For many young tourists in Australia, hitchhiking was once the travel method of choice. It was adventurous, exciting, and perhaps best of all, it was cheap. But in the early 90s, there was a series of killings that struck fear into the hearts of Australia’s travellers, uncovering the most notorious killer the country has ever seen.
Brits Caroline Clark, 21, and Joanna Walters, 22, had met at a backpackers hostel in Sydney in 1992. Both seeking the trip of a lifetime, they’d joined forces for their Australian adventure. They hitch-hiked around the country together, and in April the pair set off towards New South Wales. But when their families didn’t hear from them for a number of weeks, they knew that something had gone terribly wrong. It would be 5 months before their bodies were discovered, buried in the thick terrain of the Belanglo State Forest. Walters had been stabbed 14 times, in an attack so frenzied it had severed her spine, while Clark had been shot 10 times in the head. The find was certainly a horrific one. But it was only the start of the nightmare that was to follow.
Three years earlier, young Australian couple Deborah Everist and James Gibson had also set off on a hitchhiking trip, planning to travel almost 400 miles to a music festival near Albury. Like Carl and Walters, however, they would never return home. In October of 1993, their bodies were discovered in a remote part of Belanglo Forest. Gibson had been stabbed to death, while Everist had been beaten so badly that her jaw was broken; her skull fractured in two places.
That same year, three more victims were found in Belanglo. The first was Simone Schmidl, a 21-year-old German tourist who was last seen in January of 1991. Her body bore the now familiar hallmarks that police had come to expect. But this time, there was clothing at the scene that didn’t belong to Schmidl - a sinister clue that there were more victims to be found. A few days later, on 4th November 1993, the bodies of Gabor Neugebauer, 21, and Anja Habschied, 20, were discovered in shallow graves. Gabor had been shot in the head, while Anja had been decapitated with a machete or sword. To this day, her skull has never been found.
Now with 7 victims, police were left with the task of finding who had committed these awful crimes. The breakthrough came on 13th November 1993, when police received a call from England. The man on the other end of the phone was 24-year-old Paul Onions, who had been backpacking through Australia 3 years prior. He said that when heading out of Casula, he had hitched a ride with a man named ‘Bill’. After a few hours of driving, ‘Bill’ had started to act strangely. When they were less than 1km from Belanglo Forest, ‘Bill’ pulled the car over, and brought out a gun. Onions fled into the path of oncoming traffic, where he managed to flag down passing motorist Joanne Berry. Together, they sped away from ‘Bill’, and reported the incident to the Bowral police. Around the same time of Onions call, police received another from local woman. She had her suspicions about a gun-loving man from town. The man’s name, she said, was Ivan Milat.
Milat had an extensive criminal record, including arrests for robbery and rape. Not only that, but Milat owned a car similar to the one that Onions and Berry had described, and was known to go by the name of ‘Bill’. It looked as though police had their man.
In the early morning of 22nd May 1994, fifty police raided Milat’s home. Once inside, the evidence was damning. As well as weapons matching those used in the murders, police found cameras, a tent, clothing and sleeping bags belonging to the 7 victims. The first item found - a postcard - was addressed to none other than ‘Bill’. With that, Milat was charged with 7 counts of murder. After numerous delays, including Milat’s dismissal of his own lawyer, he was eventually found guilty on 27th July 1996. He was handed life without the possibility of parole, and spent the next 25 years appealing his sentence.
If Ivan Milat was responsible for any more murder, we’ll likely never know. He passed away on 27th October 2019 following a diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, maintaining his innocence to the bitter end. If Milat had any more secrets, he took them to his grave.