It is the Australia Day weekend at the end of January 1990. A former sailor in the British Navy, Paul Onions, aged 24, has come from the United Kingdom to Australia to do a bit of backpacking. He spent some time in a hostel in Sydney. He then took a train to the outskirts of the city with the intent of hitch-hiking all the way southwest to Mildura [mill-dure-ah], on the New South Wales-Victorian border, where he hoped to get a job as a fruit-picker.
Thirsty from the summer heat, Paul Onions stops off at a convenience store to get something to drink. It is there he is approached by a man in his 30s or 40s – dark-haired, tan and muscular, wearing a plaid button-up over a t-shirt, and sporting a biker moustache. The man sees Paul Onions carrying a backpack and out of nowhere offers him a lift south. Onions cannot believe his luck and accepts.
Down the road, the driver begins to behave strangely. On edge. Jumpy.
Paul and the man make conversation, and the man starts ranting about immigrants coming into the country from Asia. At this point, Paul feels his friendly warmth toward the man drain away. But there is something else Paul can’t quite put his finger on. For some reason alarm bells start ringing in his head and he starts observing the man closely. About 90 minutes down the road, the driver takes an abrupt turn toward Belanglo [bell-lang-glow] State Forest. A sprawling thick mass of pine and eucalyptus trees stretching on for 40 square km (or 15 square miles). Onions doesn’t know the roads and is none-the-wiser as to why the man would take this route. The reason is simple. In the forest, no one will find the body.
The “ute” slows down. The driver is constantly looking in the rear-view mirror for other cars. Paul Onions finds this odd, and asks if there is a problem. The man replies that they are losing the radio signal from Sydney and that he’s going to pull over to get some cassette tapes from under the driver’s seat. Paul finds this strange because there are cassette tapes sitting right between them within the man’s reach. The driver pulls over, gets out, and starts rummaging under his seat. Paul decides to test his reaction by getting out of the passenger seat and standing by the side of the road. The driver immediately asks why Paul has gotten out. Paul explains he was just getting out to “stretch his legs”. After an awkward pause, Paul decides he is just being paranoid and gets back in the car and puts on his seatbelt. They take off again.
A minute later, the driver pulls over again and says he’ll just look under the seat one last time for the tapes. In one swift fluid movement, the man pulls out a revolver and aims it at Paul. “This is a robbery” the man snarls. He reaches under the seat again and pulls out a length of rope. When Paul sees it, with a sinking feeling he realises that, whatever the driver intends, he was going to take his time.
In a split second decision, Paul leaps out of the vehicle, leaving all his stuff behind, and just legs it. He runs down the highway. The man shouts after him, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” Paul keeps going. The man starts firing the revolver and pursuing him on foot. Paul begins frantically waving down passing cars. They slow down, see what is happening and then speed off again in fright. Paul notices the man getting closer. Paul resolves to jump right in front of the next car that comes over the crest of a nearby hill. He would rather be hit by a car than submit to whatever fate the man has in store for him.
Paul Onions leaps in front of a family caravan driven by Joanne Barry, who is heading to Canberra with her sister and five children. Joanne stops. She sees that Paul is panicked and shaken. He shouts, “he has a gun and he’s gonna shoot me!” Paul dives into the sliding door and hides behind the driver’s seat. With a roar of the engine, Joanne swiftly pulls away. As Paul looks over his shoulder for one last look at the man standing in the road, he sees something strange. The man is smirking.
Joanne Barry drives to a nearby police station in Bowral [bau-rell]. She heads inside with Paul Onions. Together they report what happened. Neither of them had clocked the number on the man’s license plate. The stretch of road had no significance to the police. The report gets buried in the local police files and is quietly forgotten. Paul spends some more time back in Sydney. He tells his parents he was robbed. His girlfriend arrives and they tour Australia together – this time on a bus.
And that might have been the end of Paul’s story, if it were not for some gruesome discoveries made along the same stretch of road.
The Bodies of Belanglo
It is the 19th of September 1992. In a small clearing in the middle of Belanglo State Forest, far off the bushwalking paths where people seldom tread, two people practicing their orienteering discover a corpse. They alert the police. The following morning, a second corpse is discovered 100 metres away from the first one. They are later identified as British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, both in their early twenties, who were last seen on the 18th of April 1992.
Police find the remains of gags and ligatures at the site. The women must have been bound and gagged as they were transported from a nearby vehicle to the killing grounds where they now lay. Both women had been raped. Walters had stab wounds to her upper spine, inflicted by a bowie knife, just below the neck, which would have paralysed her and rendered her helpless during the killer’s assault. The killer evidently tried the same maneuver with Clarke, stabbing her once below the neck but not severing the spine. Caroline Clarke was blindfolded with a red cloth and her head was used as “target practice”, being shot ten times from three different angles. Joanne Walters meanwhile was stabbed four times in the chest, once in the neck, and nine times in the back. Two ribs had been completely severed.
The killer had taken his time at the site, made camp, drank and smoked, and it was likely many hours after their initial abduction before the women finally died.
It is the 5th of October 1993. Over a year later. A man looking for firewood finds two skeletons in Belanglo State Forest. They are later identified as Australian backpackers Deborah Everist and James Gibson, both 19, a couple from Frankston, Victoria. They had last been seen leaving Sydney, heading south to Albury, on December 30th 1989, nearly four years earlier. James Gibson’s spine had been cut, causing paralysis. Deborah Everist meanwhile had been beaten about the head, causing two skull fractures and a broken jaw. Knife marks on the skull indicated the killer had been cutting her as well, and she had been stabbed once in the back. Gibson was then stabbed eight times and was found where he died, in the fetal position.
It is the 1st of November 1993 and the police had been hunting for more bodies. A skeleton was found in a clearing by a fire trail in Belanglo State Forest. It was later identified as Simone Schmidl [shmee-dell] a German backpacker, aged 21, last seen in Sydney on January 20th 1991, before hitch-hiking alone to Melbourne [mel-bin]. When her friend warned her to be careful, Simone said reassuringly that she was carrying a knife for protection.
A few hours later, the killer had tied Simone up and carried her from his vehicle to a small clearing, where he proceeded to cut her spinal cord. The killer then built a small campfire and settled in to relax. After a few hours of torment, he stabbed Schmidl a total of eight times, puncturing her heart and lungs, leaving her to die, face down, before covering her body with a thin layer of leaves and branches, making a pattern resembling an ‘X’. There is evidence the killer returned to the site months later and deposited the clothing of another female victim, for reasons unknown.
Three days later on November 4th 1993, police found two more skeletons on a nearby fire trail. These belonged to German couple Gabor Neugebauer [noi-ga-bower] and Anja Habschied [hab-sheet], both in their early twenties. They had last been seen leaving Sydney for Mildura on December 26th 1991. Both were found buried in shallow graves. Gabor, a large and strong man, had been used as “target practice” and was shot in the head six times. Anja was decapitated and her head has never been found. It must have been taken from the forest as a grim memento, then disposed of later at another distant location.
Court records indicate that all but one of the victims showed signs of sexual interference. Police determined that the killer was bisexual. The victim profile was good-looking, young hitchhikers.
These are the “canonical seven” victims of the Backpacker Killer. They were murdered between 1989 and 1992, and their bodies were discovered in Belanglo State Forest between 1992 and 1993. All of them, except the bodies of Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, had lain so long undiscovered in the forest that their bodies had completely decomposed. Such was the usefulness of the remote Australian bushland.
And I stress the words “canonical seven”. You’ll soon see why.
Onions to the Rescue
Meanwhile, back in England, the story broke of a serial killer on the loose in New South Wales. This was of particular interest because two of the victims, Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, were British. Paul Onions was watching the news. He had suffered from symptoms that would later be diagnosed as PTSD from his ordeal near Belanglo State Forest back in 1990. He had not told his family of the attempted murder by the roadside, because he did not want them to go through any mental anguish.
The story coming out of Australia again rang alarm bells with Paul’s keen instincts. It was the same region where he had escaped his would-be captor. The details of the abduction of backpackers, forced binding, and murder in Belanglo Forest seemed all too familiar. A typical person may have ignored the news story and gotten on with his life. But Onions went to the Australian embassy and made a call to the New South Wales police on November 13th 1993. His crucial tip disappeared into a sea of other information as the police whittled down a list of 230 murder suspects to 32.
The Australian police rediscovered Paul Onions’ message on April 13th 1994, five months later, after very few breaks had been made in the case. They sent out for the original Bowral police report from 1990, but “it could not be found” (or it was not deemed worthwhile to compose one in the first place). They made do with the desk clerk’s notes from that day. Paul’s story was corroborated by testimony from Joanne Berry, his roadside rescuer. Paul Onions was flown by the NSW police to Sydney. He had a flash of paranoia. Since he had left all his things (including his passport) in the killer’s car, the man knew exactly who he was and how to reach him, and this could be a trap. A tense Paul Onions was greeted at the airport by two officers who showed him their badges. On May 5th, Paul Onions positively identified one “Ivan Milat” [mill-at] from a photo line-up as the man who had tried to abduct him in January 1990.
Ivan Milat was already known to the police and was under surveillance in connection with the Belanglo slayings for several months. Milat had sold his four-wheel drive “ute” shortly after the discovery of Clarke and Walters in 1992. Milat had no alibi for any of the seven murders or the attack on Paul Onions. A girlfriend of one of Ivan’s co-workers had also reported him to the police in connection to the murders for essentially being a local weirdo obsessed with guns. Ivan and the entire Milat family were known in the area as mischief-makers, and Ivan in particular was known for a long rap sheet of alleged violent acts and creepy dealings in the past three decades. None of this was substantial enough for an arrest.
It was the testimony of Paul Onions that clinched things and brought Ivan Milat to the top of the list of suspects. And at the very least the police could bring him in for the attack on Onions back in 1990. Approximately 50 officers surrounded Milat’s house, arrested him, and raided the premises. At the same time 250 police raided the houses of his mother and many brothers. They found a gold mine of evidence. Tons of guns. Including a rifle found hidden in a wall and a bowie knife that matched descriptions of weapons used in the murders. They found clothing belonging to the victims. They found backpacks. They found camping equipment. They found cameras. Some of the possessions even had names written on them. Most of these things were not even concealed, but were laying right out in the open. Milat had even given one of his female victim’s shirts to his girlfriend.
Ivan Milat had excessively broken one of the cardinal rules for criminals: do not take trophies. Or at the very least don’t keep them in plain view in your house and the houses of your relatives.
Milat was charged with the murders of the seven backpackers on the 31st of May. On June 28th, Milat fired his defence counsel after his lawyer had advised him to take an insanity plea. After lengthy preliminaries, Ivan Milat’s trial began on March 26th 1996. After four months and 145 witnesses, Milat was found guilty on all counts, given seven consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole, and given an additional 18 years for his attack on Paul Onions.
After his conviction, Ivan Milat always maintained his innocence, alleging a vast conspiracy theory where the police planted the evidence during the raids in order to quickly pin the crimes on a suspect. Sydney had recently won a bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games. Milat claimed that the police and city government wanted to sweep the serial killings under the rug, so Sydney and the surrounding area did not gain a reputation for being unsafe. And all it would have taken was swearing several hundred police officers into perpetual secrecy in one of the most high profile cases in Australian history. Ivan Milat died painfully on October 27th 2019 of esophageal and stomach cancer without ever admitting his guilt.
So. An escaped victim manages to put a serial killer behind bars and the bastard dies in prison. This would be a tidy ending to our story, if we didn’t have two more mysteries to solve.
Number 1: Milat was 45 at the start of the backpacker killings, a rather late bloomer for a serial killer, and there is evidence that his body-count was much larger and extended across several decades.
Number 2: The belongings of the victims were found in the houses of Milat family members, who almost universally closed ranks and insisted upon Ivan’s innocence. What did they know about the killings before Ivan’s arrest? And, worse, did any of them partake in the murders?
Meet the Milats
Stjepan [steppin] Milat was a Croatian immigrant born in 1902. Shortly after arriving in Australia he married local girl Margaret Piddleston when she was 16 and Stjepan was 34. They went on to have 14 children between 1939 and 1962. 4 girls and 10 boys. Ivan was the fifth child of the family, born in 1944. Stjepan was a quiet man, old-fashioned, and hard-working. While it is difficult to get an objective idea of the Milat’s family life, later accounts by third child, Boris Milat, indicate the father was prone to use frequent and fairly severe corporal punishment. Apparently Stjepan demanded you had to bring along a big stick to your own beating. Beyond that, it is difficult to get an idea of how abusive the household was, and the Milat children almost universally say their upbringing was a happy one.
We do know from Boris’s accounts that violence was quite common between siblings and they were constantly roughing each other up. Additionally they had been trained to use guns since the age of 6 or 7. We also know that the family was close-knit and insular, with very little contact with outsiders. Essentially forming their own little commune.
Again, according to Boris’s accounts, the older brother noticed Ivan began to display a cruel streak around the age of 12. Ivan would go off with his brothers and cause chaos in the neighbourhood, committing acts of vandalism, and he once allegedly cut a dog in half with a machete. The hallmarks of early age psychopathy. A neurological and in-built lack of empathy. Police were constantly paying visits to the Milat household. By age 13, Ivan became so troublesome that he was briefly packed off to a boarding school.
As Ivan’s adolescence progressed, his crimes escalated to theft, breaking and entering houses, store burglaries, grand theft auto, and petty on-the-spot robberies. At age 17, Ivan allegedly confessed to his brother Boris that he’d shot a taxi driver, Neville Knight, during a robbery gone wrong. This left Knight paralysed. Milat fled and during the investigation another man, Allan Dillon, went down for the crime and got 5 years. According to Boris, an innocent man went to prison, but Boris did not report on his brother because family loyalties prevented him. At the time, Boris did not want to see Ivan go to prison either.
Not that it really made a difference. Ivan would spend most of the 1960s in and out of prison. He was banged up in juvie at age 17 for theft. At age 20, he was given a year and a half in prison for breaking and entering. Just after he got out, he was caught stealing a car and did two more years. At age 22, he was given three more years for theft. That pretty much wrapped up the Swinging Sixties with him behind bars.
Two interesting things to note about this budding criminal career. The first is shortly after one of his releases, Ivan is alleged to have joked that he killed a man and buried his body out in the bush. There is no evidence that this was anything more than a joke, and no missing person or victim has ever been identified. But given his later career, it does give one pause for thought. Secondly, when Ivan was 20 and already in trouble with the law, he allegedly had stolen a car and when the cops came by to nab him, his younger brother Bill, aged 17, by his own account took the blame and served a little over a year in jail.
Such were the isolationist loyalties of the Milat family, where they appeared to operate a little like a thieves’ guild with no respect for whom they hurt or wider society’s established laws. It was that sort of secretive collective over which a charismatic psychopath like Ivan quickly developed a personal dominance and cultivated fierce unquestioning loyalty in the majority of his siblings.
A Charismatic Criminal Casanova and C*nt
Which brings us to Ivan Milat’s personality. Some psychopaths graduate from killing puppies to being smelly corpulent perverts like John Wayne Gacy. Not so with Ivan Milat, who became a charismatic psychopath more akin to a “bogan” Australian version of Ted Bundy. It is worthwhile to note that an estimated 1-5% of the human population are born with a mild to severe form of psychopathy, or an unusually low amount of empathy for others that can even be detected on MRI scans. In terms of evolution, it makes sense for some of our human ancestors to have been a bit more cut-throat in order to survive and pass on their genes, provided they were not so repugnant that they were exiled from a hunter-gatherer community. Many individuals with undiagnosed psychopathy go their entire lives excelling in fields like business, law, or politics, without ever killing anyone (or at least not getting caught).
People who knew Ivan Milat almost universally describe him as a loner who kept his inner-thoughts to himself, but nevertheless was a smooth talker. Many of them also describe him as kind and generous. Both those who knew him and the cops who interrogated him describe him as “sublimely confident”. His response under extreme negative pressure seems to simply have been to smile or smirk.
When Ivan was in his 20s and 30s, he would go around “immaculately dressed”, and was tan, handsome, and muscular. He inspired admiration and envy in many men. He inspired lust in many women. Unlike many ugly or creepy rapist-murderers, he seemed to have no problems in that department. Though criminal psychologists have explained that sex for Ivan was not about emotional connection or physical gratification. It was about control. The same went for his relations with his family. As such he cultivated and enjoyed a godlike power over the family and women in his life.
More than once the two groups intersected. Ivan is known to have conducted lengthy affairs with his sisters-in-law. Ivan is confirmed to have conducted an 11-year on-and-off affair with Marilyn Milat, the wife of his older brother Boris. Ivan would visit Marilyn while her husband was away at work. The affair was so extensive that Ivan became the illegitimate father of Marilyn’s daughter, Lynise, who was born in the mid-1960s. Boris raised the girl as his own. When Boris found out about the affair, his father, Stjepan, allegedly encouraged Boris to kill Ivan. But he soon relented saying, “you should kill the man who takes your wife, but on the other hand Ivan is my son, and I do not want you to kill my son.” This gives you a peek into the temperament of the Milat household. According to Boris, the cuckolded older brother at one point aimed a gun at Ivan but was unable to shoot him because his mother kept stepping in the way. Marilyn kept up her affair with Ivan for some time, and took up with him again in the late 1980s, but allegedly dumped him when Ivan refused to commit to her. Until his death Marilyn expressed sympathy for Ivan and is reported in some newspapers calling him “the love of her life.”
It should be noted that Boris Milat is one of the few family members who has openly denounced Ivan as guilty-as-charged and a horrendous psychopath and serial killer. Due to his openness, he is also a prime source for the inner workings of his family in an otherwise tightly-lipped group of people. However, the Milat family allege that Boris simply makes these statements out of revenge against Ivan for stealing his wife. A charge that Boris firmly denies. From the interviews I have seen, I do not think Boris is acting solely out of revenge, but is genuinely horrified at what his brother has done. However, in some interviews, I get the vague impression Boris may not always be telling the full truth about what went on. I submit all this so you can simply weigh the claims and information accordingly for yourself.
Ivan is also noted to have carried on a one-year affair with Maureen Milat, who was briefly the wife of Ivan’s younger brother Wally. Maureen testifies that she always found Ivan kind and insightful, and expressed shock and horror when Ivan was arrested for the backpacker killings. Unlike much of the family, Maureen does not claim Ivan Milat is innocent, but in interviews she appears to be firmly in denial and in emotional turmoil from learning what the man she once adored had turned out to be. Such was the power of Ivan’s spell. It should also be noted that Wally is one of the Milat brothers who is sometimes alleged to have partaken in some of Ivan’s crimes.
Finally, there is the wife of Ivan’s younger brother Bill, named Caroline. While there is absolutely no evidence or substantial claim that Ivan had an affair with Caroline Milat, she herself claims that Ivan and her were on extremely intimate terms. Best friends, if you like. And Caroline Milat, despite being of no blood relation to Ivan, became one of his most strident and outspoken advocates after his conviction. Foremost among the family. A media spokesperson. Caroline alleges that the possessions found in the Milat households were not confirmed to have belonged to the victims and has claimed in interviews that they may have been a police plant. Both she and Bill Milat were frequent visitors to Ivan while he was in prison. And Caroline also spoke regularly to Ivan on the phone. At the very least, this is testament to Ivan’s magnetism which inspired blind devoted loyalty, and, perhaps one might even go as far as to opine, an infatuation with him. Given the amount of one-way wife-swapping that seemed to be going on, it certainly is legitimate to ask a few questions…
Rape & Marriage
It is 1971. The long party of the Swinging Sixties was over and the greasy, hair-of-the-dog-laced hangover of the 1970s had begun. Ivan had been several months out of prison. Then on February 12, his younger sister Margaret, aged 16, was killed in a head-on collision with another vehicle. The car she was in had been driven by her brother Wally, who survived.
Two weeks later a woman named Keren Rowland, aged 20 and five months pregnant, went missing. Three months later her body was found in the Fairbairn Pine Plantation near Canberra [can-bra]. She had been raped and strangled. She was last seen talking to a person in a car who had pulled up alongside her in the suburb of Campbell, after her own car had run out of petrol. Cops and criminologists strongly suspect that Ivan Milat may have been responsible for her death, given his later M.O. and the fact he was operating near the area at the time. He also reportedly had no alibi. But this has never been proven conclusively in a court of law. Some have also theorised that the death of Ivan’s sister had triggered his homicidal behaviour.
Also in 1971, Ian Hayman, then aged 15, claims he was hitchhiking home to Wollongong [woolen-gong] when he was picked up by two men in a “ute”. They began inquiring about his family and their knowledge of his movements. The men took the turn-off toward Canberra rather than Wollongong. An argument broke out between Hayman and the men over whether anyone was truly expecting him at home. Finally, the two men threw the boy out of the car. Hayman crossed the road to hitch another ride. The two men parked 100 metres away and watched him. Luckily, Hayman got into another car and was driven home. Hayman identified one man as Ivan Milat, but he refuses to identify the second man for “legal reasons”. It is unknown whether this account is true, or whether Hayman is just a fantasist.
What is more certain is the following story. Also from 1971. On April 9th, Margaret Patterson and her friend “Greta”, whom she had met four months earlier in a mental institution where they were both being treated for depression, had decided to hitch-hike from Liverpool, in southwest Sydney, to Melbourne. They are confirmed to have been picked up by Ivan Milat. The two women, both aged 18, alleged that Milat drove them into the woods and threatened them at knife point. Milat then proceeded to allegedly rape Margaret Patterson. From there Milat took them to a service station near Goulburn [gull-bin]. There the women let slip to other customers what had happened and they proceeded to surround Ivan Milat’s car in an angry mob. He was arrested and charged. While awaiting trial, Milat faked his own death and fled to New Zealand. He was discovered and rearrested in 1974. At the trial, Margaret changed her story and claimed she had given Ivan consent. Greta, none too impressed at being abducted, stuck to the original version of events. The fact that they were recent releases from a psychiatric ward prejudiced the court. Furthermore, Ivan Milat’s lawyer, John Marsden, a gay man who had frequented a club the night before and had seen the two women there, outed them as lesbians to the court. This further prejudiced a 1970s court against the witnesses. The case was thrown out, and Ivan walked.
Afterward Ivan put his nose to the grindstone and got a job as a truck driver. This provided him with a plausible excuse for travelling all over the state.
In October 1975, Ivan Milat met Karen Duck, then aged 16 and six months pregnant. Milat was nearly 31. Like father like son, I guess. After a year of dating, the two moved in together in early 1977, with Karen’s illegitimate child, Jason. After an allegedly rocky relationship of ups and downs (you’re shacked up with a psychopath, quelle surprise) the two married seven years later in February 1984. They stayed together three more years until early 1987 when Karen walked out, alleging domestic abuse. It would also seem that Milat was allegedly a child support dodger, and he was chased for the money, and, again allegedly, in 1988 firebombed the garage of Karen’s parents as “a warning” to let the matter drop.
A small point of interest is that, while in prison for the backpacker murders, Ivan claimed to have only gone to Belanglo State Forest once with his brother Alex, to do some shooting. Karen claims that while they were married, Ivan took her and Jason to Belanglo State Forest no less than four times.
Murder as a Coping Strategy
The dates of Ivan’s relationship with Karen are fairly important. They met in 1975, had many fights dotting their history until 1987, when Karen walked out for good. The cops who led the investigation into Milat have theorised that he was a control-obsessed killer. Whenever relationships in his life were in turmoil, he would kill in order to calm himself down. Every date during his relationship with Karen where Milat was implicated in a disappearance or murder of a hitchhiker, Ivan appears to have been at odds with his former wife. Then after they separated in 1987 and the divorce gradually became final two years later, the seven canonical backpacker killings began. The final murders of Clarke and Walters in April 1992 happened two months before Milat met another serious girlfriend, Chalinder [cha-linder] Hughes, and settled down again.
During the manhunt for the then-unknown Belanglo killer in 1993, the police received a tip from two women with the legally enforced pseudonyms “Mary” and “Therese”. They claimed to have been abducted by a man while hitchhiking back to Canberra in 1977, when they were both 18. The man pulled off the highway into Belanglo, telling the women it was “a shortcut” and later pulled onto a dirt road saying that he forgot to use the toilet back at the service station. At this point he made a grab for Mary.
Mary punched him. She and Therese ran into the forest and hid. They lay on the ground for hours until the man gave up looking for them and left. Back in 1993, the two women independently looked at a photo line-up and marked out both Ivan Milat and his younger brother Richard. None of this, however, could be used in court and the attempted rape remains a cold case.
Leanne Goodall was last seen on the 30th of December 1978 leaving the Star Hotel in Newcastle NSW. She then disappeared without a trace. Robyn Hickie was last seen standing at a bus stop on the Pacific Highway at 7.15pm on the 7th of April 1979. Two weeks later Amanda Robinson, 14, disappeared while she was walking along Lake Road in Swansea. Annette Briffa, 18, disappeared while she was hitch-hiking on the Pacific Highway near Asquith on January 10th 1980. Nurses Gillian Jamieson and Deborah Balkan, both aged 20, were last seen leaving with a man fitting Ivan Milat’s description at the Tollgate Hotel in Sydney on July 12th 1980. At 9.15pm they called their flatmates telling them they would be attending a party in Wollongong, and to call their work and tell them they were too sick to work over the following days. Ivan Milat has periodically been implicated by police in all of these disappearances.
Colin Powell, a backpacker from the UK, claims to have been picked up by Ivan Milat, driven off the highway and then threatened with a hammer before escaping to another vehicle in 1982. Powell never reported the incident to police, as he felt no clear crime had been committed. Given the lateness of his revelations to the Australian media (only in the last few years) it is possible the man is a fantasist.
More solid is the case of Peter Letcher, aged 18, who disappeared after hitch-hiking to Bathurst from Sydney on November 13th 1987. His body was found dumped and covered with branches in the Jenolan State Forest on January 21st 1988. He had been stabbed multiple times in the back and shot five times in the head while his jumper had been used to blindfold him. Cigarette butts and a whisky bottle were found at the scene. Milat, whose wife had left him, was working in the Jenolan State Forest at the time.
Dianne Pennacchio, a married woman aged 29 with a young toddler, disappeared from the Lake George Hotel on September 6th 1991, while the canonical backpacker murders were ongoing. Her body was found in the Tallaganda State Forest on November 13th, lying face down covered in branches. She had been stabbed in the spine. The arrangement of her clothes suggested sexual assault. A bottle and a can of beer were found at the scene.
The final two cases coincide with Ivan Milat’s rampage following the breakdown of his marriage. The murders strongly fit Milat’s modus operandi. The lead investigator on Milat, Clive Small, states that these two killings were almost certainly the work of Milat.
The other disappearances are more tenuous in their connection to Milat. And while some of them fit Milat’s M.O. and area of operations, police also strongly suspect there was another predator operating in the area at the time of three of these disappearances. That man, if he exists, has never been caught.
At most, Milat’s body-count increases from the canonical seven to 16 people (counting Keren Rowland from 1971) in addition to several attempted abductions, a rape, and attempted rapes. At the very least, however, police are convinced that Milat’s body count extends to 9 or 10 people. And, for what it is worth, Boris Milat “suspects” that the true number is “roughly double” the canonical number of victims.
What Did the Family Know?
Which brings us back to Ivan Milat’s picturesque little family. Ivan’s father, Stjepan, died in 1983 and whatever he thought of Ivan’s criminal behaviour up to that point, the man took to his grave. Ivan’s mother, Margaret, died in 2001 long after Ivan was locked up in prison. She reportedly had hoped to have seen Ivan freed before she died. Margaret Milat also frequently visited Ivan in prison. According to a younger brother, George Milat, she allegedly told Ivan that she was dying and asked Ivan if he did the murders. If the story is to be believed, Ivan admitted his guilt then and there. Conversely, numerous possessions of the victims, including one of Paul Onions’ shirts, were found in his mother’s house. Implying that Ivan had simply gifted a man’s shirt to his mother and she kept it for 4 years, or else she was somewhat aware he was up to no good before his arrest. In her defense, she did not appear to be the brightest of sparks. When claiming Ivan’s innocence, she is once quoted as saying “I did all the clothes washing for those boys and never once did I see any blood.” Brilliant argument. Five stars. 10/10.
For what it is worth, according to Boris Milat, he says the family was vaguely aware that Ivan was doing terrible things prior to his arrest, but that the family’s culture of tight-lipped behaviour prevented any of them, including his own mother, from inquiring any further. This claim seems to be contradicted by one tiny coincidence. By his own account, to erase his shame for his brother’s deeds, Boris changed his surname from “Milat” – and he did it one month before Ivan’s arrest in May 1994. When asked in an interview what he felt when Ivan was caught, Boris replied, “Relief that this wouldn’t go on anymore.” While none of this is conclusive, it is mildly suspect.
Still more suspicious are comments attributed to Richard Milat, Ivan’s little brother, when he was in a pub shortly after the discovery of the skeletons of Everist and Gibson in October 1993. Visibly drunk, Richard is rumoured to have said, “They haven’t found those Germans yet.” Indeed the bodies of the three German tourists would not be found until the following month. If this account is to be believed, Ivan had at the very least told his brother of his crimes. Richard is also the leading suspect other than Ivan for having participated in the Belanglo murders.
Another suspicious event happened in 1992, shortly after the discovery of British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. Alex Milat (an older brother) went to the police and allegedly gave a misleading report claiming that he had seen two cars pass him, with women resembling the victims, one in each car. They were gagged and bound and the cars were driven by two men. Apparently he had seen all this in the split second it would have taken them to pass his own vehicle. It is possible Alex was trying to get his family out ahead of police suspicion by reporting on it first. What is also intriguing is Alex describes the mode of abduction as two men and two cars, instead of one man acting alone. At the time of the police raid, Alex was in possession of one of the backpacks of the victims. He died in 2018.
Meanwhile, John Marsden, the lawyer who had got Ivan Milat off the rape charge in 1974, and whom Ivan had fired as defense counsel for suggesting an insanity plea in 1994, made a deathbed confession back in 2006. Marsden claimed that Ivan’s sister, Shirley Soire [swar] (née Milat), had helped in two of the killings. Additionally, Shirley was living with Ivan at the time of his arrest in the house where most of the trophies were found. In Shirley’s own room, police found the sleeping bag of Deborah Everist. Shirley allegedly also hid a pistol from the police during the raid and later told her brother Wally to get rid of it. Finally, in a bizarre twist, Shirley was rumoured to have had an incestuous relationship with Ivan, a claim that has been allegedly acknowledged by at least two members of the Milat family. Shirley died in 2003.
Knowing or Helping?
It is the official position of the investigators of the Milat case that, yes, the family were aware of Ivan’s actions. And, no, Ivan did not have any accomplices and acted alone. Indeed it would seem that Ivan had the rap sheet best fitting the profile of a serial killer. On the flip-side, Ivan was convicted of the Belanglo murders on fairly circumstantial evidence. They never found any matching fingerprints or matching DNA at the killing sites. It was really the attack on Paul Onions that clinched Ivan’s arrest and conviction. Failing to find enough evidence to charge any other family member for partaking in the murders, naturally the official position of the police would be that Ivan acted alone. But some commentators, including the victims’ families, have speculated that the police are less strident in that opinion in private.
For what it is worth, Boris Milat says that the prime suspects for collaboration in Ivan’s murders – brothers Richard, Wally, Bill, and Alex Milat – “did not have it in them” to be cruel or kill anybody. As for the role of Shirley Soire, at time of writing Boris has yet to comment. While it is possible that Boris is loyally covering for the family members who did not sleep with his ex-wife, while focusing his rage on Ivan, it is also possible that Boris was simply kept out of the loop around the particulars of the murders. He had already been estranged from Ivan for decades by the time the Belanglo murders occurred. Only one extreme reaction, a panic attack, when asked in 2019 about how the victims died seems to indicate any deeper knowledge. And that could quite simply have been a feeling of overwhelming grief for the victims.
During Ivan Milat’s trial in 1996, his new defense lawyer surprisingly pointed the finger at Richard Milat for being responsible for the murders. The defense lawyer alleged that Paul Onions mistook Ivan for Richard. However, Richard had alibis for the time of all the Belanglo abductions. He was either at work or with a large number of family members – not that the latter counts for much, since so many of them seem to be the most tremendous tight-lipped pack of liars. They seem to be more than willing to fake an alibi. What is intriguing about this incident is that Ivan at the time allegedly claimed he was “happy” with the defense lawyer’s submissions. Which means on some level Ivan was perfectly happy to screw over his brother if it meant he got off scot free. Only later did Ivan claim he was shocked that his own lawyer made that argument, somehow unbeknownst to him.
Further still, in an infamous 60 Minutes Interview, Richard Milat was asked how trophies from the murders came to wind up in his garden shed. Richard clammed up, as was his custom, and fixed the interviewer with a stony, menacing stare. His answers were evasive. This convinced many watching at the time that Richard, and maybe other family members, had participated in the murders. However, Richard may just have been clumsily covering for Ivan.
Judge David Hunt said on sentencing Ivan that it was “inevitable he was not alone” in the killings. Indeed much of the initial investigation focused on finding two or more men. This was for several reasons. One, it was not easy for one man to subdue two people at once. Especially in the case of the German couple, where the boyfriend, Gabor, was 6 foot 1 and quite strong. Boris Milat himself offers a counter-argument to that: you aim a gun at one person and tell them on pain of death to tie up the other. Two, the victims were murdered in different ways and often buried separately 50-100 metres apart implying two people’s handiwork at play. Three, at each killing site the murderer or murderers seem to have thrown a bit of a party with multiple kinds of booze, bullets, and cigarettes. Four, ballistics expert Gerard Dutton has claimed the target practice sessions may be consistent with two or more people firing.
Five, while the Milat brothers may have alibis for the time of the attacks (assuming they weren’t fabricated) if Ivan held the victims at the killing sites for long enough, his brothers could have joined him in the actual murders or in the “clean-up”. And indeed Ivan could have held the victims in the forest for a day or more after their abductions before killing them. Such was the state of decomposition of all the victims that forensics teams could hardly pin time of death to the hour or even a specific day. That is a lot of time for an accomplice to skate around an alibi. And six, if Ian Hayman’s account is to be believed, then it was two men, not one, who tried to abduct him back in 1971, implying that sometimes Ivan Milat had a ride-along partner.
So whether Ivan Milat acted alone and his family did not know anything until after his arrest, or the family knew about his deeds beforehand but did not partake, or whether his brothers actively participated in a sick kind of “boys day out” Deliverance-style, it really is up to the listener to decide. Nothing except Ivan Milat’s slaying of the canonical seven has been conclusively proven in a court of law.
In conclusion, the whole thing was a stitch up by the Sydney Olympic Committee and the NSW Police. #IlluminatiConfirmed.
A Whimpering Bit of Closure
The more I look into this family, the greater the sinking feeling I have in the pit of my stomach. From psychopaths to rapes to murders to affairs to incest to potential accomplices and accessories to murder. The case is intriguing, but there is a difference between the “roadkill fascination” of True Crime and poking around in a carcass with a stick for three days, making careful notes on every maggot you find.
This is an emotion that is writ large across an entire nation of Australia whenever Ivan Milat hits the news cycle again. The body-count may not be particularly high, as far as serial killers are concerned, but the story and its savagery has haunted Australia for nearly thirty years.
The case is worsened by the fact that Ivan Milat, smirking for decades as he was dragged in chains from prison cell to prison cell, never publicly admitted his guilt. The families of the victims can never be 100% certain that the man who stole their loved ones from them actually died behind bars (or that some of his accomplices actually walked free). Ivan Milat robbed the families of the victims (and the nation) of that kind of closure. More perversely, Ivan Milat condemned his fanatically loyal family to forever shoulder the burden of denying his guilt before the world. Much to their almost universal condemnation.
Only one family member seems to have fully escaped this fate. Older brother Boris changed his surname back to Milat in the years following Ivan’s imprisonment. He effectively is owning the fact he is a Milat, but he had nothing to do with his brother’s crimes and openly condemns them, and he sympathizes with the victims. Nevertheless Boris seems damaged by the many ways in which his brother has ruined his life. “It is like being married to Hitler’s daughter” Boris once said, and that pretty much sums it up.
The lead investigator, Clive Small, did manage to wring one tiny bit of closure out of the case before Ivan died. Clive visited Milat in prison. Ivan was angry. “Why did you accuse my sister of aiding the killings?” he said in reference to Shirley Soire. Clive Small replied, “I didn’t. I know you acted alone.” To which Milat shouted, “YES! So why are you accusing my sister?” Then Milat’s expression slowly changed to shock and self-disbelief. For once he wasn’t smirking. This was as close to a confession as the police ever got.
Bill Milat’s daughter, Deborah Milat (surname changed to Meuleman [mule-min]) gave birth to a son named Matthew in 1992. He was the great-nephew of Ivan Milat. As the boy reached adolescence, his mood seemed to darken and he became obsessed with death and the Milat family history. This intensified to the point Matthew changed his surname to Milat at age 14. Court evidence seems to indicate Matthew was larping at being a “hard man” and a member of a local criminal dynasty to impress his schoolmates.
On November 20th 2010, Matthew Milat and his accomplice Cohen Klein, lured their friend David Auchterlonie [okter-lonnie] on the victim’s birthday into the Belanglo State Forest and murdered him with an axe. They recorded the murder on a phone. David can be heard begging for his life while Matthew shouts abuse at him, and at the end of the recording one can hear the sound of the axe hitting him.
But Matthew Milat lacked his great-uncle’s talent for avoiding detection. He was arrested two days after the murder. In 2012 he was sentenced to 43 years in prison, 30 years without-parole. Being only 18 at the time of the murder, the earliest Matthew Milat will get out is 2042.
Such a senseless copycat killing, and the contortion of the mind of a young man, is the final legacy of Ivan Milat’s reign of terror.