It was September 19, 1992, a warm spring day in Australia. Ken Seily and Keith Caldwell were taking a rest from their long hike. They stopped at a popular landmark known as Executioner’s Drop, an apropos title considering what happened next. They were suddenly overwhelmed by a rancid stench; it was the smell of rotting flesh. The hikers began to search for the source of the odor and came upon a pile of litter. It was seemingly normal at first, but when they took a closer look, they saw hair and bones protruding from the pile. The young men frantically made their way to the edge of the forest and phoned the police. The body that they had found was a victim of Ivan Milat, the man who would become known as the “Backpacker Killer.”
Ivan Robert Marko Milat was born on December 27, 1944. He left school at the age of 15. By the age of 17, he was charged with theft. He incurred subsequent charges of rape, burglary and armed robbery. He was a highway construction worker and enjoyed hunting and riding his motorcycle during his leisure time. Ivan did not smoke or drink, but he did have one deadly vice, murder. Between 1989 and 1992, Ivan Milat brutally massacred seven people and attempted to kill an eighth. He is the prime suspect in several other murders, dating back to the 1970’s.
The police arrived shortly after receiving the boys’ call. The officers carefully dug through the litter and discovered a fully clothed female corpse. Peter Bradhurst, a forensic pathologist, conducted the necropsy and found multiple stab wounds to the back, inflicted with a single-bladed knife. The next morning, police discovered a second body just 30 yards away from where they found the first. The bodies were later identified as Caroline Clark, age 21 and Joanne Walters, age 22. They were last seen alive on April 18, 1992. Both of the young ladies had been sexually violated. Joanne was gagged and sustained multiple stab wounds and Caroline suffered twelve bullet wounds to the head. Bullet shells were recovered from the crime scene and subsequent examination revealed that they were emitted from a Ruger 10-22 rifle. And so the two-year manhunt for the Backpacker Killer began.
A widespread search of the area was being conducted and it was not long before the skeletal remains of two other victims were found. Several miles away from the site of the first body, two more were discovered in a shallow grave. They were identified as James Gibson, age 19 and Deborah Everist, also age 19. The two had disappeared on December 9, 1989 while hitchhiking.
The remains of 21-year-old Simone Schmidl were found in October of 1992. She had been missing since January 21st of the previous year. The medical examiner reported that Simone had been gagged, bound and stabbed multiple times. On Noveber 4, 1992, the bodies of two more victims were found. Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied were last seen on December 26, 1991. Gabor was strangled and shot in the head six times. His girlfriend, Anja, was sexually assaulted and beheaded.
Police now realized that they were dealing with a serial murderer. They were desperate for answers and sought the public’s help. Photographs of the victims were published and a press conference was called asking for any help or tips that anyone may have. Many sightings of the victims were called in, but no one had managed to catch a glimpse of the killer. A lady called and reported that a man living near the forest possessed several firearms; his name was Ivan Milat. A gentleman called and reported that a man by the name of Richard Milat had unusual knowledge of the body recovery sites. It seemed a good idea to take a look into the history of the Milat family.
A man by the name of Paul Onions heard of the murders on television and recalled a dangerous brush with death that he had while backpacking in Australia a couple of years prior. He gave a statement to police at that time and nothing ever came of it. He decided to call and see whether or not any action was taken. A note was made of his call and he did not receive a response until five months later.
On January 25, 1990, Paul Onions was hitchhiking through Australia and was offered a ride in a silver Nissan truck. The man driving the car had a distinct mustache and introduced himself simply as “Bill.” A few miles later, the man halted the car and pulled a gun on Paul. Paul fled from the car, dodging flying bullets as he ran. He was one of the lucky ones.
While investigators were searching through their old sex offender files, they noticed a rape allegation filed against Ivan Milat. The person who filed the complaint also mentioned that Milat was known to use the pseudonym, “Bill.” The note of Paul Onions’ phone call was found and he was immediately summoned to Australia. Upon his arrival, Paul helped police artists create a sketch of the man who attempted to kill him. He took detectives to the exact spot where “Bill” had picked him up. Onions was shown several pictures of people resembling his description. He was asked if “Bill” was one of the pictured men. Paul selected picture No. 4, a photograph of Ivan Milat.
The case was on the verge of being solved. It was discovered that Ivan owned and sold a silver Nissan truck. The person who purchased the car found a bullet while cleaning out the vehicle. The bullet came from a Ruger 10-22. Ivan’s sister-in-law turned in a purse that was given to her by Ivan; it belonged to Simone Schmidl. Police were now ready to use the search warrants that they had been secretly gathering. On May 22, 1994, 50 policemen invaded Milat’s home. There they found firearms that were used in the murders and the belongings of some of the victims. They also found a sword that they believe was used to decapitate Anja Habschied.
Ivan Milat was arrested in May 22, 1994, putting an end to the two-year long manhunt. He was formally charged on May 31, 1994 with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Ivan’s defense attorney attempted to point the finger of blame elsewhere. He even suggested that Ivan’s brothers may have committed the murders and framed him. Despite the attorney’s efforts, Ivan was convicted of all seven murders on July 27, 1994. He received six life sentences plus an additional six years for the assault on Paul Onions. He made several attempts to appeal his conviction. When his appeals were rejected, he made several unsuccessful suicide attempts. Sydney’s High Court proclaimed that Ivan should remain in prison and never be released.