The Backpacker Killer: Murder in Australia
Australia is a beautiful, amazing place, but even the people who live there will tell you that it can be quite dangerous to the unwary. It feels unfair, somehow, that a continent that has to worry about funnel web spiders, taipans and swooping season also has to worry about some of the most savage killers of the modern era.
Ivan Milat is one of Australia’s worst modern serial killers, and though he is serving seven consecutive life sentences in prison right now, that thought is a small comfort to the families of those he brutally murdered. The trajectory of Milat’s killings was a dark one, and some of the finer details are quite gruesome.
Milat was born in 1945 to Croat immigrants, and by all accounts, he was an unremarkable, even friendly man. He was sober as a judge, and though most of his construction crew co-workers smoked, he never indulged. Instead, he was mostly consumed by his hobbies of hunting, motorcycle riding and off-roading.
His familiarity with the Australian outback made him a skilled predator, and it wasn’t until 1992 that anyone realized that anything was amiss. Australia first became aware of the so-called backpacker killer when two young women were discovered in the Belanglo State Forest. They had been dumped at the aptly named Executioner’s Drop. The two had been hitchhiking when they were last seen. Autopsies showed that one woman had been shot in the head, while the other had been fatally stabbed. Both had been sexually assaulted.
A close examination of the area revealed a shallow grave that contained the dead bodies of two 19-year-olds who had gone missing three years previously. By now the entire area was on alert. The hunt continued, and it can be imagined that more than one person felt a deep fear take hold in their souls when yet another body was found just a few months later. This young woman had been missing for less than a year, and it was revealed that she was a German tourist.
Less than a month after that, another couple was found. This time, they were German tourists, and the woman’s head was missing from the site.
There was no doubt about it. At this point, the police knew that there was a serial killer at work and that he was targetting female hitchhikers.
A brief was prepared for the press, and family members of the deceased were questioned to see if anyone had any information that might lead to the capture of the killer. Despite a great deal of material coming in, none of it was found to be useful. Police were growing worried. Given the way the killer operated, any time lost would simply result in more dead people in more shallow graves.
The case was finally cracked through a happy coincidence.
A man named Paul Onions from Birmingham happened to be watching television when he saw the information posted about the Backpacker Killer. The report jogged his memory and reminded him of a near miss that he had had just a few years earlier. He also had been thumbing for a ride near Sydney and he was picked up by a man calling himself Bill. Bill had picked him up and drove him to Belanglo State Forest, close to where the bodies were buried. Bill had drawn a gun on Onions, but Onions had fled. He remembered ducking bullets and being chased.
Despite his panic at the time, Onions was able to help the police create a sketch of the man’s face. Even more helpfully, he could remember the car the man drove.
After that, the police closed in on Milat, who had used the pseudonym Bill when he assaulted a woman a few years ago. His capture led to the discovery of several guns attached to the crime scenes and the sword that had been used to decapitate one of the victims.
During the trial, Milat was given several life sentences, though the justice and the police maintain that it was unlikely he acted alone. To this day, it is believed that there are more murders committed by Milat that remain unknown, and yet more victims that are buried in shallow graves all over Sydney.