Murdoch found guilty of Falconio murder

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The Independent Online

Drug runner Bradley Murdoch was today found guilty of murdering British backpacker Peter Falconio on a remote stretch of desert highway in the Australian Outback more than four years ago.

Murdoch, of Broome, Western Australia, was also found guilty of depriving Mr Falconio's girlfriend Joanne Lees of her liberty and of assaulting her on the Stuart Highway, near Barrow Creek, about 200 miles north of Alice Springs, on July 14, 2001.

All the verdicts were unanimous. Trial judge Chief Justice Brian Martin sentenced Murdoch to life imprisonment, and the minimum term will be set at a later date.

The 47-year-old drifter flagged the couple down in their orange camper van and shot Mr Falconio dead before threatening Miss Lees, 32, of Brighton, with a gun to her head and tying her up with her hands behind her back, the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin heard.

She managed to escape and hide in the bush for more than five hours on the moonless night before being rescued, but Mr Falconio, 28, of Hepworth, Huddersfield, was never seen again and no body has been found.

Inside the court Miss Lees, who had been the victim of smears ever since her boyfriend's disappearance, sat shaking in the public gallery as the jurors returned to their seats.

Mr Falconio's brother Paul, of Huddersfield, placed his arm around her shoulder for support and as the jury's verdict was read out, Miss Lees cried into Paul's shoulder.

Sitting in front of them, Mr Falconio's parents Joan and Luciano, of Holmfirth, Huddersfield, held hands and turned around to shake hands with their sons Paul and Nick.

In the dock Murdoch, wearing a blue shirt, showed no emotion as the jury's verdict was read out nor when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The judge told Murdoch: "You have been found guilty by a jury of the crime of murder. There is only one judgment that is practised by the law in the Northern Territory and that is imprisonment for life."

Murdoch's lawyer Grant Algie told the court he had been instructed to appeal.

The jury in Darwin was not given details of Murdoch's police record.

Although it was revealed during the trial that he was a drug smuggler, he was also a gun-obsessed thug who repeatedly claimed the police framed him for violence and sex offences. He was also obsessed with the Falconio case.

Murdoch was arrested for Mr Falconio's murder by police investigating the rape of a 12-year-old girl - a crime Murdoch was cleared of two years ago.

In November 2003, he was found not guilty of charges of rape, false imprisonment and assault following the case, which had several similarities to Mr Falconio's murder.

Prosecutors had alleged that Murdoch raped a 12-year-old girl before abducting her and her mother "for insurance" while in a state of drug-fuelled paranoia that police were framing him in the Falconio case.

During the 25-hour ordeal at Swan Reach, in Riverland, South Australia, in August 2002 Murdoch allegedly denied killing Mr Falconio, but admitted having one of his T-shirts, the South Australia District Court heard in October 2003.

The court heard Murdoch told the mother and daughter, who thought they were Murdoch's friends, that he was "on the run" because the police had framed him.

Two years later, the jury trying Murdoch for murder heard he had put black cable ties around Miss Lees's wrists and tried to put tape around her legs, but she kicked out and he was unable to tighten it.

Miss Lees also told the murder trial that her attacker was driving a white four-wheeled drive vehicle, similar to a Toyota Landcruiser, which had a dark-coloured canopy over its rear.

Two years earlier, the alleged rape victim, who was 13 when she gave evidence, said Murdoch had a white Landcruiser with a green canopy.

Miss Lees's attacker covered her head with a sack during the attack and tried to tape her mouth shut. The 13-year-old girl said she was blindfolded while her mouth was taped.

The jury in the rape trial also heard Murdoch spoke about Mr Falconio during the attack itself.

Officers who arrested Murdoch for the rape discovered a hoard of weapons inside his van, including a high-powered rifle, night vision goggles, almost 800 rounds of ammunition, a knife, a crossbow with 13 bolts, an electric cattle prod, chains and shackles similar to those used to bind the wrists of Miss Lees.

They also discovered two long-handled shovels, a jockey whip and five pairs of disposable gloves.

In a hidden compartment in a spare fuel tank in the rear of his vehicle, officers found an empty box for a 9mm semi-automatic Glock pistol and a fully-loaded .38 Beretta semi-automatic pistol was found in a holster within a backpack between the van's front seats.

The court heard he also vehemently resisted attempts to have his DNA analysed - tests which eventually linked him to Mr Falconio's murder and showed that he was 100 million times more likely to be the killer than anyone else.

He was arrested for the Falconio murder after the South Australia jury returned majority verdicts of not guilty on two charges of rape, two charges of false imprisonment, two counts of indecent assault and one of common assault in South Australia.

The South Australia jurors who acquitted Murdoch at the end of the two-week trial knew of the Falconio link at an early stage. They were told he knew he was a key suspect and that he thought he was being framed for his murder.

Murdoch had a violent past and had already served 21 months in jail for shooting at a group of Aborigines he claimed were harassing him.

He transported large amounts of cannabis across Australia on a commercial scale, often carrying a gun with him in a compartment within the driver's door of his vehicle for protection.

Described as meticulous, fastidious and obsessive in court, it was Murdoch's business to avoid the police and he regularly changed his appearance, shaving off his beard and moustache, as he went about his drugs business.