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Tourist killers: from Charles Sobhraj to Ivan Milat

Tourist killers
Image: Unsplash Images

There are murderers who became notorious not just because of the brutality of their crimes, but because of who they targeted: tourists in search of fun and adventure.

Charles Sobhraj

During the 60s and 70s, a number of countries including Iran, India and Nepal formed part of the ‘hippie trail’, drawing Western travellers seeking spiritual enlightenment, cultural enrichment and a drug-fuelled good time. This world of fleeting encounters between strangers in unfamiliar locations made the perfect stalking ground for Charles Sobhraj, the charismatic Vietnamese-Indian conman and killer dubbed ‘the Serpent’ for his ability to slyly slither away from justice for years.

A charismatic operator who, like Charles Manson, deployed his magnetism to gather a gaggle of willing accomplices, Sobhraj started out as a smuggler and armed robber who audaciously escaped prison a number of times. He then graduated to murder in the mid-70s, targeting travellers like young Seattle woman Teresa Knowlton, who was found drowned in the Gulf of Thailand, and Canadian and American backpackers Laurent Carriere and Connie Jo Bronzich, whose lives were extinguished in Nepal.

In 1976, Sobhraj was jailed in India for the culpable homicide of a Frenchman he’d poisoned during a robbery. Sobhraj bribed guards to provide him with a comfortable prison existence, complete with gourmet food and visits from fascinated journalists. On his release in 1997, he was deported to France where he milked his celebrity for all it was worth, allegedly earning millions by selling the film rights to his life. Yet, instead of living out his latter years in luxury, he mysteriously decided to travel back to Nepal in 2003, where he was still wanted for the murders he committed there decades before. He was arrested and convicted, and still languishes in prison there today.

Ivan Milat

Belanglo State Forest is a swathe of dense woodland in New South Wales, Australia, which is now synonymous with Ivan Milat – the serial killer whose exploits partly inspired the slasher film Wolf Creek. His crimes started to come to light in 1992, when runners in the forest stumbled across the remains of Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, British backpackers who had been reported missing some months earlier. One of the women had been stabbed multiple times and had her spine severed; the other had been shot repeatedly in the head, as if for target practice.

The following year saw the discovery of the bodies of a young Australian couple, James Gibson and Deborah Everist, who’d vanished en route to a festival in 1989. Soon, there were more grisly finds: the corpses of German tourist Simone Schmidl, and of a German couple, Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied.

A massive manhunt ensued, but the breakthrough came when police were approached by a British man, Paul Onions, who had hitchhiked in the area a few years before. Onions recounted that he’d been given a lift by a muscular, volatile local man who’d pulled a gun on him in an apparent robbery attempt. Onions had managed to flee, and his testimony would prove instrumental in identifying road worker Ivan Milat as the prime suspect in the murders. Milat was found guilty in 1996 and would remain in prison till he died of natural causes in 2019. Speculation persists that he killed more than the official count, and that he may have had a still-unidentified accomplice.

Cary Stayner

With its waterfalls, valleys and giant sequoia trees, Yosemite National Park in California is one of the most outstanding areas of natural beauty in the United States. In 1999, its attractions drew sightseers Carole Sund, her teenage daughter Juli, and Juli’s friend Silvina Pelosso, a foreign exchange student from Argentina.

After a day’s hiking in Yosemite, the trio retired to their room in Cedar Lodge, a motel near one of the park’s entrances. Their relaxed evening was interrupted by handyman Cary Stayner, who knocked on the door and claimed there was a leak in the room that needed fixing. On gaining entry, he set to savage work, killing Carole and sexually assaulting the teenagers. He then murdered Silvina, and dumped the two corpses in the back of their hire car, which was later found torched in the park. Juli’s ordeal lasted longer – she was eventually taken to another spot and killed. Stayner would send a letter to the FBI pinpointing where he’d left Juli, with the words ‘We had fun with this one’.

Later that year, Stayner killed his fourth victim: a Yosemite naturalist named Joie Ruth Armstrong. It was the investigation into her death that led detectives to Stayner, who confessed to all the murders. What made the story all the more shocking was that he was the brother of Steven Stayner, who at the age of seven had been abducted by a paedophile and kept as his ‘son’ for seven years. Steven Stayner’s escape and return to his family had become a major news event, and even turned into a TV movie. Steven tragically died in a motorcycle crash in 1989, aged just 24. Cary Stayner remains on death row.

John Martin Scripps

Dubbed ‘the tourist from hell’ by tabloid reporters, John Martin Scripps was a Hertfordshire-born robber and drug smuggler who moved on to murder in the Far East shortly after escaping from a British prison in 1994. His first victim was Gerard Lowe, a South African man on a trip to Singapore. John Martin Scripps struck up a conversation with Lowe at the airport, and talked him into sharing a hotel room to save money during his visit. At some point in the night, Scripps killed and dismembered Lowe, whose body parts would later be found hacked up in plastic bags, floating near a local pier.

After draining Lowe’s bank account, going on a shopping spree and attending a classical music concert, Scripps flew to Thailand, crossing paths with Canadian woman Sheila Mae Damude and her son Darin. They all checked into the same hotel in Patong, where the mother and son vanished the next day. Their body parts were later found scattered in a tin mine and along a road in the region.

Scripps would be apprehended very soon after the Damude murders, after investigators had identified him as the man who’d checked into the Singapore hotel with Lowe. Scripps, who was also suspected of other tourist murders in Mexico, would eventually be executed in a Singapore prison, days after telling a reporter, ‘They won’t hang me. I’m British.’