For most Australians, just the name Ivan Milat is enough to give you nightmares.
Certainly, there are few who aren’t aware of the brutal crimes of one of Australia’s most infamous serial killers.
It began in September of 1992 when two runners making their way through the picturesque Belanglo State Forest uncovered a decaying corpse. The next day, police found a second just 30 metres away. In the early days, it seemed many missing persons cases could have fit the two corpses, but they were eventually identified as missing British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. They had disappeared from Kings Cross in April of the same year, and had met horrible fates in the forest. Clarke had been shot 10 times in the head, and Walters had been stabbed more than 35 times. A search was conducted throughout the forest in the days following the discovery, but no other bodies were found. Police stated at the time that they believed there would be no other bodies discovered.
Then, in October of 1993 a man walking in a remote area of the forest uncovered a human skull and thigh bone. When police came to the scene, two more bodies were discovered and identified as missing Victorian couple Deborah Everist and James Gibson. Investigators were highly surprised by this find, as their case had found some of Gibson’s possessions more than 120 kilometres north of the forest.
Sadly, the gorey discoveries were destined to continue. In November of 1993 a skull was found by police in a clearing. It was found to belong to another missing backpacker, Simone Schmidl from Germany who was last seen in January of 2001. Clothes found near the body were identified as belonging to another missing backpacker, Anja Habschied. Police widened their search.
The bodies of Anja Habschied and her boyfriend Gabor Neugebauer were found just two days later, in shallow graves. Like the other victims, they had been shot, stabbed or both. Habschied had been decapitated, but her head was never found.
Uncovering The Murderer
There were aspects of the murders that made it clear to police they were dealing with a deranged killer. Each of the bodies had been left face-down with the hands behind the back. They were covered by a frame of sticks and ferns, and each had multiple stab wounds to the body. Police realised that the killer had spent time with the victims, both during the murder and after, when they found the remains of campsites close to each body. But there were indications to some investigators that more than one killer was at work. Indeed, when Ivan Milat gave his statement, he claimed as many as seven people were involved in the killings.
During the investigation police developed a strong profile of the killer, and using vehicle records, gun licensing, gym memberships and other police records, they were able to create a shortlist of 32 suspects. Milat was on the list.
The seven young victims of killer Ivan Milat.
An Unexpected Break
Police were slowly working through their suspect list when they received an unexpected call from a Briton named Paul Onions. When Onions had been backpacking in Australia in 1990 he accepted a list south from Sydney with a man who identified himself only as Bill. During the ride, Bill pulled a gun on Onions, who managed very narrowly to escape. He was able to hail another motorist, and he reported the assault to the police. When he’d heard about the recent spate of killings, he got a bad feeling and called the hotline immediately.
Even before Onions came forward with his testimony and close encounter, Milat had become a strong suspect. He’d previously served prison time in 1971 for abduction and rape, he had a passion for weapons, and he owned a property close to the forest. When Onions’ tip surfaced, police asked him to come to Australia and assist with the case.
As soon as Onions saw Milat, he positively identified him as the man who had tried to tie him up and shoot him. Milat was arrested in 1994 in a massive police swoop. More than 50 officers were involved, and a thorough search of his property revealed weapons (including those that matched the murders, as well as clothing, camping gear and cameras belonging to the victims.
Justice Is Served
Milat appeared in court the day after his arrest, and his trial began in March of 1996.
Lasting for 15 weeks, Milat’s lawyers worked tirelessly to shift the blame for the crimes to one of Milat’s brothers, Richard. Luckily, their plan didn’t work, and Milat was found guilt of all the murders, as well as the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of Paul Onions. For the murders he received consecutive life sentences, and for his crimes against Onions he got 18 years without the possibility of parole.
During his time in prison Milat launched several appeals, but all have been denied.
He’s also been implicated in several other murders, and has been ordered to give evidence at enquiries for three other female backpackers, also missing in the area. Although we might never know just how many people fell prey to Milat, we can feel safe in the knowledge that he’ll never walk free again.