Murdered backpacker's girlfriend challenged over mystery relationship

The girlfriend of the missing backpacker Peter Falconio was having a secret relationship at the time of his death, a court in Australia was told yesterday.

The girlfriend of the missing backpacker Peter Falconio was having a secret relationship at the time of his death, a court in Australia was told yesterday.

Joanne Lees admitted that she had used a special e-mail account to correspond with a man in Sydney called Nick, whom she gave the pseudonym "Steph". But she denied having an affair with him and said the e-mail account was not secret.

The evidence was heard at Darwin magistrates' court during the committal hearing of Bradley Murdoch, 45, the man accused of murdering Mr Falconio in July 2001. He is alleged to have stopped the couple's camper van on the highway north of Alice Springs, shot Mr Falconio and attempted to abduct Ms Lees.

As the hearing resumed yesterday after a week of legal argument, Grant Algie, for the defence, launched a concerted attack on Ms Lees's credibility. He pointed out to her that the type of electrical flex with which she had been tied during the attack had also been found in the couple's van. She said she was not aware of that. He also asked her about her relationship with Mr Falconio. She replied that they got on well.

He then asked Ms Lees, 30, whether she had told a police officer in Alice Springs after the attack that she needed to delete messages from a "secret e-mail account". She conceded that she had been exchanging e-mails with another man at the time. Mr Algie asked her: "You were getting e-mails from Steph - who is Steph?" Ms Lees replied: "I don't know." Mr Algie said: "I put it to you: isn't Steph the pseudonym you had given to a man called Nick, with whom you were corresponding?" She agreed. "Who is Nick?" he asked. "A friend," she replied. "A friend from Sydney with whom you had a relationship?" "No," she replied.

When Rex Wild QC, for the prosecution, objected, saying the question was irrelevant, Mr Algie retorted: "I have reason to believe there was another relationship, either known or unknown to Mr Falconio, at the time. It may be highly relevant at the end of the day as to the credibility of this witness." The magistrate, Alasdair McGregor, halted the line of questioning, but said that the subject might be explored at a later date.

There was no expression on the faces of Mr Falconio's brothers, Nick, 36, and Paul, 34, who were both present in court after travelling from the UK to Australia for the committal hearing.

Ms Lees, from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, was also asked about her use of recreational drugs, after admitting to the court last week that she and Mr Falconio had smoked a joint on the evening of his death.

Asked if she had taken cannabis in Sydney, where the couple spent five months before setting off on a tour of Australia, she replied "no". However, she admitted taking half an ecstasy tablet in a nightclub, and said that Mr Falconio, 28, bought cannabis in Sydney which they kept in their Volkswagen Kombi.

The prosecution alleges that Mr Murdoch, a former mechanic, murdered Mr Falconio and removed his body. Ms Lees has testified that she heard a gunshot after her boyfriend went to the back of their van to talk to a man who waved them down on the highway.

She claimed that the man tied her up, hit her and forced her into his pick-up truck at gunpoint, but that she escaped and hid in bushes for several hours until he left. Mr Falconio's body has not been found.

Mr Murdoch listened to the cross-examination, taking notes and occasionally shaking his head. The hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to send him to trial.

Earlier, Ms Lees described how the couple had seen an odd series of bush fires on the night they were allegedly waylaid by a white truck. She said that Mr Falconio wanted to pull over and put them out, but she had urged him not to stop. "They looked unusual and as if they had been started deliberately," she said. "Pete wanted to put the fire out, but I said it could be a trap or a trick and asked him to drive on."

When they were eventually stopped by the white truck, she said, Mr Falconio's last words to his killer were: "Cheers, mate." She said that she had looked for Mr Falconio's body when she was held prisoner, but that it was too dark to see anything.

She also gave the court a description of her alleged assailant. "He was between 40 and 45," she said. "He had a long oval face. He was tall, over 6ft, hunched, kind of stooping. His eyes were droopy and had lines under them. He was wearing a black baseball cap. He had grey, scruffy, straggly hair ... he had a moustache, which was grey."

The hearing was delayed for legal arguments about reporting restrictions, and yesterday Mr McGregor closed the court for half an hour to hear evidence from Ms Lees that he deemed could have prejudiced a trial.

The body of Mr Falconio, of Hepworth, West Yorkshire, has never been found, but prosecutors claim there is evidence that he was murdered.

Mr Murdoch is not obliged to enter a plea in a committal case.

The hearing continues today.

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