IN BOWRAL police station, two blocks from the Sir Donald Bradman Cricket Museum, a constable leaned across the counter and said: 'Everyone in this town is worried, mate, real worried. Most people around here think these murders have been done by a local.'
He was talking about the 'backpacker murders' which have stunned Bowral and the rest of Australia. The victims were seven young hitch-hikers whose bodies were discovered in a forest nearby: two British women a year ago, an Australian couple last month and three Germans last week. Hundreds of police are combing the forest this weekend fearing they will find more bodies in what has become Australia's worst serial killing, and the country's biggest murder investigation.
Bowral (population 8,000) is not the sort of place you associate with multiple murder. It is the Australian equivalent of a Cotswold village: quaint, green, leafy and rather exclusive, its turn-of-the-century stone houses with their English-style gardens are snapped up by wealthy people escaping the bustle of Sydney. Here Bradman spent his early childhood, and played his first game of cricket on an oval surrounded by a picket fence and gum trees. Its other claim to fame, before the discoveries of the past few weeks, was its annual tulip festival.
Yet this is where the bodies turned up, in the Belanglo State Forest, 12 miles from the Bradman museum. The two British travelling companions, Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, both 22, were found by a bushwalker in September last year. Early last month, a man collecting firewood stumbled upon the bodies of two Australians, James Gibson and his girlfriend, Deborah Everist, both 19. Those discoveries brought police en masse to the forest and last Monday their fears were confirmed when they found the skeleton of a lone German hitch-hiker, Simone Schmidl, 21, followed on Thursday by those of two more Germans, Gabor Neugebauer, 21, and his girlfriend, Anja Habschied, 20. All of the victims had been stabbed several times, some in what have been described as 'frenzied attacks', and Miss Clarke had also been shot in the head with a .22 calibre rifle.
THE common path to their desolate graves begins in Sydney, 50 miles to the north. That is where about 100,000 young overseas visitors converge each year, staying in backpacker hotels in the crowded inner-city districts of Kings Cross and Surry Hills before setting out on adventure holidays around Australia. About 40,000 of them are from Britain, with 30,000 Germans the next biggest nationality.
Most are unprepared for the scale of Australia, a country the size of the United States, but with a fraction of the population. Many have little notion of the vast distances involved and of the emptiness and stillness that often begins just where the big cities end.
Australians learn from an early age; schoolchildren still recite the verse by 'Banjo' Paterson, the author of Waltzing Matilda, about 'the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended/And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars'. Foreigners, who have long regarded Australia as a safe destination, are often not ready for the hazards of those 'sunlit plains extended'.
The police picture of the last movements of the murdered hitch-hikers contains a series of common threads. All had stayed in Sydney backpacker hotels. All had been careful to inform relatives and friends of their plans before they left Sydney. They all seem to have headed south along the Hume Highway, the main link between Sydney and Melbourne and the road that passes through Bowral.
The first to go missing, and the first to be murdered, were the Australian teenagers, James Gibson and Deborah Everist. They checked out of their cheap hotel in Sydney's Surry Hills in December, 1989, and set out for their home city, Melbourne, planning to stop on the way at a conservation festival in Albury, on the New South Wales-Victoria border.
The day after they left Sydney, a walker found Mr Gibson's damaged camera on a roadside at Galston Gorge, north of Sydney. The finder took it home, but was not prompted to report it for another month when there was publicity over the discovery in the same area of Mr Gibson's empty backpack. His name on the outside flap had been cut off, but the name inside was intact.
About a year later, Simone Schmidl, the German known as 'Simi' to her friends, became the next casualty. She left Sydney on 20 January, 1991, announcing that she was hitching to Melbourne to meet her mother, Erwine Schmidl, who was flying from Germany to join her for a camping holiday.
Doris Murphy, a Sydney woman whose daughter had befriended Miss Schmidl, warned her against hitch-hiking and remembers Simone's response: 'She showed me a tourist book which said it was safe to hitch- hike here and that Australians are all warm and friendly.'
Miss Schmidl, with her distinctively large, round glasses and dreadlock hair tied up in a scarf, was last seen alive on a Sydney railway station, where she apparently planned to catch a train out of the city to start thumbing rides. When Mrs Schmidl arrived in Melbourne from Germany two days later, her daughter was not at the airport to meet her as planned. The distraught woman raised the alarm after a few days and stayed in Australia for six weeks hoping Simone would show up. Then she flew back to Europe, heartbroken and devastated.
Almost a year passed before the German couple Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied met the same fate as their compatriot. They left the Backpackers' Inn at Sydney's Kings Cross on Boxing Day, 1991, to hitch south to Adelaide, then north to Darwin, from where they planned to fly home with stops in Asia.
Mr Neugebauer's parents later reported that he telephoned them in Germany from the Backpackers' Inn on Christmas Eve sounding 'agitated' and complaining that he was unable to sleep in the sweltering Sydney summer heat.
A Sydney newspaper yesterday published excerpts from what was said to be Miss Habschied's last letter home to her family in which she wrote: 'It will be a little difficult after Christmas because we will need to travel the 4,100km to Darwin uninterrupted. The bad luck in Australia is that all you want to see lies so far from each other and if you want to see something you must spend a lot of money.'
Police remain mystified by reports that the couple were seen a few days after they left Sydney in a caravan park in Darwin, where they were said to have missed their flight to Indonesia. They found a discarded airline ticket near the couple's bodies in the forest on Thursday.
The last hitch-hikers to go missing, the last to be murdered but the first whose bodies were found, were the British women, Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. They had arrived in Australia separately, but teamed up to travel. They wrote to their families at home, Miss Clarke's in Northumberland and Miss Walters' in south Wales, of plans to see the Northern Territory, Ayers Rock and the Nullarbor Plain in the Western Australian desert.
In April last year, the women left Sydney together and apparently headed for Victoria to take jobs picking fruit. They hitch-hiked first to Bulli Pass, on the Pacific Ocean coast south of Sydney, where they were last seen asking directions to the Hume Highway. From there the trail went cold.
As each of the travellers vanished, police could find nothing to link their disappearances. There were plenty of reported 'sightings', but no bodies, and police were obliged to add the backpackers' names to the hundreds of others filed under 'missing persons'.
What turned the bizarre mysteries into a full-scale murder investigation was the chance discovery of the bodies of Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters in the Belanglo State Forest in September last year, five months after they disappeared. A man taking part in an orienteering event found one, and police uncovered the other soon afterwards. With the discovery last month of the Australian couple's bodies, the murder inquiry instantly became a task force of 35 detectives headed by Superintendent Clive Small, reputed to be one of the toughest men in the New South Wales police force.
Police in every Australian state are now sending outstanding missing persons files to the task force. They include the cases of a German woman backpacker who was last seen in Tasmania in March, and two overseas visitors who are missing in Queensland.
TO FIND Superintendent Small, you turn off the Hume Highway near Bowral and drive about three miles along a lonely dirt road into the Belanglo State Forest. On one side is a pine plantation and on the other a dense eucalpytus forest. This is the only way in, and it is the route the killer would have taken with his victims. On the edge of the rugged eucalyptus bushland, a command post has been set up for the 300 police who have embarked on an intense search of the forest, turning over the ground by hand, leaf by leaf and stick by stick.
The killer left few of the victims' personal effects as clues. But he (police assume it was a man) did leave the bodies placed in a curiously similar, almost symmetrical manner. All were covered with makeshift canopies of leaves, ferns and twigs. They were left near a network of fire trails which criss- cross the forest, including such sites as Executioner's Drop and Miner's Despair. The names, now chillingly apt, were coined by local orienteering groups. The bodies of the British women and the Australian couple were found close together, as were those of the three Germans. But a distance of about three miles separated all the German bodies from the other four. There were the remains of makeshift bush fires encircled by stones near the bodies, suggesting the killer had camped there. Police yesterday discounted reports that something resembling a crude altar near one of the bodies had anything to do with the murders.
This raises the questions now begging to be answered: how did the victims get into the forest, a place where none of them could possibly have ventured voluntarily or stumbled into by mistake? Since all the backpackers except Miss Schmidl were travelling in pairs, and two of the pairs included robust young men, how did the killer manage to overpower them? Were there two killers at work? Did he or they drug the victims first?
Police have ruled nothing out, and are collecting soil samples from the death sites to test for drug traces. They are certain that the killer or killers knew the forest intimately - hence the worries of Bowral people - and that the victims were driven to their fates along the fire trails in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Beyond that, Superintendent Small is playing his cards close to his chest. He told the Independent on Sunday: 'We do believe that the two British women were definitely murdered inside the forest. We're keeping our minds open about the others because a longer time has elapsed since they were murdered.' There is no evidence at this stage of sexual abuse. But, after he visited the forest on Friday, Peter Gould, the deputy New South Wales Coroner, suggested that other forms of violence may have been involved. He said: 'There was some sort of control or force used.'
Police are certain they are dealing with a serial killer, but if they have any idea of the sort of person he might be, they are not saying. According to Tim Watson-Munro, an Australian forensic pyschologist, the backpacker murders have the classic signs of a serial killer who is compelled to go on murdering the same types of people through a combination of power and sexual drives.
'These people often get sexual gratification from the act of killing itself, even though they may have no physical contact with the victim in a sexual way,' he said. 'I believe this person is bad rather than mad. He's not suffering from insanity. It may well be that, as with other serial killers, he is able to mask his badness between episodes of killing. It may be that the person goes to work every day, is in a relationship with someone and has childen.'
Robert Ressler, the American expert who helped to set up the FBI's Behavioural Science Unit, which was depicted in the film Silence of the Lambs, was quoted yesterday as saying: 'They often look normal, which is how they manage to lure their victims. It makes the victims even more vulnerable because they do not perceive any danger from them. The one way to catch serial killers is to get inside their minds.'
For the families of the backpacker victims, the last few years have been a nightmare. Gabor Neugebauer's parents and Anja Habschied's brother flew from Germany to Australia last year in desperation to see if they could find the couple themselves. They travelled thousands of miles through Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales on a fruitless search before returning home.
A few months later, the parents of Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters flew out from Britain when their daughters' remains were found and visited the forest grave sites for a private memorial service. Early last month, Bowral residents gathered in the town hall to mark the first anniversary of the British women's discovery.
If the families will never be the same again, neither will Bowral. Its timeless world has been turned inside out, and its people are now wondering if the killer is walking among them. On Friday, four neatly dressed women were braving the wind in the main street at a cake and jam stall. 'We're terrified,' said Wendy Quigg. 'I hate turning the radio on now. People are locking their doors.' Then she changed the subject.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies