Ivan Robert Marko Milat is one of the most feared predators in Australian criminal history. Now, terminally ill, Milat’s death won’t come soon enough for many, but the horror he unleashed in the Belanglo State Forest on at least seven young backpackers is a stain that will never be erased from the Australian psyche.
Sunday Night investigates the evil that Ivan carried out – the seven murders that we know about, and the others he got away with – and for the first time, we hear from the backpacker who says Milat tried to abduct him as he returns to the place where he says he came close to being one of Milat’s first victims.
Former police superintendent Clive Small has been intimately involved in some of the biggest murder investigations in the country, but none more chilling and confronting than Ivan Milat’s backpacker murders.
“I think it’s a terrible part of our history,” Clive tells Sunday Night’s Steve Pennells. “We have to remember it and, being blunt, Ivan Milat was a terrible person. Still is.”
Ivan Milat grew up as part of an extended clan. “The Milat family is quite an unusual family,” explains Clive. “Ivan’s father was a Croatian, lived on a small island just off Croatia. [He] wasn’t here that long before he met his wife who was quite young at the time, and they married a couple of years later. She started almost from the day they were married having children, two of whom died. He had 12 brothers and sisters.”
Ivan’s older brother Boris Milat hasn’t spoken publicly since Sunday Night’s interview in 2015 because of the anger it sparked within the Milat family.
“[Ivan] was pretty normal up until 12, 14,” Boris recalls. “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 10.’
“He was going to kill somebody from the age of 10. It was built into him. He had a different psyche. He’s a psychopath, and it just manifested itself with, ‘I can do anything, I can do anything.”
“I knew he was on a one-way trip. I knew that it was just a matter of how long.”
The Milats grew up with knives and guns as a part of everyday life. They’d spend afternoons shooting at targets in their parents’ market garden.
In his early teens, Ivan and his brothers were small-time crooks, breaking into homes and stealing.
When Ivan was 17, he secretly confessed to Boris that he’d accidentally shot a taxi driver during a failed attempted robbery. His rifle had misfired and hit Neville Knight in the spine, leaving the young father paralysed from the waist down.
Milat fled. Soon after, an innocent man was wrongly convicted and served five years for the shooting.
Milat’s bigger crimes would begin soon enough. In 1992 and 1993, the remains of four women and three men – all backpackers – were discovered in the Belanglo State Forest. Their partially buried bodies lay face-down with their hands behind their backs.
“The crime scenes themselves were little clearings in a very dense forest,” Clive Small explains. “The bodies were left there on the basis he believed no one else would see them anyway.”
Clive believes Milat’s victims were chosen because few people would notice their disappearance. “There would be very few people that would have seen them or could possibly have given him up. They were isolated from other members of their family, and that in effect would give the killer more protection and less likely chance of detection.”
British tourists Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters were the first to be discovered. Joanne had been stabbed 21 times in the back and 14 in the chest. Caroline had been shot 10 times in the head.
Young Victorian couple Deborah Everist and James Gibson were next. James had been stabbed eight times. Deborah had been savagely beaten.
The last to be found were German couple Anja Habschied and Gabor Neugebauer, not far from the remains of another German backpacker, Simone Schmidl. Anja had been decapitated, and despite an extensive police search, her head has never been found.
“That shows you how malicious and nasty the murders were,” says Clive. “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 Belanglo Forest crime scenes yielded hundreds of pieces of evidence, helping police to better understand the deranged killer they were chasing. Soon enough, they’d have a prime suspect.
The key breakthrough that would link Ivan Milat to the bodies in Belanglo came from British backpacker Paul Onions. He’d been picked up by Ivan hitchhiking in January 1990.
“Onions became suspicious of Milat’s attitude, and they made an excuse to stop the car,” explains Clive. “This was not far from Belanglo. Milat was trying to take advantage of getting his gun out. Paul Onions ran off up the highway and was pursued by Milat, who fired several shots at him. A car coming up the highway pulled over because the driver had seen [Onions] running up the road waving his hands and yelling.”
“Based on Onions alone, there was enough there to arrest Milat for the abduction [and] the attempted murder of Onions, even if we couldn’t link it to the other backpackers.”
On the 22nd May 1994, simultaneous raids were launched on seven Milat properties. Police found money and camping equipment belonging to the murdered backpackers.
During the raids, police also found one of the weapons Ivan used to kill the backpackers – a rifle hidden inside a wall. Milat was arrested and taken in for questioning.
After a 15-week trial, Milat was found guilty and jailed for seven consecutive life sentences – one for each of the backpackers he killed. To this day, Milat maintains he never killed anyone.
While Clive Small suspects Ivan Milat acted alone, he believes wasn’t the only one who knew about the murders. “Ivan’s mother used to visit him regularly [in prison]. She was asked by one of her sons about Ivan, and she told him that Ivan had confessed to the murders to her. [She] had basically put to him, ‘Tell me the truth before I die.'”
The Milats are a family deeply divided over Ivan’s guilt. On one side is his older brother Boris, while on the other side is Milat’s nephew Alistair Shipley.
“He’s always been a tower of strength to the family, an inspiration to all of us,” explains Alistair. “He’s always been happy, he’s good-hearted, he’s been the first one to help everybody and look after things.” But is Ivan a murderer? “No. Not a chance.”
Alistair’s complete denial of his uncle’s crimes is the same view held by the many in the Milat family. He even claims to have Ivan’s blessing to talk to Sunday Night.
“I want to get it out there so the public can see he’s been vilified,” says Alistair. “He’s not the monster that they say. All the media’s done in the past is portrayed him as a villain. Ivan’s a good soul who’s been framed.”
Alistair has been one of Ivan’s most prolific penpals. He has piles of letters; most are Ivan protesting his conviction. In a recent letter to his nephew, Ivan Milat even signs his name ‘Ivan innocent’.
In the letters, Ivan claims he’s the victim of a huge conspiracy. The family blames Clive Small for setting Ivan up.
“There’s no doubt about it,” explains Alistair. “They’ve done a good job vilifying him to the public, but they left 90% of the evidence out. They only told the public what they wanted them to know.”
“It must be the government, because when the Olympic board rang up and said, ‘How do we know it’s a safe place in Australia with these murders in the forest?’ All they thought about was billions of dollars and millions of tourists. They couldn’t afford to miss out on that.”
“I’ve got thousands of people wanting to have a retrial. There’s only one person that has a problem with him in the family. Or two. Boris is the main one. But we all know why – because Ivan had an affair with his wife and has been upset about it.”
Boris Milat was very upset over Ivan’s affair with his wife Marilyn. The 11-year illicit relationship led to the birth of a daughter Lynise. Boris says he came close to shooting his brother over the affair.
‘As far as I’m concerned, he’s dead and buried long ago.’
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s dead and buried long ago,” explains Boris. “This isn’t about Ivan. This is about the truth. I have relatives… I find they’re a gutless lot because they just will not speak the truth.”
Colin Powis has made the long journey from Newcastle in the UK to relive what he says was a terrifying encounter nearly forty years ago. He was last here in 1982. He was a 21-year-old backpacker who planned to spend a year travelling and working around Australia.
Colin would go on to have an adventure he’d never forget – but it didn’t begin the way he had planned.
He spent his first two nights in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney before hitchhiking inland. He wanted a ride to the town of Cobar near Dubbo where he’d been told there was work in the mines.
“It took me about 30 minutes and finally somebody stopped and it was a pickup truck,” recalls Colin. “I got my backpack off, I went to throw it in the tray and when I did that, a fellow got out of the pickup truck and said, ‘No, mate. Don’t do that. Put it here in the cab, it’s a lot safer.'”
“He had a baseball cap on, he looked mid to late thirties. He had a moustache and a few days’ growth beard. He was shorter than I am, kind of muscular. But he never said hello.”
“There was nothing else in the back of that truck except one large hammer that was in the rear corner on the driver’s side.”
“He never smiled. I got in and he said, ‘Put your seatbelt on, mate.’ So, I put my seatbelt on and then he reached out and he pointed and he said, ‘Put that button down.’ And I looked at him like, ‘Why would I put the button down? Why would you say that to anybody over 10 years old?’ I looked at him in a quizzical way and he said, ‘We don’t want you to fall out, mate.'”
‘We just started to drive, and the first thing he said to me was, “How long you been in Australia? Who knows you’re here?” And I said, “I only arrived, I have only been here two days, and I don’t know anybody here.” He went into a trance, deep in thought.’
Colin was now locked in the car. “We just started to drive, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘How long you been in Australia? Who knows you’re here?’ And I said, ‘I only arrived, I have only been here two days, and I don’t know anybody here.’ He went into a trance, deep in thought.”
Colin says Milat remained silent until he took a sudden left turn for no apparent reason. Even though it was nearly 40 years ago, Colin says the ordeal is so vivid that he remembers the road they turned down.
“Out of the blue, he said, ‘I’m turning off right now,’ without any warning whatsoever. He was turning left and going south and I said, ‘I’m going to Cobar, so just drop me off right here and I can be on my way.’ But instead of stopping, he just continued down this road, looking in his rearview mirror.”
About a half a kilometre down a dirt road, Milat stopped and Colin went to get out of the car.
“By the time I got the car door open, he was [standing at the passenger door] and he had his hand behind his back holding the hammer. I knew there was going to be trouble right then because he had no reason to get out of the vehicle.”
“What saved me is some cars came past. Ivan Milat was looking over his shoulder and looking at me at the same time because he was just about to strike. Because he was acting suspiciously, they were looking at both of us.”
“It gave me enough time to quickly get the seat forward, get my backpack out and then he backed off a bit. When I had the backpack, I swung it over my shoulder. When I got 30 foot up the road, he called me out and said, ‘Hey mate!’ I looked back and he was leaning against the tailgate of the truck and he said, ‘Have a safe trip,’ or ‘Look after yourself mate.'”
It was many years later when Colin saw a documentary about the backpacker murders that he says he recognised Milat as the man who had picked him up hitchhiking that morning. Since then, he’s had plenty of time to ponder what could have happened.
“I think he saw backpackers [as] a form of exotic wildlife that migrated through his territory, and he could just go out and kill them for fun,” says Colin. “That’s the way I see Milat. He saw backpackers like stray dogs to be picked off the street, taken into the bush and used for target practice. Killed for sport, so to speak. That was his primitive kind of world view.”
Colin Powis never reported his terrifying encounter to police, but he’s adamant that the man who picked him up that day was Ivan Milat. His story bears striking similarities to a murder that would take place in the same region five years later.
18-year-old hitchhiker Peter Letcher disappeared while trying to get a ride from Sydney to Bathurst. His body was found in a State forest not far from where Colin Powis says had also been hitchhiking. Peter Letcher had been shot five times.
“There were a number of similarities in that murder with the backpackers,” explains Clive Small. “Probably one of the most significant was the fact that he was both stabbed and shot, and that the bullet appeared to have been fired by the same type of weapon that was used in the backpacker murders.”
‘All the signatures of Ivan Milat, and Milat was working in that area at the time.’
And it’s not the only unsolved murder Ivan is likely to have committed during his long reign of terror. Clive Small suspects he’s responsible for two other cold cases.
“There are a couple of victims I believe Ivan had in addition to the seven backpackers, whose bodies were found in the forest.”
The first is 20-year-old Keren Rowland, last sighted in the Canberra area in February 1971. “She was last seen hitchhiking [around] the position of her body just off the road, was not dissimilar to the victims here. There was another woman who was known to hitchhike, and the body was found some years later. She had been stabbed to death. [She] was in the bush, and it was not dissimilar.”
That woman was 30-year-old Dianne Pennacchio, who was last seen in October 1991 in the town Bungendore on the outskirts of Canberra. Just like the backpacker murders, both Keren and Dianne’s remains were found in State forests, they both appeared to have been sexually assaulted, and the discovery of beer bottles at their crime scenes was a sign the killer took his time.
While Clive Small believes Milat may have as many as three more victims, his brother Boris thinks the total is more likely to be more. “I think it is at least double – at least. In my mind, it would have to be. He was also living in other places, surely.”
Ivan Milat has spent the past 25 years behind bars – most of it at the supermaximum Goulburn Correctional Centre. He’s maintained his innocence the whole time, except for one moment when he appeared to let his guard down.
“When I saw him in 2005 at Goulburn jail, he accused me of suggesting one of his sisters was involved in the murders, which is completely inaccurate,” explains Clive Small. “I’d said we have never suggested she was involved because I know you did them by yourself. His response was, ‘Yes, so why are you saying she’s involved?’ It wasn’t until he said it that the expression on his face was one of shock where he thought, ‘I’m sure I almost made an admission here.’ Quite frankly, the way he said it and expressed it aggressively, it was an accurate admission.”
“I would rather see him make a full admission before he dies, and show at least a bit of decency. I doubt whether that will happen.”
Under heavy police guard, Ivan Milat left the Goulburn supermax jail last month to undergo tests and treatment at a Sydney hospital. He was then taken to the hospital at Long Bay Jail, where the terminally ill serial killer is expected to spend his remaining days.
“He has got a tumour in his throat and on his stomach,” explains Ivan’s nephew Alistair. “He’s had a couple of procedures to help him so he can eat food again.”
“It’s not good. He will die eventually and he will be out of pain; it will all be over.”
Alistair tells Sunday Night that Ivan has no wishes after his passing. “I would rather have him cremated so we could put his ashes in a nice place. Maybe in the Blue Mountains, I don’t know. A nice place though.”
His brother Boris would prefer Ivan is put in an unmarked grave and forgotten.
“I think his demise would be greatly appreciated by me,” Boris says. “For the damage he has done – not to me, to all those people out there, and he has done a lot. It is nothing you can be proud of.”
The man responsible for locking up the most terrifying Australian serial killer of our time has a final message.
“Ivan Milat, if you have one shred of decency left in you, now is the time to expose it,” says Clive Small. “I mean admitting to the crimes you have been convicted of and the evidence that is against you supporting that conviction, and to any other crimes that are unsolved that you might have been involved in. Give the families of those victims some peace and some satisfaction, and clear the air with you and your family.”
Reporter: Steve Pennells | Producer: Max Murch