Girlfriend of missing tourist flies home from unforgiving Australia

Revelation of secret affair by Joanne Lees adds to the mysteries surrounding Falconio case
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The Independent Online

Joanne Lees arrived home in Britain yesterday after an extraordinary week in which she went from star witness to scarlet woman.

From the moment that she flagged down a lorry on an outback highway three years ago, sobbing and hysterical, Ms Lees has been the object of widespread fascination.

The extraordinary tale that she recounted to police, of being ambushed by a gunman who apparently shot her boyfriend, Peter Falconio, and then stalked her for hours, was only heightened by her refusal to tell her story in public.

Ms Lees - who spurned media requests, apart from an innocuous television interview - was vilified for her cold demeanour. There was speculation that she might have killed Mr Falconio; later, there remained the suspicion that the 30-year-old British tourist had something to hide.

So when stepped into the spotlight at a court in Darwin, the sense of anticipation was intense.

The appetite for a sensational revelation was sated when, after a week of legal argument, Ms Lees resumed her evidence last week at the committal hearing for Bradley Murdoch, an Australian mechanic charged with murdering Mr Falconio. Under cross-examination, she admitted to a secret affair. The sharp intake of breath in court was echoed in living rooms across Britain and Australia.

The secret lover, it has emerged, was Nick Riley, a British backpacker, whom Ms Lees met through a colleague at a Sydney bookstore.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday that, during their month-long liaison, Ms Lees met Mr Riley every Thursday evening in a Sydney pub where a group of young Britons would congregate.

The disclosure came only after repeated probing by Mr Murdoch's defence lawyer, Grant Algie. Mr Algie asked her about a secret email account that she allegedly used to correspond with a man in Sydney called Nick. The court heard that she gave him the pseudonym Steph.

Ms Lees, from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, initially denied knowing "Steph". Questioned further, she admitted that "Steph" was "Nick", whom she described as "a friend in Sydney". Yes, she had exchanged emails with him, but she had not had a relationship with him.

The next day, she changed her story. Asked again if she had had a sexual relationship with Nick, Ms Lees replied: "I'm going to answer 'yes', but I wouldn't class it as an affair or a relationship." She also conceded that she had corresponded with Nick after Mr Falconio's death.

These admissions, and the subsequent media frenzy, must have been agonising for Ms Lees, who has always guarded her privacy. Certainly, her demeanour in the witness box changed. Initially calm and composed, she bowed her head after confessing to the affair.

The reaction of Mr Falconio's brother, Paul, was intriguing. Paul, who had sat at the front of the jury box throughout the hearing, moved to the body of the court during Ms Lees's cross-examination. It is not clear whether he knew about the secret liaison. After her evidence, he returned to the front of the jury box.

Ms Lees dodged journalists when her flight from Australia to Britain touched down yesterday. But the revelations will ensure that Ms Lees will continue to be pursued by the press.

There are echoes of Lindy Chamerlain's relationship with the media. Ms Chamberlain, convicted in 1982 of murdering her baby Azaria at Ayer's Rock in 1980, was considered unemotional in the witness stand and endured a media-led witch hunt. A Royal Commission found her innocent in 1997 and her convictions were quashed in 1998. Ms Chamberlain maintains a dingo took her baby.

Questions remain of Ms Lees. Were her disclosures - that she had an affair, and that she occasionally took drugs - really that sensational? Many young people take drugs from time to time. It is not uncommon for people in long-term relationships to experiment with other partners. And has Ms Lees's credibility as chief prosecution witness been damaged?

It will be up to magistrate Alasdair McGregor, who has the task of determining whether to send Mr Murdoch to trial, to decide.