Backpacker murders

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Backpacker murders
Ivan Milat.jpg
Ivan Milat's 1971 mug shot
Ivan Robert Marko Milat

(1944-12-27) 27 December 1944 (age 74)
Other namesThe Backpacker Killer
The Backpacker Murderer
Criminal penalty7 consecutive life sentences plus 18 years without parole
Span of crimes
State(s)New South Wales
Date apprehended
22 May 1994
Imprisoned atGoulburn Correctional Centre

The backpacker murders were a spate of serial killings that took place in New South Wales, Australia, between 1989 and 1993, committed by Ivan Milat. The bodies of seven missing young people aged 19 to 22 were discovered partially buried in the Belanglo State Forest, 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) south-west of the New South Wales town of Berrima. Five of the victims were foreign backpackers visiting Australia (three German, two British), and two were Australian travellers from Melbourne.

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.


First and second cases[edit]

On 19 September 1992, two runners discovered a decaying corpse while orienteering in the Belanglo State Forest in New South Wales, Australia.[1] The following day, police constables Roger Gough and Suzanne Roberts discovered a second body 30 metres (98 ft) from the first.[2] Early media reports suggested that the bodies were of missing British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, who had disappeared from the inner Sydney suburb of Kings Cross in April 1992.[3] However, a German couple, Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied, had also disappeared from the Kings Cross area some time after 25 December 1991, and Simone Schmidl, also from Germany, had been reported missing for more than a year. It was also possible that the bodies were of a young Victorian couple, Deborah Everist and James Gibson, who had been missing since leaving Frankston in 1989.

A sign at the entrance to the Belanglo State Forest

Police quickly confirmed, however, that the bodies were those of Clarke and Walters. Walters had been stabbed 14 times; she had been stabbed 4 times in the chest, once in the neck, and 9 times in the back. The stab wounds to her spine would have paralysed her. Clarke had been shot 10 times in the head. The police believe she had been used as target practice. There were groups of wounds on the back of her head and on either side.[4] Despite a thorough search of the forest over the following five days, no further evidence or bodies were found by police. Investigators ruled out the possibility of further discoveries within Belanglo State Forest.

Third and fourth discoveries and body identification[edit]

In October 1993, a local man, Bruce Pryor, discovered a human skull and femur in a particularly remote section of the forest.[5] He returned with police to the scene and two more bodies were quickly discovered and identified as Everist and Gibson. Gibson's skeleton showed 8 stab wounds. A large knife had cut through his upper spine caused paralysis, and stab wounds to his back and chest would have punctured his heart and lungs. Everist had been savagely beaten. Her skull fractured in two places, her jaw was broken and there were knife marks on her forehead. She had been stabbed once in the back.[6] The presence of Gibson's body in Belanglo was a puzzle to investigators as his 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.[3]

Fifth, sixth and seventh discoveries[edit]

On 1 November 1993, a skull was found in a clearing in the forest by police sergeant Jeff Trichter.[7] The skull was later identified as that of Simone Schmidl from Regensburg, Germany.[6] She was last seen hitchhiking on 20 January 1991.[3] Clothing found at the scene was not Schmidl's, but matched that of another missing backpacker, Anja Habschied. Schmidl's skeleton showed eight stab wounds; there may have been many more. Two had severed her spine, others had punctured her heart and lungs.[8]

The bodies of Habschied and her boyfriend Gabor Neugebauer were found on 3 November 1993 in shallow graves 50 metres (160 ft) apart.[6] Habschied had been decapitated, but, despite an extensive search, her head was never found.[9][8] Neugebauer had been shot in the head six times. Three bullets entered at the base of the head and three more from the left side.[8]

Search for the identity of the serial killer[edit]

There were similar aspects to all the murders.[10] Each of the bodies had been deliberately posed face-down with their hands behind their backs,[8] covered by a pyramidal frame of sticks and ferns.[10][11] Forensic study determined that each had suffered multiple stab wounds to the torso. The killer had evidently spent considerable time with the victims both during and after the murders, as campsites were discovered close to the location of each body and shell casings of the same calibre were also identified at each site. Walters and Schmidl had been stabbed, whereas Clarke and Neugebauer had been shot numerous times in the head and stabbed post-mortem. Habschied had been decapitated and other victims showed signs of strangulation and severe beatings.[12] Speculation arose that the crimes were the work of several killers,[13] at least two.[14]

After developing a profile of the killer, the police faced an enormous volume of data from numerous sources.[15] Investigators therefore applied link analysis technology to Roads and Traffic Authority vehicle records, gym memberships, gun licensing, and internal police records. As a result, the list of suspects was progressively narrowed from an extensive list of individuals to a short list of 230, to an even shorter list of 32, which included the killer.[16]

On 13 November 1993, New South Wales police received a call from Paul Onions in the U.K. Onions had been backpacking in Australia several years before and, while out hiking, had accepted a ride south out of Sydney from a man known only as "Bill" on 25 January 1990.[17][18] South of the town of Mittagong, Bill pulled out some ropes and attempted to tie Onions by the hands and then pulled a gun on him, at which point he managed to escape the vehicle while Bill shot at him.[19][20] Onions flagged down Joanne Berry, a passing motorist, and reported the assault to local police.[21] Onions' statement was backed up by Berry, who also contacted the investigation team, along with the girlfriend of a man who worked with Ivan Milat, who thought he should be questioned over the case.[22] 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. Police confirmed Ivan's brother Richard had been working on the day of the attack, but Ivan had not.[23]

Ivan Milat[edit]

Ivan Milat redirects here. For the Croatian painter, see Ivan Milat-Luketa


Ivan Robert Marko Milat was born on 27 December 1944 at Guildford, New South Wales, Australia.[24] He is the son of Croat emigrant Stjepan Marko "Steven" Milat (1902 – 23 April 1983) and his Australian wife Margaret Elizabeth Milat (13 September 1920 – 6 October 2001).[25][26][27] He was the fifth-born of their 14 children.[28] He was employed as a road worker.[29][30]


Milat quickly became a suspect. 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, although the charges were later dropped.[31] 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.[32] Acquaintances also told police about Milat's obsession with weapons.[1][33] When the connection between the Belanglo murders and Onions' experience was made, Onions flew to Australia to help with the investigation.[34]

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.[5] Milat was arrested on 22 May 1994 at his home at Cinnabar Street, Eagle Vale after 50 police officers surrounded the premises, including heavily armed officers from the Tactical Operations Unit.[7][23] Homes belonging to his brothers Richard, Alex, Boris, Walter and Bill were also searched at the same time by over 300 police.[35] The search of Milat's home revealed a cache of weapons, including a .22-calibre Anschütz Model 1441/42 rifle and parts of a .22 calibre Ruger 10/22 rifle that matched the type used in the murders, plus clothing, camping equipment and cameras belonging to several of his victims.[36]

Milat appeared in court on robbery and weapon charges on 23 May. He did not enter a plea.[8] On 30 May, following continued police investigations, Milat was also charged with the murders of seven backpackers. At the beginning of February 1995, Milat was remanded in custody until June that same year. In March 1996, the trial opened and lasted fifteen weeks.[37] 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.[37]

On 27 July 1996, a jury found Milat guilty of the murders.[7][38] He was also convicted of the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of Paul Onions, for which he received six years' jail each.[18] For the murders of Caroline Clarke, Joanne Walters, Simone Schmidl, Anja Habschied, Gabor Neugebauer, James Gibson and Deborah Everist, Milat was given a life sentence on each count, with all sentences running consecutively and without the possibility of parole.

On his first day in Maitland Gaol, Milat was beaten by another inmate.[39] Almost a year later, he made an escape attempt alongside convicted drug dealer and former Sydney councillor, George Savvas.[40] Savvas was found hanged in his cell the next day from a suicide attempt after the escape plan failed and Milat was transferred to the maximum-security super prison in Goulburn, New South Wales.[41]


Milat appealed against his convictions on the grounds that the quality of legal representation he received was poor and therefore constituted a breach of his common law right to legal representation, established in the landmark case of Dietrich v The Queen. However, Gleeson CJ, Meagher JA and Newman J of the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal held that the right to legal representation did not depend on any level or quality of representation unless the quality of representation were so poor that the accused were no better off with it. The Court found that this was not the case, and therefore dismissed the appeal.[10]

In 2004, Milat filed an application with the High Court that he be allowed to either attend or appear via video link to make oral submissions in an impending application for special leave to appeal on new grounds. The application to attend was dismissed on the grounds that the issues raised could be adequately addressed by written submissions.[42]

The grounds of the intended fresh appeal were that the trial judge had erred by allowing the Crown to put a case to the jury unsupported by its own witnesses and had also put forward alternative cases to the jury, one of which had not been argued by the Crown. The application for leave was ultimately dismissed by the High Court, which affirmed the Court of Criminal Appeal decision to disallow his initial appeal.[43]

Self-harm in jail[edit]

On 26 January 2009, Milat cut off his little finger with a plastic knife, with the intention of mailing the severed digit to the High Court.[44] He was taken to Goulburn Hospital under high security; however, on 27 January 2009 Milat was returned to prison after doctors decided surgery to reattach the finger was not possible.[45] Milat had previously injured himself while imprisoned in 2001, when he swallowed razor blades, staples and other metal objects.[44]

In 2011, Milat went on a hunger strike, losing 25 kilograms in an unsuccessful attempt to be given a PlayStation.[46]

Other developments[edit]

Police maintain that Milat may have been involved in many more murders than the seven for which he was convicted. In 2001, Milat was ordered to give evidence at an inquest into the disappearances of three other female backpackers,[47] but no case has been brought against him, due to lack of evidence.[48] Similar inquiries were launched in 2003, in relation to the disappearance of two nurses and again in 2005, relating to the disappearance of hitchhiker Annette Briffa, but no charges have resulted.[49][50]

On 18 July 2005, Milat's former lawyer, John Marsden, who had been fired before the murder trial, made a deathbed statement in which he claimed that Milat had been assisted by his sister Shirley Soire (1946–2003) in the killings of the two British backpackers.[51][28] On 27 October 2005, in the New South Wales Supreme Court[52] Milat's final appeal was refused,[53] and he is likely to remain in prison for the rest of his life.

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.[54][55]

In May 2015, Milat's brother Boris Milat told Dr. Steve Aperen, a former homicide detective who serves as a consultant with the LAPD and FBI, among others, that Milat was responsible for another shooting: that of taxi cab driver Neville Knight, in 1962 after Milat admitted to the crime. After conducting polygraph tests with Boris Milat and Allan Dillon, the man convicted of Knight's shooting, Aperen is convinced that both men are telling the truth and that Milat did in fact shoot Knight.[56]

In May 2016, it was announced that Milat's former home in Eagle Vale, New South Wales, was for sale, and listed on the market for $700,000.[57] In December 2018, it was revealed that Milat was co-authoring a book on the crimes with Australian author Amanda Howard.[58]

In popular culture[edit]

On 8 November 2004, Milat gave a televised interview on Australian Story, in which he denied that any of his family had been implicated in the seven murders.[59] The 2005 Australian film Wolf Creek is based on the backpacker murders of two British females.[60][61] A sequel, Wolf Creek 2, based on backpacker murders of 2 Germans, was released in 2013. A miniseries on the Seven Network, Catching Milat, was screened in 2015 and focused on the members of "Task Force Air" who tracked Milat.[62] A book by Alistair Shipsey, The Milat Letters, a collection of correspondence of Milat, was released in 2016.[63] In March 2019, Casefile True Crime Podcast began airing a 5-part series on the crimes.[64]


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Further reading[edit]