"Backpacker murders" trial gets under way

 

AFTER months of legal wrangling and delays, a 51 year old road worker finally went on trial yesterday charged with Australia's "backpacker murders" of seven young hitch hikers.

Standing impassively in the dock of the New South Wales Supreme Court, Mr Ivan Milat answered "Not guilty" in a quiet voice to each of the murder charges against him over the deaths of the two British women, three Germans and two Australians whose bodies were discovered in the Belanglo State Forest, south of Sydney, between September 1992 and November 1993. He also pleaded not guilty to a charge of kidnapping a young British tourist who fled after accepting a lift from him on the same highway where he allegedly picked up the murdered hitch hikers.

The man charged with Australia's most sensational serial killing has been in custody for almost two years, since his arrest in May 1994.

After a seven week hearing late that year, he was ordered to stand trial. His lawyers then undertook a series of appeals claiming he had been offered insufficient legal aid. The appeals were exhausted last September when The Court of Criminal Appeal ruled against him.

The first day of a trial, expected to last for six months, was taken up yesterday with the selection of a jury. Eight men and four women were finally chosen and Mr Justice David Hunt, the trial judge, told them: "You would have to have been hermits not to have heard anything at all about this case. There will necessarily be some degree of emotion involved. But you must put aside any feelings of horror for these crimes."

The backpacker murders shocked Australians because they struck at the heart of the country's image of itself as an easy going, safe haven of wide open spaces for the thousands of young hitch hikers from all over the world who embark on adventure working holidays every year.

The British women, both 22, were the last of the seven victims to go missing, the last to be murdered and the first whose bodies were discovered. Caroline Walters and her travelling companion, Joanne Clarke, left a Sydney hostel in April 1992 planning to hitch hike to Victoria to take fruit picking jobs. Two orienteers found their bodies five months later in the forest near the Hume Highway, between Sydney and Melbourne. Ms Clarke had been shot 10 times with a .22 rifle and stabbed in the chest. Ms Walters had been stabbed 14 times in the chest.

The other dead are Germans Simone Schmidt (20), Gabor Neugebauer, (21) and Anja Habschied (20), and Australians James Gibson and his girlfriend Deborah Everist, both 19.

The prosecution has assembled a strong circumstantial case. It will produce backpacks and camping gear allegedly belonging to some of the victims, and firearms which police seized.