Horror on the highway


THE HUME Highway, named after the early 19th-century explorer Hamilton Hume is - to use an elderly metaphor - one of Australia's major arteries. But this vital image turned macabre when part of the wild forest by the roadside became stained with the blood of seven young tourists.

Many others could be buried there, if there is truth behind the latest twists in a gruesome epic involving that most fearful of fates - random and vicious attacks in isolated surroundings.

This week, a 51-year-old roadworker named Ivan Milat was starting a life sentence in a jail north of Sydney after being found guilty of horrific crimes which came to be known as the Backpack Murders. This time, Australian legal sources say, "life" means what it says - "for the term of his natural life", and the muscular gun-lover will pay for his attacks on innocent young tourists.

But because of a legal conundrum the jury, after an 18-week trial, had to deliberate for three days and nights before finding Milat guilty of seven murders and the kidnap of one man, who escaped and eventually led police to Milat.

The murders all took place between 1989 and 1992, although the bodies were not found until 1993. Methods of execution varied: some were shot, some were stabbed repeatedly, and one young German woman was decapitated. Caroline Clarke (20); Joanne Walters (21); Anja Habschied (20); Gabor Neugebauer (21); Simone Schmidl (21); Deborah Everist (19) and James Gibson (19): all those attacked were young, fresh, curious - and in what seemed a relaxed, casual environment.

The Belanglo State Forest is inland along the south-east coast of New South Wales, an unsung but beautiful area of Australia. With a piercing blue sky above, the lacy branches of gum trees soaring, birdsong and a warm sun, you could feel as sale and peaceful here as anywhere in the globe. Civilisation beckons with Highway 31, the Hume, which goes through such quintessentially Aussie places as Gundagai and Yass on its route from Melbourne to Sydney. Hence it is a heavy traffic-carrier, and hitchhikers normally don't have to wait long for a lift. Near a railway station at Liverpool outside Sydney where the highway passes is a popular thumbing spot.

In April 1971, two young women were standing here thumbing for a lift. A 26-year-old local man, driving a souped-up Ford Falcon V8, stopped for them. They dozed in the backseat as he headed south. When they woke, they were 200 kilometres away and the car was on a dirt track in bushland.

What happened next was a matter of dispute. The charges came to court but, says Sydney journalist Jennie Curtin, it was "fairly typical of rape cases at that time". One of the girls proved a bad witness. She said Ivan Milat had raped her and threatened them both before dropping them at a service station with cans of cold drink. But she was on medication and had been receiving counselling for sexual problems. Milat, who already had a number of convictions for petty crime, walked free. It seems he did not take up that kind of activity for another 18 years.

IVAN Robert Marko Milat comes from a large, unruly working-class family living in the poorer suburbs south of Sydney. His father had emigrated from the former Yugoslavia in the 1930s. When Milat senior was 32, he met Margaret, a 14-year-old native Australian. They married two-years later and had 14 children, one of whom died in infancy.

Milat senior was a "wharfie" - a docks labourer - who worked seven days a week to feed the brood. According to one of Ivan Milat's brothers, he "ruled with an iron fist. If there was trouble, he would just whack you into the ground".

The children went to local Catholic primary schools. All had finished with education by the time they were in their early teens, and the boys started working in heavy labouring jobs. Ivan Milat's employers, most recently the state Road Traffic Authority, never seemed to have any cause to complain about him, but in his spare time he could be trouble.

Like his father, he married a woman 15 years younger than him in 1984, after they had lived together for some years. But that union hit the skids, and as a result he burnt down her parents home in the New South Wales city of Newcastle. The ex-wife, Karen, testified against Milat during the trial, saying he was obsessed with guns and could be violent. She is under police protection - there are still plenty of Milats walking around free.

But whether they should be is one of the most intriguing points of this gruelling trial. Suspicion abounded that Milat had not acted alone, especially in the three double murders. For example, the young German who was travelling with his girlfriend was 6 ft 5 ins, a fit young man who could not be easily taken where he did not want to go. And much of the camping gear which had belonged to the victims was found in several houses connected with the family. The courtroom was nonetheless shocked when the defence lawyer, Mr Terry Martin, said on July 5th that "blind Freddy could tell you one of the Milat family committed these crimes". But, he put it to the jury, could they be sure which one?

Even the judge, Mr Justice David Hunt, said in his summing up that it was almost certain Milat was not the only guilty one. The most likely accomplice seemed to be his younger brother, Richard (40).

Richard was reported to have told a friend, who was killed in a road accident two years ago, that he had scant defence if he too was arrested for the murders. NSW police had wired the friend, Philip Polglase, for the conversation, so it is on tape. `I don't worry if they come `n arrest me for fuckin' killin' all those backpackers too. . there is very little defence for me, sayin' where I was at," Richard said.

The trial had also heard evidence he had told his workmates that stabbing a woman was nothing more than "cutting a loaf of bread".

But this week, after the verdict in his brother's trial, he went on Australia's often-sensational Sixty Minutes television programme to declare his innocence.

If Richard Milat is also guilty, a killer of psychopathic tendencies is still on the loose. And psychologists such as Dr Jill Farrelly of Sydney have little doubt the Backpacker Murderer fitted the textbook definition of a psychopath: "predators who use manipulation, intimidation and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish wants".

There has been much speculation in Australia that more unsolved disappearances have a sad solution under the soil of the Belanglo forest. And how many other times did Ivan, or Richard, Milat or both - try such evil tactics? The one that got away - Paul Onions, from Birmingham - only learned of Milat's subsequent activities years after he had returned to Britain, when he heard the news from Australia, of the Belanglo forest discoveries. There may be other stories of narrow escapes scattered throughout the world, but the near-victims may never know how close they came to death.