Trigger warning: violent and gruesome details
Wherever Ivan Milat went, violence usually followed. By the age of 13, he was placed firmly on the local authorities’ radar. By the time he was 19, he was a convicted thief. It wouldn’t be long before he escalated from stealing and petty crime to murder, and become known as the “backpacker murderer.”
In the early ’90s, Australia was shocked by the gruesome killings of seven foreign backpackers in the Belanglo State Forest. The slayings became known as the “backpacker murders” and still remains one of the worst string of homicides to take place in the country. Regardless, the man behind the slayings, Ivan Milat, still maintains his innocence after decades behind bars.
Mark Whittaker, who wrote Sins of the Brother, a book about the murders, says of Milat, “There are just some people who are dirty, rotten people,” and added that there was no moral to the story.
Ivan Milat grew up in a dysfunctional family, which is how a lot of serial killer stories tend to begin. He was born Ivan Robert Marko Milat on December 27, 1944, to a family of Croatian immigrants. The Milat’s were poor, his father was frequently violent, and his mother was often pregnant; the upbringing was unstable and lacked any real parenting. His mother had 14 children, including Milat, who was her fifth born. Two of her 14 children died when they were very young.
The overcrowded Milet family grew up in a shack-house in Moorebank, a suburb located just outside of Sydney, Australia. The Milat siblings were eventually enrolled in private Catholic schools but often got into mischief after classes. They were well-versed in handling knives and firearms and frequently spent their afternoons shooting targets in their parents’ yard. Milat became a well-known delinquent to the authorities as he entered his teens.
By the age of 17, he’d been sent to a juvenile detention facility for theft. By the time he was 19, he had escalated his law-breaking behavior by breaking into a local store. According to Milat’s brother, Boris—the only member of the Milat clan who’s spoken publicly against his sibling—young Milat showed signs of psychopathic behavior much earlier than this.
When he was 17, Milat allegedly confessed to Boris that he accidentally shot a taxi driver during a stick-up gone wrong. The victim was left paralyzed from the waist down and Milat was never apprehended for this crime. An innocent man was convicted and served five years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
In 1971, at the age of 26, Milat was charged with raping two young female backpackers. However, the sloppiness of the prosecutor’s evidence only aided Milat in getting acquitted. Perhaps getting away with this crime made Ivan Milat feel he could get away with more—and worse—crimes. He then attempted to rape and murder two more women in 1977, crimes for which, yet again, he was never charged.
Boris said in an interview that Ivan was “pretty normal up until 12, 14. I heard about it from his mates, you know. They’d all boast about how they’d go out at night and do things with machetes. I heard he cut a dog in half with a machete while he was growing up.”
“He was going to kill somebody from the age of ten. It was built into him; I knew he was on a one-way trip. It was just a matter of how long.”
In 1984, Ivan Milat married a woman 15 years his junior, but the marriage went sour quickly, and as a result, Milat sought revenge by burning down her parents home in Newcastle. His ex-wife later testified against him in trial and said her former husband was obsessed with guns and was known to be violent.
After his ill-fated marriage, Milat’s propensity for extreme violence would only escalate into even more insidious territory.
Before the first of Milat’s victims had been discovered, a slew of missing backpackers had been reported in the Belanglo Forest since 1989, including a teenage couple heading to ConFest.
The first of Milat’s victims were found on September 19, 1992, in the Belanglo State Forest in New South Wales. Two runners stumbled on a concealed corpse lying face down in the dirt, hands bound behind their back. Then another body was found the next morning by police just feet from the first body. Dental records later identified the two bodies as British backpackers, 21-year-old Caroline Clarke and 22-year-old Joanne Walters. They were last seen months prior in April when they were on their way to Victoria to go fruit picking.
An autopsy confirmed the two had been brutally slaughtered. Clarke had been blindfolded and led to the bush to be shot 10 times in the head. It was believed her bullet-filled body had been used for target practice. Walters had been killed a different way; she’d been stabbed 14 times: four in the chest, once in the neck, and nine in the back which served to sever her spine.
Suspecting they would discover more bodies in the forest, investigators began a search of the area but surprisingly came up empty-handed. But they were right; they would uncover more dead bodies, and more corpses would be unearthed in the coming year.
In October 1993, a local man was searching for firewood and discovered human bones in a remote area of the Belanglo State Forest. After returning to the scene with police, authorities quickly found two bodies, which were later identified as the teenage couple who’d gone missing in 1989, 19-year-olds Deborah Everist and James Gibson. Everist had been beaten to death, her head fractured and jaw broken, and she’d been stabbed once in the back. Gibson was uncovered in the fetal position, riddled with knife wounds so deep that his lungs had been punctured and his spine had been severed. The location of the bodies baffled police as their belongings had turned up in December 1989, 75 miles north of where they were found.
The following month, a skeleton was unearthed in a clearing along a fire trail in the forest during a police sweep of the area. The remains were identified as missing 21-year-old German backpacker Simone Schmidl. Again, she had been stabbed so deeply and violently that her spine had been severed.
On a nearby trail, another two corpses were discovered, including travellers Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied who had been missing for two years. Habschied had been decapitated, although investigators were never able to locate her skull. Neugebauer had been shot six times in the head.
The local authorities had never seen carnage like it before. The brutal killings dominated the news and struck fear into tourists making their way around Australia after the homicides earned the name “the backpacker murders”.
New South Wales Police detective Clive Small led the investigation and recalled of the murders, “The deaths were being dragged out, and the fact that there were a number of deaths also shows that he was becoming more and more committed to the murders.” The authorities counted that between 1989 and 1992, the murderer acted every 12 months. His target was young travellers—men and women—whom he picked up as they accepted rides from strangers going from Sydney to Melbourne.
The media hysteria soon brought up past reports about the Milat brothers, who were known to own firearms and lived just an hour away from the Belanglo forest. However, suspicion of someone’s guilt isn’t enough to prove their wrongdoing—even if that suspicion is correct. Authorities didn’t have any evidence that could warrant a search of the Milats property where Ivan was still living with his mother.
Among the flurry of tipsters was a British man named Paul Onions, an ex-Navy member who’d been backpacking around Australia years prior to the slayings. He told the Australian investigators that a man had attempted to kill him during his travels and he believed that this was the same man responsible for the backpacker murders. The man who attacked Onions introduced himself as “Bill” and offered the young backpacker a lift while he was walking along the highway. Onions accepted but soon grew suspicious of the driver. After a while driving, the man pulled up and stopped in a secluded area, miles away from the highway where he’d picked up the young man. This is where he pulled out a gun and rope.
“I just thought, ‘This is it… run or die,” Onions said of the surreal moment. “I undid my seatbelt and jumped straight out of the vehicle and ran.”
The driver fired his gun after Onions as he ran across the Hume Highway. Eventually, the panicked backpacker flagged down a woman driver called Joanne Berry, pleading with her for help. Berry quickly let the man in her car and helped him to escape. The pair reported the incident to police, but Onions’ story and Berry’s statement to local police was brushed off and forgotten—until Onions saw the news about the Belanglo backpacker murders.
Australian authorities were now taking notice of Onions and flew him from London to Sydney to help identify the man who’d tried to kidnap and murder him. Out of 13 photos of suspects, Onions immediately identified his almost-killer when he saw suspect photo number four: Ivan Milat.
Authorities were gaining some traction now and reached out to the two women who’d been hitchhiking in 1977 near the forest and had barely escaped murder at the hands of an unknown man with “black straggly hair.” Just like Onions, they were shown a series of photos which included Ivan Milat as well as his brother Richard, and one of the women identified the brothers.
Milat’s 1971 rape charge from two young female backpackers compounded the authorities belief that they’d found their backpacker murderer. They placed an intercept on the Milat’s home, which was co-owned and shared between Ivan Milat and his sister, Shirley, who many have since said was involved in the murders as well. Milat’s youngest brother, George, said “Shirley was in on it. All I can do is say she was involved.” Milat also allegedly had been having a sexual relationship with his sister since the ’50s.
Investigation efforts culminated in a search of Milat’s home on May 22, 1994. Teams of armed police donning bulletproof vests surrounded the area while Milat laughed and mocked the lead negotiator.
The team placed Milat under arrest as they searched the premises and unearthed an abundance of evidence. They found a postcard from someone from New Zealand who referred to Ivan Milat as “Bill,” they located his guns which used the same firearms cartridges found at some of the murder scenes. They found the electrical tape he’d used in some of his murders, too, alongside Indonesian currency. Milat had never been to Indonesia but victims Neugebauer and Habschied had travelled there right before they came to Australia.
But the biggest find was no doubt the backpacking items and other incriminating equipment investigators uncovered around the house and even inside the walls of the home. These items matched the belongings of several of the Belanglo forest victims. Simone Schmidl’s sleeping bag was found among the sinister trophies found scattered around Milat’s home. The amount of proof found in the property caused investigators to refer to the Milat house as an “Aladdin’s cave of evidence.” The proof of his guilt was overwhelming.
His trial lasted weeks, resulting in the backpacker murderer being sentenced to seven life sentences—one for each of the victims found in Belanglo—plus an additional six years for the abduction of Onions.
Although the killer was now behind bars, mystery still shrouded the backpacker murders. Namely, how Milat had managed to pull off some of the murders on his own, leading to the theory may have operated with an accomplice, like his brother Richard or even his sister. These theories remain just that as no tangible proof to support these has ever been discovered.
To this day, police are unsure whether they’ve uncovered all of Ivan Milat’s murder victims. They suspect a bulk of missing-persons cases dating back to the early ’70s could also have been his doing.
Just because the backpacker murderer was detained, however, didn’t mean he was going to accept his sentence quietly—in 1997, Milat attempted to escape prison alongside another convict. The pair failed and his accomplice was found hanged in his cell the following day. Milat was then transferred to the maximum-security super-prison in Goulburn, New South Wales.
Milat always maintained his innocence. Since he was incarcerated, he wrote multiple letters to reporters and Australian papers claiming his innocence and at one point printed out the phrase “Ivan is innocent” using a Dymo labelling machine. He plastered the labels all over the prison walls.
In one of his more extreme endeavours, Milat wrote to the NSW Supreme Court, the DNA Review Panel, and the Attorney-General’s office in a bid to review his trial, cutting his little finger off with a plastic knife so that he could mail it in to the High Court to push for an appeal on his case.
Milat was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2019 and lost his battle to the disease that October at the age of 74. He never admitted to his crimes, never expressed any remorse, and undoubtedly took a lot of secrets to his grave.