Shocked town locks its doors on serial killer: The bodies of seven hitch-hikers have been found near Bowral, an Australian backwater. Police are looking for more. Robert Milliken reports

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The Independent Online
UNTIL a month ago the small town of Bowral in the New South Wales southern highlands was known for three things: tulips, quaint turn-of-the-century houses and a museum named after Sir Donald Bradman, the cricketer who spent his early childhood there.

Yesterday, Bowral was in a state of shock, its timeless world shattered by the discovery in a forest nearby of the bodies of seven young hitch-hikers, including two British women, all of them murdered in what has become Australia's most sensational serial killing.

The 'backpacker murders' have sent a chill through Australia because the bodies have been progressively uncovered in the dense Belanglo State Forest, south of Sydney, over the past year, three of them this week alone. With the killer or killers still on the loose, police fear there are more bodies to be found. An extra 300 police were called in yesterday to comb the forest and the New South Wales government offered a reward of Adollars 500,000 ( pounds 227,000) for clues.

The first bodies were found in September last year, those of two British women, Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, both 22, who had not been seen for five months. There was a lull until early last month, when the bodies of two Australians, James Gibson and Deborah Everist, both 19, were discovered nearby. On Monday, the skeletal remains of a German woman, Simone Schmidl, 21, were located about three miles from the others. Then on Thursday came the discovery of two more skeletons, which police believe are those of a German couple, Gabor Neugebauer, 21, and his girlfriend, Anja Habshied, 20.

All of these young people had one thing in common. They had joined thousands of adventure holidaymakers like them, many from overseas, who converge each year on hotels in the crowded inner Sydney district of Kings Cross. They had set out between December 1989 and April 1992, mostly in pairs, after telling family and friends that they planned to hitch-hike around Australia. Then they vanished.

All of them met their deaths in the same gruesome way, police have confirmed. They were stabbed repeatedly and their bodies left covered with twigs, ferns and leaves. Miss Clarke was also shot with a .22 calibre rifle. No remains showed signs of sexual molestation. The killer left few clues in the form of personal effects: just an airline ticket lying near one of the skeletons found on Thursday. Most have been identified from dental records.

Driving into the Belanglo forest along a bumpy dirt road, with a pine plantation on one side and dense eucalyptus woodland on the other, it is impossible to believe that any of the victims would have ventured there voluntarily. The death scenes are miles from the Hume Highway, Australia's most crowded trunk road, which is popular with hitch-hikers between Sydney and Melbourne.

Were they driven there forcibly by their killer, who was preying on the highway? One theory is that they were somehow drugged after hitching lifts. The British women were last seen near the coast, about 30 miles away, asking directions to the Hume Highway. At the search scene deep in the forest yesterday, Superintendent Clive Small, who is leading the investigation, said: 'We believe the two British women were murdered in the forest, not killed beforehand and dumped. We don't know about the others yet.'

Back at the Bowral police station, the telephones were busy with calls from locals offering information. A spookiness has settled on the town, renowned as a retirement and holiday retreat for wealthy Sydney people, as the full realisation sinks in that a killer may be lurking among them. In a quiet town where everyone knows each other, people have started locking their doors.

Inspector Phil Jones, Bowral's senior policeman, is mystified why the bodies were not found sooner because the forest is traversed by thousands of bush walkers and orienteering groups. Indeed, all the bodies were found near fire trails criss-crossing the scrub. He said: 'The killer is obviously someone who knows that forest.'

It was a bush walker who stumbled on the remains of Miss Walters and Miss Clarke. Their parents flew to Australia, Miss Walters' from South Wales and Miss Clarke's from Northumberland, to visit the site. Early last month, to mark the anniversary, Inspector Jones arranged a gathering in the town hall where about 200 locals watched a video prepared by the women's parents to thank them for their help.

The parents also appealed in the film for the return of any of their daughters' personal effects which may still be found. Miss Walters' parents had sent her a gold locket to wear during her travels. David Wood, the mayor of Bowral, said yesterday: 'I remember the picture of that locket clearly. It was a striking shape. The police have had a lot of feedback since that video.'

The police, though, are racing against time because psychologists believe the murders have the hallmark of a serial killer who will go on killing until caught.

(Photograph omitted)