There has been much speculation about the true number of Milat’s victims, given that he has always maintained his innocence, but the luckiest of them was certainly British backpacker Paul Onions, who was hitchhiking south from Sydney, in search of work, and was picked up by Milat on 25 January 1990.
Milat was initially very friendly, introducing himself as “Bill”, but Onions found Milat’s personal questions about his plans unnerving, and he became concerned for his safety when Milat began ranting, and making racist and xenophobic remarks. When Milat pulled his car to the side of the road, Onions tried to get out, but Milat pulled out a revolver and told him to put on his seatbelt. Onions managed to bolt for safety, leaving his backpack, which contained all his possessions and passport. Despite Milat’s threat that he would shoot him, he managed to flag down a passing car, which took him to the nearest police station so that he could report the incident. He returned to Sydney to replace the missing passport, and eventually returned to the UK, not yet aware of his narrow escape.
The first of Milat’s less fortunate victims to be discovered were British backpackers, Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. They were found in an area of the Belangalo State Forest known as Executioners Drop, by orienteering enthusiasts who were out on their weekly run, on 19 September 1992. This was fairly close to the area where the attack on Paul Onions had occurred in 1990.
Both girls had been missing since May of that year, when they had teamed up to look for work south of Sydney. Joanne Walters had been stabbed repeatedly; including one wound to her spine that, it was believed, might have paralysed her while the killer continued his vicious attack. The zip of her jeans had been undone, but the top button was still fastened, as if she had been partially stripped and sexually assaulted, then buttoned up hastily after the attack. Her remains were too badly decomposed to actually establish whether a sexual attack had occurred. Caroline Clarke, as well as being stabbed repeatedly, had been shot in the head ten times. She also had a similar spinal wound to Walters. Four bullets that remained inside her skull were preserved for forensic analysis, and detectives were confident that they would be able to use these to track the weapon responsible.
A primitive brick fireplace had been constructed near the bodies, and cigarette butts and spent .22-calibre cartridge cases were also recovered from the scene. An extensive search of the surrounding area produced no more bodies at that time, and the possibility that a serial killer was on the loose, although speculated in the press, was denied by the police authorities.
Despite the abundance of forensic evidence, police made little progress over the following weeks, and sought the assistance of a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Rod Milton. He concluded that the killer was in his mid thirties, with a history of aggression, was familiar with the surrounding terrain and motivated by the pleasure of inflicting pain. Furthermore, he did not believe that a serial killer was responsible, although it was possible that the killer might have an assistant. Police progress continued to be slow, as all leads were painstakingly followed, including a thorough investigation of all suspicious disappearances over the previous decade.
The discovery of the second set of bodies, in October 1993, injected new life into a case that had become stale despite the best investigative efforts. The badly decomposed remains were those of Australian nationals James Gibson and Deborah Everist, who had gone missing in 1989. Despite the environmental damage wrought on the clothing, Gibson’s zipper was intact; it was open, but with the top button fastened, in a similar manner to Joanne Walters. Post-mortem examinations again revealed paralysing spinal knife wounds, inflicted in a similar manner to the earlier British victims.
Crime scene similarities included a small fireplace built near the bodies, making the police more certain that they were dealing with the same killer, and Superintendent Clive Small was placed in overall charge of the investigation, setting up a large task force to progress the investigations. A massive manual search of the extended Belangalo Forest area was initiated, and it took almost a month before the next victim was found, on 1 November: German national Simone Schmidl, who had been missing since January 1991, when she had been planning to hitchhike south from Sydney in search of work. The trademark fireplace and discarded .22 shells were close by. There was no doubt she had fallen victim to the same killer, showing the now-familiar spinal injury.
Three days later the exhaustive search yielded the final two victims, German nationals Anja Habschied and her boyfriend, Gabor Neugebauer, who had been missing since just after Christmas 1991. The boy’s jeans had been unzipped, but with the button fastened, and he had been strangled, as well as shot numerous times, the recovered bullets a perfect match to previous crime scenes. The girl’s body was missing its skull completely, which appeared to have been severed by a machete or sword.
Given the new bodies, Superintendent Small was forced to admit to the media that the police were looking for a serial killer, but this had long been the assumption of the speculative media, anyway. The wide range of methods employed by the killer, including beating, strangulation, shooting, stabbing and decapitation, as well as the sexual assault of both male and female victims, made it difficult to narrow down the suspect list, and police were also hampered by the sheer volume of calls from concerned citizens, who swamped the task force with information.
Various independent reports had led the police to develop suspicions about the Milat family and, in particular Ivan Milat, but they had no firm evidence linking Milat to the crimes. The international media interest served its purpose, however, when Paul Onions, the only one of Milat’s victims to escape, contacted Australian authorities in April 1994, with information about his 1990 attack. His account was further corroborated by an independent call from the woman who had rescued Onions and driven him to the police station, and police recognised quickly that, if Onions could identify Milat as his attacker, then they could perhaps tie him to the other murders.
Onions was flown out to Australia, where he identified Milat from a video line-up, giving police the excuse they needed to seek a warrant for the search of various Milat family properties. A simultaneous raid was carried out in the early hours of 22 May 1994, which revealed a huge amount of evidence linking Milat to the crimes, including personal effects of many of the victims, including clothing, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment, as well as vast quantities of ammunition. They also found parts of disassembled weapons, including a .22 calibre rifle. A long curved cavalry sword, suitable for the beheading of Anja Habschied, was found in a locked cupboard at the home of Milat’s mother.