Between December 1989 and April 1992 seven young backpackers went missing whilst hitchhiking between Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. At the time the cases caused plenty of fear amongst tourists in Australia but were quickly forgotten when the murderer was caught. For the teenagers it was a case of wrong place at the wrong time and is a very sad story for these unlucky hitchhikers.
Their bodies were all discovered in the Belanglo State Forest, south west of Sydney and 80 miles west of the New South Wales city of Wollongong in Australia.
Eventually, serial killer, Ivan Milat, was convicted of the murders on 27 July 1996 and is currently serving seven consecutive life sentences, as well as 18 years without parole, at the maximum-security Goulburn Correctional Centre, an Australian super maximum security prison for males, located in Goulburn, New South Wales.
The events were fictionalised in the movie Wolf Creek, a 2005 Australian horror film written, co-produced, and directed by Greg McLean, and starring John Jarratt.The story revolves around three backpackers who find themselves taken captive and after a brief escape, hunted down by Mick Taylor in the Australian outback. The film was ambiguously marketed as being "based on true events"; the plot bore elements reminiscent of the Ivan Milat murders and also Bradley Murdoch in 2001.
The opening sequence of the movie tells that "30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year, 90% are found within a month, many are never seen again."
The movies were followed by a TV series again starring John Jarratt, who portrayed Mick Taylor in the films. The first season of Wolf Creek consisted of six episodes and was released on 12 May 2016. It follows Eve, a 19-year-old American tourist, who is targeted by the crazed serial killer Mick Taylor, but survives his attack and embarks on a mission of revenge.[ The show was renewed for a second season of six episodes in February 2017, which was released on December 15, 2017. The story centres around Taylor meeting a coach full of international tourists.
The Australian Backpacker Murders - the victims
The victims were:
- Deborah Everist and James Gibson (Australian), both 19, disappeared December, 1989
- Simone Schmidl (German), 20, disappeared January 1991
- Gabor Neugebauer, 21 and Anja Habschied 20 (German), disappeared in January 1992
- Caroline Clarke, 21, Joanne Walters, 22 (English), disappeared April 1992
Background to the disappearances
All had stayed in Sydney backpacker hotels and had told relatives and friends of their plans before they left Sydney. They headed south along the Hume Highway, the 840 kilometres (520 mile) main link between Sydney and Melbourne.
Australian teenagers, James Gibson and Deborah Everist checked out of their hotel in Sydney's Surry Hills in December 1989, and set out for their home city, Melbourne, planning to stop on the way at a conservation festival in Albury, on the New South Wales-Victoria border.
The day after they left Sydney, a walker found Gibson's damaged camera on a roadside at Galston Gorge, north of Sydney. The finder took it home but did not report it for another month when there was publicity over the discovery in the same area of James' empty backpack. His name on the outside flap had been cut off, but the name inside was intact.
German national, Simone "Simi" Schmidl, left Sydney on 20 January, 1991, planning to hitchhike to Melbourne to meet her mother, Erwine Schmidl, who was flying from Germany to join her for a camping holiday. She was last seen alive on a Sydney railway station, where she was catching a train out of the city. When her mother arrived in Melbourne from Germany two days later, her daughter was not at the airport to meet her as planned. She stayed in Australia for six weeks hoping Simone would show up but Simi didn't.
German couple, Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied, left the Backpackers' Inn at Sydney's Kings Cross on Boxing Day, 1991, to hitch south to Adelaide, then north to Darwin, from where they planned to fly home. Police remain mystified by reports that the couple were seen a few days after they left Sydney in a caravan park in Darwin, where they were said to have missed their flight to Indonesia. A discarded airline ticket was later found near their bodies when they were found.
British women, Caroline Clarke from Northumberland and Joanne Walters from South Wales arrived in Australia separately, but became friends and began to travel together. They wrote to their families at home of plans to see the Northern Territory, Uluru and the Nullarbor Plain in the Western Australian desert.
In April 1992, they left Sydney and planned to earn some money in Victoria picking fruit. They hitch-hiked first to Bulli Pass, on the Pacific Ocean coast south of Sydney, where they were last seen asking directions to the Hume Highway. From there nothing.
Discovery of the bodies
On 19 September 1992, two runners taking part in an orienteering event discovered a decaying corpse in the Belanglo State Forest in New South Wales, Australia. The following day, police found a second body and the bodies were soon confirmed to be of Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. They were left near a network of fire trails which cross the forest, including such sites as "Executioner's Drop" and "Miner's Despair".
Joanne had been stabbed multiple times and wounds to her spine would have paralysed her. Caroline had been shot several times in the head and the police believed she had been used as target practice.
Despite a thorough search of the forest at the time no further evidence or bodies was found by police.
A year later, in October 1993, Bruce Pryor, discovered a human skull and femur in a particularly remote section of the forest. Pryor visited the Belanglo forest every week for 9 months trying to locate further clues after the discovery of the British girls bodies. Two bodies were quickly discovered and identified as Deborah Everist and James Gibson. Gibson's skeleton showed stab wounds and his upper spine had been severed causing paralysis. Deborah Everist had been savagely beaten, with her skull being fractured in two places, her jaw was broken and there were knife marks on her forehead. Gibson's backpack and camera had previously been discovered by the side of the road at Galston Gorge, in the northern Sydney suburbs over 120 kilometres (75 mi) to the north.
On November 1, 1993, a skull was found in a clearing in the forest by police sergeant Jeff Trichter. The skull was later identified as that of Simone Schmidl from Regensburg, Germany. Clothing found at the scene was not Simone's, but matched that of another missing backpacker, Anja Habschied. The skeleton showed stab wounds, including one which severed her spine.
The bodies of Habschied and her boyfriend Gabor Neugebauer were found on November 3rd, 1993 in shallow graves 50 metres (160 ft) apart. Anja had been decapitated, but, despite an extensive search, her head was never found. Neugebauer had been shot in the head.
All the bodies had been deliberately posed face-down with their hands behind their backs, covered by sticks and ferns. There were the remains of bush fires encircled by stones near the bodies, suggesting the killer had camped there and shell casings of the same calibre were also identified at each site. Beers bottles and cigarette butts were also scattered around.
Police investigation and arrest of the Backpacker Murderer
Since all the backpackers except Simi were travelling in pairs, and two of the pairs included men and one was an ex-soldier how did the killer manage to overpower them? Were there several killers at work? Did he or they drug the victims first?
After developing a profile of the killer, the police narrowed the list of suspects to a short list of 230, to an even shorter list of 32, which included the killer.
On 13 November 1993, New South Wales police received a call from Paul Onions from Willenhall in the West Midlands, U.K., who aged 23, had left his engineering job in England to backpack around Australia three years before.
On January 25th, 1990, Paul took a train to the Hume Highway to try to get to Victoria to earn some money picking fruit and whilst hiking along the road he came across a roadside transport cafe. As he was was leaving the car park, a moustached, smiling Australian walked over to him. `Where are you heading? Do you need a lift, mate?’ he asked ...He told Paul his name was Bill and he seemed a genuine and friendly man ... "After we set off in his four-wheel-drive, I talked about my family and plans in Australia and he chatted about the sort of work he did. He was quite cagey about his job and all he would tell me was that he spent a lot of time on the road ...".
"Bill" stopped the vehicle close to the entrance to Belanglo State Forest, stepped out of the car and told Onions he was looking for some cassettes under the seat. Paul felt slightly suspicious so he followed him out of the car using the excuse that he needed to stretch his legs. After a couple of minutes they both got back in the car but seconds later Bill got out again and started rummaging under the seat. Bill pulled out a black revolver and pointed the gun straight at Onions. Then he reached under the seat again and pulled out a bag of rope. At that point, Paul undid his seat belt and ran for it under gunfire. Bill managed to catch up with Paul and dragged him to the ground. Somehow, Onions managed to get up and make another run for it into the path of an oncoming car driven by Joanne Berry who was with her sister and five children, which fortunately stopped, and he jumped into the back seat. As they drove off, Paul remembers the gunman standing with a stupid grin on his face which he could not get out of his head for years.
Onions and Joanne Berry, managed to get to Bowral police station, where they gave detailed information about the attackers appearance, job and the type of 4X4 he drove, but staff merely handed him $10 to get back to the British High Commission in Sydney and the report lay filed in a drawer for years.
But after reading newspaper reports about the remains of several partially-buried bodies having been found in the nearby Belanglo State Forest, Onions called overseas from the UK to remind the cops there of the story of his own assault by the mysterious Bill.
On 13 April 1994, Detective Gordon found the note regarding Onions' call to the hotline five months earlier. Superintendent Clive Small immediately called for the original report from Bowral police, but it was missing from their files. Fortunately, Constable Janet Nicholson had taken a full report in her notebook, which provided more details than the original statement.
Based on these reports and other investigative work, police finally zeroed in on a man not called Bill but the infamous Ivan Milat.
Ivan Robert Marko Milat was born on 27 December 1944 in Guildford, New South Wales and was the fifth-born of fourteen children. He was employed as a road worker.
Police learned he had served prison time and in 1971 had been charged with the abduction of two women and the rape of one of them.
On Good Friday in April 1971, Ivan Milat picked up two young female hitchhikers near Liverpool train station.He pulled a knife, bound the girls and tells them, “I am going to kill you. You won’t scream, when I cut your throats will you?” He rapes one of the girls who manage to convince him to stop for cans of drink. With the help of men from inside a petrol station cafe, the girls manage to escape and Milat takes off. He is arrested, but facing both rape charges and two counts of armed robbery, he fakes his own death by leaving his shoes at the Gap, a renowned Sydney suicide spot.
Later that year, the police discover that Milat has fled to New Zealand but he was rearrested in late 1974 when he returns to Australia after his mother is taken to hospital suffering from a heart attack. He manages to escape conviction of both the rape charges and also the armed robbery counts.
It was also learned that both he and his brother Richard Milat worked together on road gangs along the highway between Sydney and Melbourne, that he owned a property in the vicinity of Belanglo, and had sold a Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive vehicle shortly after the discovery of the bodies of Clarke and Walters. Acquaintances also told police about Milat's obsession with weapons. When the connection between the Belanglo murders and Onions' experience was made, Paul Onions flew to Australia to help with the investigation.
On 5 May 1994, Onions positively identified Milat as the man who had picked him up and attempted to tie up and possibly murder him. Milat was arrested on 22 May 1994 at his home at Cinnabar Street, Eagle Vale. Homes belonging to his brothers Richard, Alex, Boris, Walter and Bill were also searched at the same time by over 300 police. The search of Milat's home revealed a cache of weapons, including parts of a .22 calibre rifle that matched the type used in the murders, plus clothing, camping equipment and cameras belonging to several of his victims.
Milat appeared in court on robbery and weapon charges on 23 May. On 30 May, following continued police investigations, Milat was also charged with the murders of the seven backpackers. In March 1996, the trial opened and lasted fifteen weeks. His defence argued that, in spite of the evidence, there was no proof Milat was guilty and attempted to shift the blame to other members of his family, particularly Richard. But on 27 July 1996, a jury found Milat guilty of the murders. He was also convicted of the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of Paul Onions.
Events following Milat's imprisonment
In 2012, Milat's great-nephew Matthew Milat and his friend Cohen Klein (both aged 19 at the time of their sentencing) were sentenced to 43 years and 32 years in prison respectively, for murdering David Auchterlonie on his 17th birthday with an axe at the Belanglo State Forest in 2010. Matthew Milat struck Auchterlonie with the double-headed axe as Klein recorded the attack with a mobile phone. This was the forest where Ivan Milat had killed and buried his victims.
Police believe that Milat may have been involved in many more murders than the seven for which he was convicted. In 2001, he was ordered to give evidence at an inquest into the disappearances of three other female backpackers, but no case was brought against him, due to lack of evidence. Similar investigations were launched in 2003, in relation to the disappearance of two nurses and again in 2005, relating to the disappearance of hitchhiker Anette Briffa, but no charges resulted.
Many believe Milat had help in killing his seven victims - with one possible co-conspirator being his sister. Judge Justice David Hunt said after Milat's trial he was convinced the killer could not have done his crimes alone, and a juror on the case made similar claims after the trial. Milat's own lawyer pointed at both Milat's brother and his sister, who shared a house with Milat at the time of the killings.
One key piece of evidence implicating Milat's sister, is that cigarette butts were found near the body of Caroline Clarke. Milat was not a smoker, but his sister was. Police said they interviewed the sister on several occasions but had no reason to believe she was directly involved.
In December 2017, Milat unsuccessfully tried to appeal his convictions for the seventh time and he remains in the super max prison in New South Wales.