On a fine September day in 1992, two runners were working their way through New South Wales’s Belanglo State Forest and made a horrific discovery: a decaying body. This body would only be the first of seven discovered as part of the string of killings now known as the “Backpacker murders”, committed by one Ivan Milat.
The runners reported their discovery to local police, who found a second corpse less than 100 feet from the first upon their investigation. It was quickly assumed that the bodies found were one of two pairs of tourists who had gone missing in late 1991 and early 1992: either Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, or Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied. Both pairs had disappeared from Kings Cross in Sydney.
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Soon, the police had successfully identified the corpses as Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. Clarke had been shot 10 times in the head–seemingly as a bizarre, disturbing form of target practice. Walters, instead, had been stabbed 14 times before her death. The police, hopeful that the discovery of these two corpses would lead to the discovery of other missing persons, continued their investigation deeper into the State Forest, spending five days searching the brush and wilderness, but with no success.
With no new information to go on, the investigation soon came to a halt–but it would be revived over a year later, when another man discovered human bones in a remote area of the state park. Two more bodies were found: Deborah Everist and James Gibson, who had been missing for four years. Gibson had been stabbed eight times. Everist had been severely beaten before being stabbed in the back. It had long been known that Everist and Gibson had likely been the victims of foul play. After the pair had gone missing, Gibson’s backpack and camera had been found alongside the road in Sydney. But the location of the bodies, nearly 75 miles south of that site, baffled investigators.
Within a month, three more bodies were found in the forest. They were identified as Neugebauer, Habschied, and one other missing tourist, Simone Schmidl. With these discoveries, investigators became certain that they were dealing with a serial killer.
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Although the methods used to murder each victim differed, they had all been posed, face-down and hands behind their backs. They had also been hidden from view by sticks, ferns and other brush. There were also campsites near each burial ground, suggesting that the killer had camped out with the victims both before and after their deaths. Police began using vehicle and gun records, among other information like gym memberships, to create a list of possible suspects who operated in the area and owned a gun that could have been used in the shooting deaths, like Clarke’s.
They had narrowed their suspect list from over 200 to about 30, when Paul Onions, a United Kingdom resident, called the New South Wales police. He shared a terrifying story of his own near-death encounter. In 1990, Onions, like all of the other victims, had been backpacking through Australia. Outside of Sydney, he hitchhiked, and caught a ride with a man who introduced himself as Bill.
About an hour and a half from Sydney, the man pulled ropes out of the car–pointing a gun at Onions, “Bill” attempted to tie his hands. Onions managed to escape and flag down another car as Bill continued to shoot at him. He was picked up by a woman named Joanne Berry.
When contacted, Berry confirmed Onions’s account. By this point, the suspect pool had narrowed enough that Onions’s description of his attacker’s large and memorable mustache made it clear that one Ivan Milat was the most likely perpetrator.
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Milat and his brother worked on road gangs between Sydney and Melbourne, the killer’s main striking ground. He’d sold a car soon after the discovery of the first bodies, and friends and acquaintances reported an obsession with weapons and death to police. Hoping to peg their killer, police flew Onions to Australia to identify his attacker. Once they received confirmation that Milat had attempted to kidnap Onions, police were able to arrest Milat and search his home.
An alarming stash of weapons was discovered at Milat’s home, including two rifles that fit the gun types used in the seven murders. Even more conclusively, a number of items that belonged to the seven victims had been kept as trophies.
Soon, Milat had been charged with robbery, unlawful possession of weapons, and seven counts of murder. In July 1996, Milat was found guilty of the seven murders and of the attempted murder of Paul Onions. He received a life sentence for each victim, with an additional 18 years for his crimes against Onions. He was not made eligible for parole.
It’s believed that Milat was responsible for more murders than the seven for which he was brought to trial. His culpability has been proposed for at least eight other murders. His crimes also spurred a copycat killing–chillingly, by his own great-nephew. Matthew Milat killed David Auchterlonie in the very woods that his great uncle hid his victims. The killing, filmed by Milat’s friend Cohen Klein, occurred on Auchterlonie’s 17th birthday.
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Milat remains in prison to this day. He attempted to escape from jail in 1997, unsuccessfully. He has consistently appealed his case, and once cut off his own little finger, planning to send it to Australia’s High Court as a sign of his displeasure at continued imprisonment. He also began a hunger strike in 2011–hoping to lose enough weight that the prison would be forced to give him a PlayStation. Unsurprisingly, this ploy did not work either.
Milat continues to gain notoriety as the inspiration for the killer in the disturbing Australian slasher film, Wolf Creek. He and Bradley Murdoch, another Australian killer, are cited as the main inspiration for the film, in which three backpackers found themselves held hostage and tortured by a man who despises any and all tourists.
Featured photo: Murderpedia