people involved. It was thrown out.
In 1998, a new investigation into Milat commenced to trace all his movements back to the 1970s. Based on this he was suspected in the disappearances of six women from Newcastle (two hours north of Sydney), and at least six more foreign tourists. One survivor came forward accusing Milat of raping and abducting her back in 1978. Unfortunately due to a lack of evidence, Milat was unable to be charged for any of these alleged offences.
Milat relaunched appeals in 2004, 2005, and 2006, all of which were quashed. In 2009, in a desperate bid for another appeal, he cut off his finger and mailed it to the High Court of Australia. Unsurprisingly this alarming tactic didn't work.
In May of 2019, Milat developed throat cancer, and as he approached death, police desperately tried to get confessions from him. Not only on the seven murders he was convicted for, but on the others, he was suspected of.
Up until the end, he refused to admit guilt or cooperate. “You could put a blow torch to my ears or eyes or whatever and… I still can’t help you,” he told police.
His brother Boris Milat, when asked about his brother's involvement in other murders, said “wherever Ivan has worked, people have disappeared. ” When asked about the number of people Ivan may have killed he replied “about 20 or so…”
Milat died aged 74 in prison in October 2019, still refusing to confess to the crimes. Police agree with his brother and believe he may be responsible for up to twenty murders.
It also appears murder may be in the family genes. Milat’s nephew, Matthew Milat, was convicted of murder in 2012 and jailed for 43 years. Ironically the murder took place in Belanglo State Forest.
The 2005 movie Wolf Creek, is loosely based on the murders of the two British backpackers, and a 2007 sequel Wolf Creek Two is based on the German backpacker murders. Both are chilling, so don't watch them alone!