Truck driver given life sentence for murder of Falconio

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The Independent Online

Joanne Lees, the girlfriend of the murdered backpacker Peter Falconio, has urged his killer to reveal where he hid the body.

Speaking after Bradley Murdoch, a long-distance truck driver and drug runner, was given a life sentence for the murder of Mr Falconio four years ago, Ms Lees said she was "obviously delighted" with the verdict, but said Murdoch should reveal "what he had done with Pete".

Murdoch, 47, was also convicted yesterday of abducting and assaulting Ms Lees, but the trial ended with mystery continuing to surround the motive for the attack, as well as the whereabouts of the body. The trial, in a purpose-built courtroom, saw hundreds of journalists descend on Darwin in the largest case since the 1982 trial of Lindy Chamberlain, who alleged that her baby was snatched by a dingo.

Inside the Northern Territory Supreme Court, Ms Lees sat shaking in the public gallery and cried on the shoulder of Mr Falconio's brother Paul as the verdict was read out. Murdoch sat impassively as he heard his fate from the judge, Brian Martin. "Bradley John Murdoch, you have been found guilty of wilful murder. The only sentence is imprisonment for life" he said.

In a nine-week trial the court in Darwin has heard in minute detail the events of the evening of 14 July 2001 on Stuart Highway, a remote, dusty stretch of road about 200 miles north of Alice Springs.

Ms Lees told the court how their backpacking trip came to a violent end at the hands of a man portrayed by the prosecution as a notorious sociopath, drug trafficker and gun enthusiast once tried for rape. The defence attempted to pick holes in her account and her personality, pointing to another relationship she had behind Mr Falconio's back, her unlikely escape from the attacker through the back of Murdoch's 4x4 and, above all, the absence of a body, despite a hunt by Aboriginal trackers.

Murdoch flagged down the couple as they were travelling in their orange camper van, duping them into believing that he had spotted a fault with their vehicle. He shot Mr Falconio, then 28, from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, dead at close range once outside the vehicle. As she fought for her life, Ms Lees pleaded: "Have you shot my boyfriend? Where is my boyfriend? Where is Pete?" Murdoch put a gun to her head and said: "Shut up and you won't get shot." He tied her hands behind her back and put her in the back of his vehicle, but with her attacker's attention diverted for a moment, Ms Lees climbed out - a difficult manoeuvre that she was forced to simulate in court to convince the jury - and ran away into the bush. She then managed to escape and hide in the bush "like a rabbit" for more than five hours on the moonlit night as Murdoch searched for her with his dog and a torch, sometimes coming within a few feet of her before giving up.

She heard their camper van being driven away and then the other vehicle being driven off. She was eventually rescued when she ran out in front of a lorry, which almost knocked her down. The trucker had to cut her hands free with a bolt cutter before driving her to the nearby Barrow Creek Hotel truck stop to raise the alarm. Police searched the area the next morning and found the couple's Volkswagen Kombi van parked in the scrub. They also found a patch of blood on the highway covered in soil, which was later identified as Mr Falconio's.

A breakthrough in the prosecution came when Australian detectives investigating the alleged rape of a 12-year-old girl arrested Murdoch, whose criminal profile had already made him a suspect in the Falconio case.

During the rape trial a picture emerged of the defendant, from Broome, Western Australia, as a man with a violent past who transported cannabis across Australia on a commercial scale and was convinced he was being framed for the Falconio murder.

In November 2003 Murdoch was cleared of rape, false imprisonment and assault, but evidence heard in court linked him to the Falconio case. In both cases he was alleged to have used black cable ties and tape to restrain his victims in order to cover them with a hood or blindfold them.

Detectives in the rape case found a hoard of weapons concealed inside his van including a rifle, crossbow, cattle prod and chains and shackles similar to those used to bind the wrists of Ms Lees. During the rape trial, he vehemently resisted analysis of his DNA - tests that 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.

But Grant Algie, who defended Murdoch on both occasions, alleged that the first trial was influencing the second. Although the Darwin jury did not hear of Murdoch's police record, Mr Algie claimed that his client had been "set up".

Yesterday's verdict has provided vindication for Ms Lees, 32, from Brighton, East Sussex, who has contended with media speculation - and who was condemned by one senior Australian policeman as "offensive" - about her role in the murder. As the only witness to the attack, it was revealed during the trial that she cheated on her boyfriend by having an affair with a man who was working in a Sydney bookshop. But during the trial, Ms Lees and the Falconio family gave every impression of solidarity as they left court together.

In a cold and unemotional television interview with Martin Bashir, for which she was paid £50,000, she complained that police had not believed her account. Further revelations about the attack and trial are expected to flow from numerous books and film projects she is said to have agreed to work on.

After yesterday's verdict, Judge Martin told jurors: "For what it's worth, can I say in respect of your verdict that I entirely agree. Do not look back with second thoughts or with any doubts." Mr Falconio's brother Nick said the verdict was "not a celebration for us. We have waited for over four years for this." His other brother, Paul, spoke of a "long and difficult period" and said the family's priority was to find Peter's body.

The unanswered questions

WHERE IS THE BODY?

It is four years since the crime and after a fruitless search by Aboriginal trackers, Mr Falconio's body has still not been found. This led to claims made in court that Mr Falconio had faked his own death. The defence claimed there was "no rational explanation" as to why anyone would kill the backpacker in such as remote spot and then move the body. Questions were raised as to why Murdoch would pick up a dead body and put it in his car.

The jury were told that the absence of Mr Falconio's body did not prevent a guilty verdict after Judge Martin was asked to clarify the point. He told the jury: "The absence of a body is not a bar to a guilty verdict of murder." He said the critical question was whether the Crown had proved that Mr Falconio was killed and whether Murdoch had killed him.

WHAT WAS THE MOTIVE?

No clear motive has emerged during the trial although there is plenty of scope for speculation for a man characterised as a drifter with a drugs problem and fondness for guns. If Murdoch was attempting a robbery then he was unlikely to have found rich pickings from a couple of travellers in a camper van.

Mr Murdoch, who was cleared of the rape of a 12-year-old girl two years ago, may also have been led by a sexual motive.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MISSING LIP BALM?

The court heard that Miss Lees used a piece of lip balm to ease off the handcuffs off her wrists to escape the attacker's vehicle. The lip balm and two pieces of tape were not found until three months later despite extensive police searches of the crime scene in the days after the attack. Under cross-examination it was claimed a kangaroo might have taken the items - and then put it back later. The defence lawyer suggested they had been planted there by police.

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