Ground zero... Ivan Milat's house at Eagle Vale, where he was arrested in May 1994. Photo: Getty Images
When the bodies of seven backpackers were found in Belanglo State Forest south-west of Sydney in 1992 and 1993, it sparked Australia's biggest manhunt. Clive Small, who led the investigation, recalls the painstaking work that led police to Ivan Milat.
In 1993, as thousands of pieces of information continued to pour in regarding the seven murdered backpackers - Deborah Everist, James Gibson, Simone Schmidl, Gabor Neugebauer, Anja Habschied, Joanne Walters and Caroline Clarke - the police hotline received a call from a woman we will call Mary, who lived in south-west Sydney. Mary said that in 1977, as 18-year-olds, she and her then friend Therese had been hitchhiking from Liverpool to their home in Canberra when they accepted a lift from a man in his "early 30s" with "black straggly hair".
Just south of Mittagong, where he had stopped to buy petrol, he turned right off the Hume Highway, telling them "it was a short cut to Canberra". A few minutes later he turned onto a dirt track and stopped the car. "I forgot to go to the toilet back at the garage," he said. He opened the boot and bonnet, then grabbed Mary by her arms and said, "Okay, girls, who's first?"
On the case: Clive Small, who led the backpacker murders investigation in the 1990s.
Mary said she punched the man and that she and Therese ran into the bush. They found a spot to hide and lay in the bushes for several hours before the man gave up looking for them and left. Mary and Therese walked back along the road until they found a farmhouse. After hearing their story, the occupants offered to drive Mary and Therese to Bowral Police Station. They didn't report the matter, but accepted a lift back to the highway and hitchhiked on to Canberra.
On the same day that Mary contacted the backpacker hotline, Therese, who lived in western Sydney, independently rang the hotline. Both women told the same story, which they later confirmed in statements. During March 1994, Mary and Therese were separately shown a series of pictures by police that included Ivan Milat and his brother Richard. While Mary did not select anyone from the photographs, Therese pointed to photograph 4 (Ivan) and said, "[His] eyebrows are similar and shape of face is similar." She then pointed to photograph 11 (Richard) and said, "At first glance, most similar, triggered some memory."
Neither amounted to a positive identification that could be used in court, but they added to the suspicions that were building around the Milat brothers. The same month, Therese, who was employed by SBS, appeared on a Four Corners program about the unsolved backpacker killings. When the program went to air, the name "Milat" appeared in the corner of a blackboard in the background of one of the scenes.
On November 9, 1993, a week after Mary and Therese had rung the hotline, a call was received from Joanne Berry of Canberra. Berry said that in January 1990 she had been driving along the Hume Highway to Canberra when, just outside Berrima, she saw a 4WD car on the side of the road and a man running towards her, chased by another man. She stopped and the first man called out, "Help me, he's got a gun." Berry let him into her car and drove him to Bowral Police Station, where he reported the incident. The man told her his name was Paul Onions, he was English, and he had been hitchhiking when the man chasing him had offered a lift. Onions had become suspicious when the man stopped the car. When he produced a gun, Onions leapt out and ran.
Two days after Joanne Berry made her report, the hotline received a phone call from England from a man who said his name was Paul Thomas Onions and that he had visited Australia between December 1989 and June 1990. In January 1990, he said, he had caught a train to Liverpool, from where he intended to hitchhike to Melbourne. He got a lift with "Bill", a man he described as being "in his early 40s who was fit looking, about 5 foot 10 ... [and had] ... a Merv Hughes moustache with black hair" driving a "white Toyota Land Cruiser 4WD with woolly seat covers".
Onions remembered them driving for about an hour before the man pulled over to the side of the road and "pulled out a black revolver. I jumped out of the car and ran. He chased me and I jumped in front of a car. The lady driving stopped the car and she took me to Bowral Police Station." Onions explained to the Bowral police that he had left his backpack with all his property, including his passport, in the car when he fled.
On November 24, analysts began to examine the records of the Police Modus Operandi Unit and extract all records of abductions and kidnappings since 1985. Inexplicably, there was no record of the incident described by Berry and Onions.
Among the hotline calls was another from a local woman who said she "didn't know if she could help", but was suspicious of a man who lived in the area. He drove a 4WD, owned lots of guns and was into shooting. His name was Ivan Milat. She had no other information, but hoped her call might be of assistance.
By February 1994, task force air had tripled in size to 33 investigators and 11 analysts, supported by ballistics and other forensic officers. At this time the Milats were clearly a family of interest. Although there was no admissible evidence against any particular family member, we had enough information to suggest that one or more of the brothers might have been involved in the murders. The hotline had provided us with our strongest lead yet: Paul Onions' story of being given a lift by a man with a gun. We knew Ivan Milat owned a vehicle similar to the one described by Onions, that he often used the name "Bill" and that another brother had the name "Bill".
A thorough investigation of the Milat family was a priority, but not one we could afford to pursue at the expense of every other lead. We now had a list of more than a dozen missing persons suspected of having been murdered, together with six unsolved murders and five people nominated by the public as possibly connected with the backpacker murders. Any one of these might have led us to the killer. Nevertheless, I assigned a team of six detectives under Detective Sergeant Royce Gorman to turn their attention to the Milat family.
On February 6, 1994, Detective Sergeant Rex Little of Bowral Police took a statement from Joanne Berry in which she repeated her story of having rescued Paul Onions from a man with a gun outside Berrima and taken him to Bowral Police Station. After speaking to Berry, Little searched the Bowral Police archives for any record of Onions' original report. Eventually he found a typed "Occurrence Entry" relating to the incident, which had also been recorded in the notebook of a constable attached to the police station. The information provided by Onions had never been followed up. Five of the seven backpackers had been murdered after Onions had reported the matter to Bowral Police.
Around February 20, I asked Detective Paul Gordon to check the criminal histories of all members of the Milat family, particularly Ivan. A day or so later Gordon told me, in front of my second-in-charge, Detective Inspector Rod Lynch, and others, that the Milat family, including Ivan, had little or no criminal history. We had been told by a number of sources, however - including then Superintendent John Laycock, who had lived near the Milat family in Guildford, in Sydney's south-west, for many years - that Ivan and some of his brothers had criminal records for armed hold-ups and related offences going back to the 1970s, and that Ivan had been involved in an abduction and sexual assault.
I asked Gordon whether he had checked the criminal histories held on microfiche. He hadn't. In 1984 the police had switched to a computerised system, but pre-1984 records still had to be checked manually at the Central Records Office. I told Gordon to go and check those records. It turned out Ivan had a criminal record dating back to 1964, when he was convicted of break, enter and steal. In 1965 he was convicted of stealing a car, and two years later of being an accessory to the theft of a car. In 1971 he had been arrested with others and charged with armed robbery, and later the same year with rape. Bailed, Ivan did not hang around. He fled to New Zealand, where he lived for two years before returning to NSW following trouble with the NZ Police. Sometime after his return to NSW, Ivan was arrested over the outstanding charges. In 1974 he beat the robbery charge, but his brother Michael and others were convicted and jailed. The same year he beat the rape charge at trial, but the detail in the court file convinced Gordon that Ivan was our man.
The court file revealed that on April 10, 1971, Ivan had picked up two 18-year-old female hitchhikers, Margaret and Greta, at Liverpool and offered to drive them to Canberra. Near Goulburn he took them to a secluded spot. At first, Ivan said that he wanted to "make love" to both women, but when they rejected him, he threatened them with two knives, saying, "You know what I'm going to do, I'm going to kill the both of you. You won't scream when I cut your throats, will you? Either one of you has sex with me or I will kill you both." Greta pleaded with Ivan to drive away and leave them alone, but Margaret agreed to have sex with him if he didn't carry out his threat to kill them. Ivan then raped Margaret, telling Greta, "Don't watch us, look out for any cars coming."
Afterwards, Ivan drove to a service station. When he stopped, the women escaped and reported the rape to police. Not long after, Ivan was arrested after a high-speed chase and charged with rape. According to Ivan, the sex had been consensual and he had dropped them off at the service station.
Inquiries revealed it had been an ugly trial. Ivan said Margaret had agreed to have sex with him. Ivan's lawyer, John Marsden, accused both women of being lesbians
who were receiving psychiatric treatment and taking prescription drugs. In his 2004 book, John Marsden: I Am What I Am, he wrote: "Juries in those days were extremely prejudiced against gays and lesbians, and on top of that, we had put into their minds the possibility that the sex may have indeed been consensual. I am not proud of my conduct that day, but as a solicitor operating in a court-room environment at that time, I had no choice but to go down that path. That said, I don't believe I should receive any praise for the win."
Greta's allegations against Ivan went further, although some were not admitted into the court proceedings. Greta recalled that after Ivan had raped Margaret, Margaret asked him whether he had done this before, to which Ivan replied yes. He said that he often picked up hitchhikers and always carried knives and ropes in case an opportunity arose. The details of the 1971 rape charge and Greta's further allegations looked bad for Ivan, but did not represent evidence against him for the backpacker murders.
A few days later, on February 26, 1994, Ivan was placed under surveillance. There were insufficient grounds to justify an application for a phone intercept or listening device in his home. Meanwhile, arrangements were being made for Paul Onions to travel from London to Sydney. We hoped he would be the "smoking gun" we were looking for. Paul Onions arrived in Sydney on May 2, 1994. On May 5, Onions was taken to the Sydney Police Centre and shown 13 photos on a video. He identified picture 4 as Bill. It was a picture of Ivan.
With the other corroborative evidence, including Joanne Berry's statement and road authority details of the vehicle Ivan owned at that time, we now had enough to charge Ivan with the attempted abduction of Onions and to have him held in custody, bail refused, while other charges could be considered. Based on Onions' ID of Ivan, an intercept was placed on the phone at his south-west Sydney home in Eagle Vale, which he owned and shared with his sister Shirley Soire. We also considered installing listening devices, but to do this we would have had to get inside the house, and surveillance had disclosed a complex electronic security system, which Ivan turned on whenever he left the house.
By now our opportunities for covert inquiries were largely exhausted; the only way to find the evidence we needed to prove Ivan was the killer was to go in and search every inch of his house and other properties belonging to members of the Milat family - to pull them apart if we had to. A large number of police would be required, and the planning alone would take several weeks. We couldn't afford to make mistakes.
On may 22, 1994, teams of police dressed in black, with bulletproof vests and armed with shotguns and submachine guns, secured the perimeter to Ivan's property. At 6.36am, Detective Sergeant Wayne Gordon (no relation to Detective Paul Gordon), the lead negotiator with the State Protection Group, phoned Ivan's number.
"Mr Ivan Milat, is it?" A male voice answered, "No."
"Is Ivan Milat there?"
"No, he's not here at the moment." Gordon knew it was Ivan's voice. Surveillance had put Ivan and his girlfriend, Chalinder Hughes, in the house the previous night, and since then no one had left or entered.
"Is that the premises at [...] Street, Eagle Vale?" Gordon asked.
"I'm a negotiator with the State Protection Group."
"I want you to come outside for the safety of yourself and whoever's in the house with you. Now what I want you to do is to come out the front door. I want you to turn left, go through the front gate. I want you to walk with your arms out, exposed from your body ..."
"You'll be met by some State Protection Group police who'll be dressed in black. They will be armed and I want you then to lie face down on the ground."
Negotiations continued for a short time, during which Ivan confirmed that his girlfriend, Chalinder Hughes, was the only other person in the house. He agreed to come out, leaving the front door open, and to follow Gordon's instructions, once he had "put me pants on". Gordon hung up. The door remained closed. Noise and movement was heard in the house.
A few minutes went by. Gordon rang the house again. It was answered by Hughes. She didn't know what was going on; Ivan hadn't told her who was on the phone. Gordon introduced himself and explained what he wanted. She put Ivan on the phone and Gordon repeated his direction for Ivan (and now Hughes) to leave the house. Ivan sounded calm and told Gordon he thought it was "someone from work" ringing up for a joke. Gordon assured Ivan that it was no joke.
Ivan laughed and told Gordon he had looked out of the window but couldn't see any police. While Gordon repeated his instructions, Ivan went on laughing and ignoring the instructions. When Gordon suggested that he leave the house first, followed by Hughes, Ivan replied, "I think we'll just walk out together."
At 6.48am, Gordon rang for the third time and spoke with Hughes, who told him they were about to come out. Finally, Ivan emerged. Being confronted by men in black, pointing shotguns and machine guns at him, was not quite what Ivan had expected. When they ordered him to "Get down!" he quickly obeyed. Detective Steve Leach and Paul Gordon, who were to interview Ivan, approached. As the handcuffs were being put on Ivan, another team of men in black rushed past him and into the house, securing it one room at a time.
Hughes had followed Ivan out of the house, but the two had been quickly separated by the police. She seemed bewildered by the scale of the raid, believing there must have been some mistake. After a short conversation, she was taken to Campbelltown Police Station. Detective Leach told Ivan we were investigating the abduction and armed robbery of Paul Onions and cautioned him that he was not obliged to answer any questions, to which Ivan replied, "I understand that, but I don't know what you're talking about." Ivan was also shown and had explained to him the warrant to search his house. Told he would also be asked questions about the backpacker murders, Ivan again replied, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Even with detectives at his doorstep, ivan still seemed to believe he could bluff it out. Ivan was taken into his house, where he showed Leach each of the rooms and told him what they were used for. He denied having any guns in the house.
The search began and it was not long before the police started finding incriminating material. In Ivan's bedroom, police found a postcard that began, "Hi Bill" - the name used by Ivan when he picked up Onions. When shown the card by Leach, Ivan denied ever using the name Bill and said, "It must have been a mistake." The writer of the postcard asked whether "Bill" would be visiting New Zealand soon; if he was, the writer said he would "see a guy about deer shooting". The writer was later identified as a friend of Ivan. Some NZ dollars were also found in his room, which Ivan explained by saying that he had "been to New Zealand". (Ivan had fled to NZ in 1971 while on bail for rape and armed robbery charges. In 1974 he returned to Australia and was acquitted of all charges.) The postcard was dated April 22, 1992, four days after Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters had disappeared.
Ivan explained 38 .22 calibre bullets found in the wardrobe of his bedroom by saying, "I used to go shooting at my brother's place," referring to Alex Milat's property at nearby Buxton. Some of the cartridges were Winchester Winner, the type found at the Clarke and Neugebauer crime scenes in the forest. The police also found some Indonesian currency in the bedroom; Ivan had never travelled to Indonesia, but Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied had spent time in Indonesia immediately before coming to Australia. Two rolls of black electrical tape similar to that located near Gabor's and Anja's bodies were also found.
Searchers also discovered a driver's licence with Ivan's photo and the name "Michael Gordon Milat". When Ivan was asked by Leach whether he had ever been to Belanglo State Forest, Ivan replied that "he had driven up a dirt track that goes past it [in the mid-1980s]". Several
Items of interest were also found in the spare bedroom, including a camouflage knife similar to one described by Onions; four boxes of Eley .22 calibre cartridges of the same batch number as those found near Gabor's body; a broken barrel band from a Ruger rifle; a Ruger 10/22 instruction manual; various gun parts; 50 Winchester cartridges, including Winner cartridges like those found at or near the Clarke and Neugebauer crime scenes; a range of ammunition for .22, .32, .38 and .45 calibre guns; and a green water bottle and pouch similar to one belonging to Simone Schmidl.
In the bedroom used by Ivan's sister Shirley, searchers found a green sleeping bag similar to that used by Deborah Everist, and a Salewa sleeping bag like that used by Schmidl. Suspicious or incriminating items continued to be found in almost every room of the house. On the coffee table in the family room was a photo album with pictures of Ivan's girlfriend, Chalinder, wearing a green-and-white striped Benetton top like that owned and worn by Caroline Clarke. The photo was dated "92" (Caroline had disappeared in April of that year).
In the hall cupboard, they discovered part of a Ruger 10/22 rifle, coloured with camouflage paint, and a map of the Southern Highlands, which included Belanglo State Forest. A camera, cooking set, stove and cups similar to those owned by Schmidl were found in the kitchen, while a .32 calibre Browning pistol and ammunition were found under the washing machine in the laundry. Asked to explain some of these items, Ivan usually responded with a shrug and some form of denial: "I don't know", "I've never seen it", "It doesn't belong to me".
Dr Rod Milton, a forensic psychiatrist, had been earlier brought on to the case to do an assessment of Ivan. Reading his conclusions, Rod Lynch and I were reasonably confident of finding a small "memento" - a piece of jewellery, for instance - in Ivan's house. But neither of us had expected the avalanche of calls that began within moments of the search teams entering the house.
From our point of view it was an Aladdin's cave of evidence, a fantastic and, frankly, unbelievable vindication of the careful detective work we had been doing behind the scenes for months. When we arrived at Ivan's house the street was still closed off; the search wasn't finished yet. The media had been allowed into the yard but not inside the house. We found Ivan sitting in the living room, handcuffed and guarded by a police officer. Ivan showed no sign of being aware of the consequences of what was happening around him.
After speaking to some of the searchers, Rod and I looked at some of the items that had been recovered. As I walked from room to room, a thought struck me: the house was jointly owned by Ivan and his sister, but the way Ivan's things - including weapons, ammunition, clothing and other property apparently linked to the backpacker murders - were strewn around the property, it made it look as if the house was Ivan's alone. I left the house convinced that Milton had been right in his assessment that control, possession and domination were the driving forces behind Ivan's life. n
Edited extract from Milat: Inside Australia's Biggest Manhunt by Clive Small and Tom Gilling, Allen & Unwin.
TIMELINE OF TERROR: IVAN MILAT AND HIS LIFE OF CRIME
April, 1971: Ivan Milat, then 26, picks up two 18-year-old hitchhikers, Margaret and Greta, at Liverpool, south-west Sydney. He threatens them with a knife, then rapes Margaret, before both escape.
1977: Hitchhikers Mary and Therese, both 18, accept a lift from a man with "black straggly hair" at Liverpool. They escape into the bush after he attempts to grab Mary.
January 1990: British backpacker Paul Onions escapes being shot by Ivan Milat on the Hume Highway. He flags down a passing motorist, Joanne Berry, and escapes.
September 1992: Bodies of British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, missing since April 1992, are found in Belanglo State Forest, south-west of Sydney.
October 1993: Bodies of Australian hitchhikers Deborah Everist and James Gibson, missing since 1989, are found in Belanglo State Forest.
November 1993: Bodies of German backpackers Simone Schmidl missing since 1991, and Anja Habschied and Gabor Neugebauer, missing since late 1991, are found in Belanglo.
May 1994: Ivan Milat is arrested in Eagle Vale, south-west Sydney, after police officers surround his home.
July 1996: Found guilty of the seven murders and the abduction for advantage of Paul Onions, Milat is sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, plus six years for the abduction of Onions, without possibility of parole.