Between September of 1992 and November of 1993, the bodies of seven backpackers were discovered in Belanglo State Forest in New South Wales, Australia. All of the seven bodies were found hidden within an area known as 'Executioner’s Drop'. They had all been found face down with their wrists crossed behind their backs. It quickly became apparent that the murders were all linked and there was an active serial killer stalking New South Wales (The Kingston Whig-Standard, 24 October, 1994 – ‘Man Goes on Trial in Backpacker Killing Case’).
In December of 1989 19-year-olds James Gibson and Deborah Everist from Frankston, Victoria, vanished while travelling to attend ConFest, a festival which was being held near Albury. They had left their hostel in Sydney and had planned on hitchhiking their way there. Gibson’s rucksack and camera would be found at Galston Gorge but a search of the gorge turned up no more evidence (The Age, 7 October, 1993 – ‘Body May be Young Victorian’) Just a couple of months later, 21-year-old German tourist, Simone Schmidl, disappeared while hitchhiking from Sydney to Melbourne where she had planned on meeting her mother who was visiting from Germany. A sleeping bag and a pair of prescription glasses which belonged to Schmidl would be found in bushland at Bright, around 200 kilometres east of Wangaratta, in May of the same year (The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 June, 1991 – ‘Hitchhiking Still Gets the Thumbs Up’)
Then on Boxing Day of 1991, a German couple, 21-year-old Gabor Neugebauer and 20-year-old Anja Habschied, disappeared after setting out to hitchhike from Sydney to Darwin. They had been on the last leg of their backpacking tour around Asia and Australia and were looking forward to returning home (The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April, 1992 – ‘Mother’s Desperate Bid to Find Missing Couple’). Their families would fly out to Australia but return to Germany after a four-week fruitless search. Less than four months later, on the 18th of April, 1992, two British backpackers, 21-year-old Caroline Clarke and 22-year-old Joanne Walters, disappeared. They had checked out of a hostel in Kings Cross and had told fellow guests that they were planning on going fruit picking in the Riverina or were going to hitchhike to Melbourne.
It wouldn’t be until September of 1992 that the bodies finally began turning up. The first two bodies that were found were Clarke and Walters, the last two backpackers to vanish. The two young women were found by a bushwalker deep in the bushland of Belanglo State Forest. The autopsies would show that Walters had been sexually assaulted and then brutally stabbed in the chest at least 12 times while Clarke was shot in the head ten times at close range (The Age, 22 September, 1992 – ‘Backpacker’s Body Identified’).
In October of 1993, the skeletal remains of Gibson and Everist were found by a man who had been fossicking with a metal detector in the rugged terrain of the Belanglo State Forest. They were found less than a kilometre away from where Clarke and Walters had been found the year beforehand (The Age, 6 October, 1992 – ‘Bodies Found Near NSW Murder Site’). They had both been stabbed to death with such force that the knife had cut through the ribs and spine. The following month, the body of Schmidl was found by cadaver dogs just over one mile away. She had been killed in a stabbing frenzy.
A couple of days after Schmidl’s body was found, the skeletal remains of Habschied and Neuegbauer were discovered within the same area. Habschied had been decapitated by one blow to the back of her neck; her head was never recovered. Some hundred metres away from the body was a makeshift bondage device which led to speculation that she had been bound before her murder. Neuegbauer was gagged, strangled and then shot six times in the back of the head.
Police would positively link all of the murders to one another. Not only had all of the victims disappeared under similar circumstances and be found within the same area, but they had all been partially concealed with branches and leaves and were all found face down with their hands positioned behind their backs. Fear would grip the area as talk of a serial killer lurking within the area began to circulate. At the time, Australia was known as a haven for backpackers, many of whom would hitchhike from place to place. Police would speculate that the killer, or killers, was a local who knew the area due to the fact that the bodies had all been dumped deep within the forest (UPI, 8 October, 1993 – ‘Fear of Serial Killer Grips Town After More Backpacker Deaths’). It was also theorised that all of the victims had been picked up while hitchhiking and then driven to Belanglo State Forest against their will (The Age, 6 November, 1993 – ‘Bones Chipped in Attacks, Say Police’).
The New South Wales Deputy Coroner, Peter Gould, would inform the public that in addition to being murdered, it was very likely that a number of the victims had been tortured and some had been sexually assaulted. Police didn’t believe that the killer was financially motivated because none of their traveller’s cheques had been cashed and none of their credit card were ever used (The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November, 1993 – ‘Building a Profile of A Killer’).
The search for the ‘Backpack Killer’ and his victims would become one of the largest in Australian history, with over 300 police officers participating in the search as well as several analysists, psychiatrists and psychologists, who were called in to help build a profile of the serial killer (UPI, 2 November, 1993 – ‘Two German Backpackers Feared Murdered by Serial Killer’ ). The murder inquiry was headed by Superintendent Clive Small who would establish Task Force Air to investigate the case. The painstaking investigation would be assisted by computers and satellite pictures to try and determine the road and track conditions at the time of the murders and to try and help pinpoint what type of vehicle had been used to transport the victims (The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March, 1994 – ‘Backpack Details Revealed’). At one point, a $500,000 reward would be put forward for information that could lead to the identification and arrest of the killer or killers.
In May of 1994, there would finally be a breakthrough in the case when it was announced that 49-year-old roadworker, Ivan Milat, had been arrested during a dawn raid at his home in Eagle Vale. Milat had been linked to an attack on 24-year-old Paul Onions, which had taken place in November of 1993. Onions had been hitchhiking to Muldura when he was picked up by Milat. After Onions got into Milat’s vehicle, Milat pulled a gun on him and claimed that he was going to rob him. Thankfully, however, Onions managed to flee from the vehicle and would positively identify Milat as the assailant.
At Milat’s home, police would find a bolt and firing pin of a Ruger rifle which would be identified as components of the same weapon which had been used during two of the backpacker murders. Moreover, they could discover camping equipment which was similar to camping equipment which had been stolen from some of the murder victims. They additionally found maps of Belanglo State Forest. Milat would be subsequently charged with seven murders as well as the attempted murder of Onions and six firearms offences (The Age, 1 June, 1994 – ‘Belanglo – Court Told Horrific Details’). He would staunchly deny that he was involved in the senseless murders and would even make the startling claim that he had been set up by police.
In March of 1996, Milat would stand trial on the seven murder charges. The trial was very lengthy and complex with 145 witnesses being called to testify and over 600 photographs entered into evidence. Milat’s defence team would make the claims that ‘blind Freddy’ could see that the string of murders had not been committed by Milat but instead by somebody else in, or close to, his family. They would suggest that it was Milat’s younger brothers, Walter and Richard, who had carried out the murders (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October,2019 – ‘Family Feud, Affairs and a Fake Tale’).
The prosecution, however, would provide evidence linking the gun used to kill one of the victims with Milat; the weapon had been found hidden behind a wall in Milat’s home. A plethora of circumstantial evidence against Milat would be presented including the fact that Milat had not been in work on any of the days that the victims were last seen alive (UPI, 24 October, 1994 – ‘Gun Linked to Accused Killer’). Even more damning to Milat’s case, a number of items that were found in Milat’s home would be presented during trial and loved ones of the victims would identify the items are belonging to them.
Ultimately, the jury would side with the prosecution and they would find Ivan Milat guilty of the seven backpacker murders. He would receive seven life sentences, each without the possibility of parole. He would also be convicted of false imprisonment and attempted murder and received an additional six-year sentence for each. On the 27th of October, 2019, Ivan Milat died from oesophagus and stomach cancer while serving his sentence at Long Bay Correctional Centre. He was 74-years-old.