Girlfriend faces grilling in Falconio murder trial

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The Independent Online

Mr Falconio disappeared in the Australian Outback more than four years ago, while driving from Alice Springs to Darwin. His body has not been found but he is presumed to have been murdered. The man accused of killing him, Bradley Murdoch, goes on trial in Darwin tomorrow.

The case, which is expected to last six weeks, may solve the mystery of the location of Mr FalconioÕs body. It may also offer insight into the character of Ms Lees. Her demeanour since her boyfriend vanished has given rise to much curiosity and media speculation. The couple were travelling around Australia as part of a round-the-world tour when, according to Ms Lees, a motorist persuaded them to stop on the highway north of Alice at night. After Mr Falconio got out to talk to him, she heard a shot. The man then tried to abduct Ms Lees, but she escaped and hid in bushes for several hours.

The prosecution says that man is Mr Murdoch, 46, a former mechanic who at that time was living in Broome, in Western Australia, but went on regular cross-country trips. Mr Murdoch denies murdering Mr Falconio.

From the moment that she flagged down a lorry, sobbing and hysterical, Ms Lees has been the object of fascination. First there was the extraordinary tale that she told police. Then there was her cold public demeanour in the face of her loss and her refusal to speak to the press. Some compared her to Lindy Chamberlain, whose baby was taken by a dingo in the Outback in 1980. Ms Chamberlain was considered unemotional too, a fact that contributed to her being convicted of murder, although she was later cleared.

At a pre-trial hearing last year, Ms LeesÕs fa¿ade began to crack. Under cross-examination, she admitted to a secret affair with another British backpacker, Nick Riley, whom she met every week in a pub while she was living in Sydney with Mr Falconio.

Ms Lees used a secret email account to keep in touch with Mr Riley, to whom she gave a pseudonym, Steph. She continued to correspond with him after Mr FalconioÕs disappearance and, allegedly, arranged to meet him in Berlin on her way home.

Mr MurdochÕs lawyer, Grant Algie, will no doubt revisit this subject, as he claims it undermines the credibility of a woman who supposedly had a loving and harmonious relationship with Mr Falconio. Other skeletons may be dragged out of Ms LeesÕs closet. Northern Territory police told last yearÕs hearing that they had doubts about her account of events. They sent audio tapes of interviews with her for analysis by linguistic experts, who concluded that vital details could be missing.

Faced by apparent gaps and inconsistencies in Ms LeesÕs story, and having interviewed her twice, police questioned her for a third time, for three hours. She also underwent, at their request, two sessions of hypnotherapy.

Ms Lees is now preparing for the grilling of her life, at the hands of Mr Algie. Mr FalconioÕs family, meanwhile, are hoping for answers and closure.

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