Hitch-hike murders suspect to stand trial

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The Independent Online
Ivan Milat, a 49-year-old roadworker, was yesterday ordered to stand trial for Australia's "backpacker murders" of seven young hitch-hikers, including two British women - Caroline Walters and her travelling companion, Joanne Clarke.

After a seven-week pre-trial hearing into Australia's most gruesome serial killing, marked by harrowing evidence from several British and German witnesses who flew to Australia for the case, Michael Price, the magistrate, found a jury, if properly instructed, could return a guilty verdict against Mr Milat, and committed him for trial.

He will remain in custody until his trial, which is expected to start in the New South Wales Supreme Court in the middle of 1995 and to last about four months.

The crown had assembled a strong circumstantial case against Mr Milat, maintaining that he had picked up the British women and three Germans and two Australians between December 1989 and April 1992 as they hitch-hiked along the Hume Highway, murdered them and disposed of their bodies in the Belanglo State Forest next to the highway, 90 miles south of Sydney.

Ian Lloyd, QC, for the Director of Public Prosecutions, produced backpacks and camping gear which he argued belonged to some victims, and firearms belonging to Mr Milat, all of which police had seized in raids on his home and those of his relatives on the south-west outskirts of Sydney.

Some of the most graphic evidence came from a 24-year-old Briton, described as witness A, who said he narrowly escaped being shot by a man from whom he had accepted a lift while hitch-hiking on the highway in January 1990. According to witness A, the manstopped his vehicle near the forest, produced ropes and a revolver and shot at him when he jumped from the car and fled along the road. He pointed to Mr Milat sitting impassively in the dock and said he was the attacker.

Stephen Wright, a stockbroker from Kent, told of encountering Miss Walters and Miss Clarke, both 22, in February 1992 in the Victorian town of Mildura, where they were all grape-picking. They travelled on to Tasmania and before Mr Wright left the women he swapped his large tent for their smaller one. In the witness box he was shown a tent which, he said, he had "no doubt whatsoever" was the one he gave them. He identified it by finding a hole that he said he had made with his grape-picking k

n ife at the time. The crown alleged the police seized the tent from the home of a relative of Mr Milat.

Miss Walters, from South Wales, and Miss Clarke, from Northumberland, were the last of the seven victims to go missing, the last to be murdered and the first whose bodies were discovered. They left Sydney in April 1992, planning to hitch-hike back to Victoria, and were never seen again. Two orienteers found their bodies in the forest the following September. Miss Clarke had been shot 10 times with a .22 calibre rifle and stabbed in the chest. Miss Walters had been stabbed 14 times in the chest.

Miss Walters' mother, Jill, briefly and tearfully gave evidence to the hearing, describing her last telephone conversation with her daughter in April 1992. Joanne had spoken to her from a backpackers' hostel in Sydney, saying she was tired after her Tasmanian adventure but looking forward to setting off again.

Caroline Clarke's parents described painfully their last meeting with their daughter at their Northumberland home in August 1991 the day after her 21st birthday. After arriving in Australia, she had been meticulous about keeping in touch, they said. Mrs Jacqueline Clarke described the last telephone call from Sydney in April 1992: "She was quite bright and bubbly. She sounded quite happy and everything seemed fine."

Mr and Mrs Clarke said they became worried when the calls stopped, and alarmed when the Walters told them Joanne, too, had dropped out of touch.

Like the two British women, two of the German backpacker victims and the two Australians were travelling in pairs when murdered. Peter Bradhurst, the forensic pathologist who examined the seven bodies, caused a mild sensation when he told the inquiry their injuries were such that more than one person could have murdered them. "On the other hand, it's also my opinion that it would still be possible for one person to have caused the deaths if that person had been able to incapacitate one of the two at thetime," he added.

Mr Milat's former wife, who had not seen him since 1987, said she remembered his owning a pistol, a revolver and a knife and described him as being "gun crazy". During their marriage, she said, he had taken her to the Belanglo Forest where he had shot a kangaroo and slit its throat.

Two of Mr Milat's brothers, whose names were suppressed, told the inquiry that last year they had helped him to move guns, at his request, from his garage to their homes six months before he was arrested and charged. Ballistic experts have matched two ofthe gun parts with cartridge cases found near the bodies of Miss Clarke and Gabor Neugebauer, one of the German victims.

The brothers not know why Mr Milat wanted the guns moved and denied having any knowledge of the murders.

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