Falconio murder: Joanne in exile

Hiding out in the Blue Mountains, the girlfriend of murdered Peter Falconio is writing a book that promises to tell all. Steve Bloomfield reports
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The Independent Online

The secrets that Joanne Lees took with her when she left the witness box at the trial of Bradley Murdoch for the murder of her boyfriend, Peter Falconio, are finally to be aired.

The last time Ms Lees was seen in public she was sweeping from a Darwin courtroom amid a fusillade of camera flashes, into a black car which ferried her off into a life that has been as much of a mystery as the location of her boyfriend's body.

But deep within the semi-rural suburb of Springwood in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney, Ms Lees is putting together the final chapters of a book that she says will "set the record straight". She has signed a deal with publishers in Britain and Australia believed to be worth more than £250,000, and her advisers are planning a major media offensive for the autumn.

After the trial was over, she flew to Sydney and has kept a relatively low profile ever since. Friends she made at Dymocks, the Sydney bookshop where she used to work, have stuck with her and she is understood now to be staying with a female former bookshop colleague in the Blue Mountains. It is here that she has been writing her book.

But for a young woman who enjoyed Sydney's nightlife so much when she and Falconio shared a flat close to the beach in the first few months of 2001, Ms Lees has pursued a surprisingly quiet lifestyle since returning to the harbour city. She has rarely been seen in public, although commuters have spotted her on the train from Sydney's Central Railway Station to Springwood, in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. And apart from the occasional note to Australian newspapers advising them of her plans to write her own book, she has remained incommunicado, rejecting all requests for interviews.

Ms Lees's deal with Hodder & Stoughton was negotiated by a Sydney-based law firm, Slater and Gordon, better known in Australia for its class actions on asbestos law than for book deals. Several Australian publishers had talks with her lawyers, although it is understood that none actually had a face-to-face meeting with Ms Lees herself - not even Hodder, which eventually signed a deal for an estimated A$600,000 (£250,000).

Unsuccessful publishers are understood to have been put off by Slater and Gordon's "aggressive demands" during several rounds of negotiations that lasted more than three months. Some pulled out because they feared the big money being asked by Ms Lees's representatives would make her book "commercially unviable". One publishing source said: "You would have to sell a lot of books to recoup the advance. What is she going to say that we haven't already heard in court?" Matthew Kelly, a spokesman for Hodder Australia, said: "While this event received extensive media coverage and spawned a number of books, none of these included the personal experiences and feelings of Joanne at every step of the way."

Ms Lees's book may be the most eagerly anticipated, but it will not be the first. An entire industry has been created by the story of Falconio's murder, and so far, five books have been published, two television movies are in the pipeline, and a film loosely based on their ordeal has been released. The first book - Richard Shears' Bloodstain - appeared on the shelves within days of the end of the trial. Others include Dead Centre by former private detective Robin Bowles, who befriended Murdoch while he was in prison, and a book called And Then the Darkness by Sydney-based journalist Sue Williams, which is set to be turned into a television movie. A second TV movie will be shown in Australia later this year and may be screened in Britain by ITV. Ms Lees was paid £50,000 by Granada for an interview she gave to Martin Bashir in March 2002, but she has so far refused to co-operate on the film.

The newest book to tackle the Falconio case, Where's Peter?, by British journalist Roger Maynard, reveals the lengths to which police officers in the Northern Territory had to go to convince Ms Lees to talk to the media. According to Mr Maynard, it took the personal intervention of the state's commissioner, Brian Bates. Even then, Ms Lees demonstrated "all the practised media management skills of a Hollywood star", demanding a list of questions beforehand and choosing only to discuss the doubts that had been raised about her story.

In Mr Maynard's book, former assistant police commissioner John Daulby admitted that Ms Lees's reluctance to speak to the media in the early days of the murder hunt created an unnecessary climate of animosity towards her. Much of Ms Lees's story is expected to tackle her dealings with the media. One author who has followed the case for the past five years said: "She is extremely bitter about the way she believes the media have portrayed her."

The book will be published simultaneously in Britain and Australia in October. In a statement released by her publishers, Ms Lees said: "My intention is simple - to take the reader on the same journey I took, and have them experience the real truth of it. This book is for me, my family, the Falconios, for Pete - and for anyone who has been the victim of violent crime."

The couple, who had been together for five years after meeting in a Huddersfield nightclub, had planned to spend nine months travelling the world. They had already been through Nepal, Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand, taking a route well trodden by British backpackers on their way to Australia. After enjoying Sydney's nightlife, they drove towards Darwin in an orange Kombi van. But they never made it.

On the night of 14 July 2001, the couple were attacked on a remote highway near Barrow Creek, north of Alice Springs. They were flagged down by a man who claimed his car had broken down. Mr Falconio, then 28, was shot, while Ms Lees was tied up. She managed to escape and hid in the bush for five hours while her attacker searched for her with a torch. Mr Falconio's body was never found.

The story attracted enormous publicity. Within days of Mr Falconio's disappearance, the whispering began. Ms Lees did not conform to the stereotype of the devastated lover - there was no tearful press conference and her dress sense (a tight-fitting pink top bearing the words "Cheeky Monkey") was criticised. The story of her escape began to be questioned. Her suspicion of the media only increased and she refused to do interviews. However, nine months after Falconio went missing, Ms Lees agreed to an interview with Martin Bashir on ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald. She was paid £50,000.

Ms Lees tried to rebuild her life - first in Sydney, then in Hove, Sussex. Until Murdoch's trial last autumn, she worked at the South Downs Housing Association but was forced to move four times after being tracked down by photographers.

As she puts the finishing touches to her book, Ms Lees will be hoping that it ends the rumours. But before it hits the shelves she will have to return to a Darwin courtroom for Murdoch's appeal hearing. Her Outback nightmare is not over yet.