Backpacker murder: girlfriend hid 'like a rabbit'

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The Independent Online

Peter Falconio was killed while travelling with girlfriend Joanne Lees in an orange camper van at or near Barrow Creek, north of Alice Springs, on July 14, 2001.

Bradley John Murdoch, 47, of Broome, Western Australia, denies murder at the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin.

The Director of Public Prosecutors, Rex Wild QC, told the court that after stopping their van when another driver indicated there was a problem with its exhaust, the young couple were attacked.

Miss Lees, who had her hands tied behind her back with cable ties and duck tape, escaped from under a loose canopy on the back of a truck and hid in the bush for five hours before being rescued.

Mr Wild said Ms Lees was "determined to survive", alone with her hands tied painfully behind her back, a sack over her head and loose tape around her feet in the back of the vehicle, covered by the canopy.

Mr Wild said she could see light seeping in from the bottom end of the canopy, and slid down the vehicle on her back before dropping over the edge.

"Her feet touched the ground and she was off," Mr Wild said.

"Running as fast as she could."

He said she ran straight into the bush until she was about 100 feet from the side of the road and around 200 feet from where the attack took place.

Mr Wild said the man had been "busy with some other activity".

He said: "This may have been because there was now a body on the side of the road and the possibility of traffic - not much, but some - coming along.

"Aware of this behind her, she finds a spot and buries herself in the bush with trees and scrub.

"She curled up into the foetal position, a bit like a rabbit.

"She covers her eyes, nobody can see me, doesn't want to know."

Mr Wild said it was pitch black at night and she could see nothing, but heard one of the vehicles being driven north and then, a short time later, heard someone come back.

Then she heard the noise of something being pulled or hauled along the gravel.

"It may well have been the body of Peter Falconio," Mr Wild said.

At around 8pm that night, she could not hear anything and was able to pass her bound hands underneath her bottom and under her feet, Mr Wild said.

From there she was able to get her hands in front of her but the bindings were painfully tight so she pulled the top off some lip balm she had in her pocket and tried to loosen them.

The lip balm container was later found at the scene by police.

Mr Wild said: "She stays in the bush til 1am, that's five hours before she is game enough to chance her luck out on the highway."

The court was told that she waited until a large road train truck came along, with all its lights on, and jumped out in front of it at the last minute, around 10km north of Barrow Creek.

She left it so late the driver, Vince Millar, thought he had hit her as he braked.

Mr Wild said: "He pulls her into the truck and into his arms, still with her hands tied.

"She was rescued by Vince Millar and the road train."

Murdoch has also pleaded not guilty to charges of depriving Ms Lees, now 32, of her personal liberty and of unlawfully assaulting her in aggravating circumstances, so that she suffered bodily harm and was threatened with a gun.

The body of Mr Falconio, 28, of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, has never been recovered.

Earlier, Mr Wild said the incident started at around 6.30pm on July 14, when Mr Falconio and his girlfriend "shared a smoke" and watched the sun set before he drove the camper van north along the Stuart Highway on a dark night with little traffic around.

Around an hour later, seven miles north of Barrow Creek, a vehicle pulled level with them, and Ms Lees looked across to see the driver of the 4x4, indicating a problem with the exhaust area of their van.

Mr Wild said Mr Falconio was nervous about stopping in the middle of the Outback but decided to pull over.

As he got out of the van, she moved across the front seat into the driver's seat. From there, the court was told she heard a conversation between her boyfriend and the other driver about sparks coming from the back of their van.

Mr Falconio then returned and asked her to rev the engine of the van, took his cigarettes out and then returned to the back of the van.

"That was the last time Joanne Lees saw Peter Falconio alive. Nor has anyone else seen Peter Falconio alive since that night," Mr Wild said.

He said the young woman then heard the sound of an engine backfiring, or a gunshot.

Looking through the window she saw the man holding a Western-style revolver to her boyfriend's head.

The man then came up to her and told her to switch off the engine, but she was too nervous to move.

Mr Wild said: "She was very frightened. She was pushed across in to the passenger seat and told to bend forward and hold out her hands behind her back."

When she refused, the man held a gun to her head and forced her to do it.

The court heard her hands were then tied up in a series of manacles with handcuffs made of cable ties and duck tape.

She was forced out of the van and landed on her knees on the gravel road.

She came to rest on her stomach and felt the man on top of her, sitting on her back to front, trying to tie her legs with duck tape. But she was resisting and struggling, so he was unable to tie them securely, Mr Wild said.

She tried to reach out to grab his private parts, but was unsuccessful, Mr Wild said.

But the man then punched her in the head before leading her to the 4x4, directly behind the camper van.

She was forced into the front seat before being put through a gap into the rear of the vehicle, which had a soft surface like a mattress, and was covered with a canopy.

She called to him, "What do you want? Is it money, the van? Just take it.

"Are you going to rape me?"

Mr Wild said the man called back: "Shut up and I won't shoot you."

The court heard she asked if he had shot her boyfriend, and he said "No."

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