Falconio's girlfriend comes face to face with accused killer

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Head held high, Joanne Lees swept into court yesterday and gave a long, hard stare at the man charged with killing her boyfriend, Peter Falconio. During her two hours of evidence, Bradley Murdoch never once looked up to meet her gaze.

The confrontation was Ms Lees's first with Mr Murdoch since he was accused of murdering the British backpacker and trying to abduct her on an isolated highway in the Australian desert three years ago.

She was vilified at the time for her cold demeanour and refusal to speak publicly about her ordeal. There was speculation that she may have killed Mr Falconio herself.

Yesterday, at a committal hearing in Darwin, was her first opportunity to recount her version of events in court. Ms Lees was composed and answered questions by Rex Wild, QC, for the prosecution, in a clear, firm voice. She was clearly under strain, however, when asked to relive the night in the Outback in July 2001.

The 30-year-old disability care worker told the court she had felt uneasy when the driver of a pick-up truck overtook them north of Alice Springs and gestured that there was a problem with their camper van.

"Pete told me he was going to stop," she said. "I asked him not to." Mr Falconio, 28, and Ms Lees, both from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, were on a trip around Australia. They were heading north to Darwin and had earlier stopped at Ti Tree, on the Stuart Highway, where they had smoked a joint and watched the sunset together. "It was beautiful," said Ms Lees, who smiled whenever she talked about her boyfriend.

Ms Lees heard a bang after Mr Falconio, a construction planner, went to the rear of the van. She never saw him again. Instead, at her window, was "a man with a gun in his right hand, pointing it towards me". He got in, she said, and pushed her into the passenger seat.

Ms Lees stood up in the witness box to demonstrate how he tied her hands behind her back with plastic tape. As she struggled, she said, the man "pointed the gun to my head". He then threw her on the ground and tried to bind her ankles.

"I was trying to hit him or punch him in the crotch," she said. "He came round to the front and hit me in the right side of my head." She pointed to her right temple. "It stunned me." In the pitch darkness, he forced her into the front of his truck. "I was shouting for Pete and shouting for help," she said. He pushed her into the back. "I was asking him what he wanted with me, whether he wanted money. He came back and told me to shut up, and said if I didn't, he would shoot me.

"I was quiet for a moment, then I asked him if he was going to rape me and if he had shot Pete. I kept repeating the last question over and over again: 'Have you shot my boyfriend?' His reply was no."

Clearing her throat frequently, Ms Lees described how she was stalked by the man after she fled into the undergrowth and hid under a bush. She said he shone his headlights over the area in an attempt to find her.

"I could hear footsteps crunching the dried grass and branches under his feet," she said, her voice dropping almost to a whisper. "He came to within a metre of me. I was not even breathing, trying not to make a sound." As she gave evidence, Ms Lees looked across at the glass dock from time to time, narrowing her eyes. Murdoch, a 45-year-old mechanic from Broome, Western Australia, sat head bowed, studying his file of notes. Occasionally he shifted in his chair, a muscle twitching in his cheek.

Ms Lees said she heard two vehicles being driven away, but feared to come out for many hours. She tried to rip the tape off her wrists with her teeth. "I was too scared to get out of the bush, but eventually I told myself I would have to be brave and get some help for Pete."

She went to the highway and lay in the long grass, where she waited for traffic to pass. When a lorry approached, she stopped it. The drivers untied her wrists and helped her to look for Mr Falconio, then took her to the nearby township of Barrow Creek.

The hearing, which will decide whether there is enough evidence to send Mr Murdoch to trial, continues today.