By Alec Smart
In 1987 I hitch-hiked a ride with notorious serial murderer Ivan Milat. So, too, did three of my associates, on different occasions, ten years apart. All of us were intimidated by him and never forgot the ordeal. None of us believe he is innocent, as he claims, and we remain convinced there are other victims who didn’t survive their journeys with him.
Ivan Milat, known as the ‘Backpacker Killer’ after he was convicted of a string of murders of young hitch-hikers between 1989-1992, whose possessions he also souvenired, is dying of cancer. He is reportedly terminally ill with just ‘weeks’ left to live.
Details of multiple other murders he’s suspected of committing will likely go to the grave with him, as he refuses to divulge information and continues to maintain his innocence.
Ivan Milat, 74, aka inmate 240140, was moved to the Prince of Wales (PoW) Hospital in Randwick on Monday 13 May from Goulburn Jail’s Supermax secure unit, where he had been incarcerated since September 2001 with several of Australia’s most dangerous inmates.
During his fortnight in the PoW, Milat received radiation treatment to malignant tumours in his oesophagus and stomach, and was kept in a purpose-built sealed ward within the hospital, created for the close supervision of prisoners.
On 28 May, Milat was transferred from PoW, handcuffed and shackled via a wheelchair into a white SUV, then driven to the Aged and Frail medical unit, aka ‘Hospital 1’ in Long Bay Jail in Malabar, escorted by a police helicopter.
The unit is where Michael Murphy, one of three brothers in a gang of five men who abducted, raped and murdered nurse and beauty pageant winner Anita Cobby in February 1986, spent his last days before he died of cancer on 22 February this year.
Milat will likely remain there until he, too, succumbs to cancer, although he might survive long enough to celebrate his 75th birthday on December 27, a considerably longer life than his young victims.
Alistair Shipsey, Milat’s nephew through his sister Dianne, told Nine News, “They say he’s only got a couple of weeks left to live, but he’s not going to die in two weeks. He could last another three months. My mother’s seen him the other day and said he’s okay.”
Shipsey also told Ten News, “He’s had an operation to put a tube into his throat, to get some food in. I was told he’s had some chemo.”
This is Milat’s first time outside Goulburn Jail since 26 January 2009. On that occasion he cut off his little finger with a plastic serrated knife and placed it in an envelope addressed to the High Court of Australia, demanding a retrial. However, according to jail administrators, he then felt ‘traumatised’ and sought help from prison guards, who rushed him to Goulburn Base Hospital, where medical staff were unable to reattach the severed finger.
Milat was arrested in 1994 at his home on Cinnabar Street, Eagle Vale, NSW, 87 km north of the Belanglo State Forest, near Mittagong, where the bodies of his known victims were discovered. Two years later the former roadworker, employed to resurface the highways he drove seeking victims, was convicted and given seven consecutive life sentences. He was found guilty of murdering Caroline Clarke, 21, Joanne Walters, 22, James Gibson, 19, Deborah Everest, 19, Simone Schmidl, 21, Gabor Neugebauer, 21, and Anja Habschield, 20.
He was also convicted of the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of Paul Onions, a British hitch-hiker who managed to escape the gun-wielding Milat by leaping out of his vehicle and flagging down another, and later identified him to police.
Milat’s young victims were repeatedly stabbed and shot, and one, Anja Habschied, was gruesomely beheaded (her head was never found).
Milat, who is serving seven life sentences for his spate of killings between 1989 and 1992, is believed responsible for many additional unsolved murders from as early as 1971, at least 14 (possibly up to 25), with several of those found tortured and murdered in circumstances similar to his known victims.
My Lift With Milat
As someone who was picked up hitch-hiking by Ivan Milat – on Monday 26 September 1987, to be precise – as I returned from Melbourne to Sydney with two female friends, I remain convinced he is responsible for more killings, because of the way he treated us.
My recollection of this event over 32 years later is still sharp, because I told it to my brother upon my return to Sydney, then recorded the details not long afterwards.
Hitching with three people is always a challenge, motorists are reluctant to pick up more than a single traveller, a pair, perhaps, if they’re female. It was a warm spring day and we worked our way north slowly through a series of short lifts, still slightly hungover from the annual punk rock pub crawl that took place in Melbourne on Saturday, which coincides every year with the Aussie Rules’ grand final match.
Our most recent lift dropped us beside an abandoned quarry, somewhere between Broadford and Seymour in the Victorian countryside.
I needed to urinate, so I wandered into the quarry looking for discrete cover, and during the few minutes I was absent, a northbound utility vehicle pulled over, driven by a slender man with brown hair and a distinctive handlebar moustache – the sort then popular with heavy metal singers, rugged men in Solo Lemon soda drink and Marlboro cigarette adverts, and gay cowboys.
The driver helped the women, Pam and Rae, load our backpacks into his ute, and when they revealed they were waiting for a third passenger, he apparently became edgy. When I emerged from the quarry, Pam was already wary enough of the man to whisper to me, “You sit next to him, he’s a bit weird.”
The driver, whose name we never learned, challenged me, “Were you hiding behind the trees?” to which I replied no, I’d been having a pee.
I slid in next to him on the utility bench seat, Pam sat alongside me in the middle, Rae beside the passenger door. He cracked a bottle of beer shortly after we set off and inquired where we were heading. I had a few sips, my two friends declined.
We exchanged some more banter and I laughed at his jokes. He opened a second bottle of beer.
He appeared to decide the lass on my left, Pam, was my girlfriend (she wasn’t), so he concentrated on chatting-up Rae, nearest the left door.
He leaned over me several times with his beer bottle, holding it beneath Rae’s mouth like a microphone, saying each time, “And now a word from our sponsor!”
Perhaps ten more minutes of this joviality elapsed.
He then announced he wanted us to go camping with him, so, he explained, he could teach us how to hunt, kill and prepare kangaroo meat and learn survival skills.
I humoured him and said it sounded interesting, but Pam gently elbowed me in the ribs and announced, “No, we can’t, remember, people are expecting to meet us further along the road.”
This statement, along with my laughing at his jokes and keeping the atmosphere convivial and calm, was probably what saved us.
Shortly after that the driver became creepy and intense, declaring he wouldn’t take no for an answer to his request. Then, suddenly, he tired of being friendly and floored the accelerator and the ute lurched forward at breakneck speed.
My two companions, realising something sinister was taking place, began shouting, “Let us out!” while I politely asked him to drop us off at the next opportunity.
He turned to me and said menacingly, “Shut the fuck up!”
I remained calm, even though I could see in his dark eyes his mood was now psychotic and he meant us harm, and replied evenly, “Come on mate, there’s no need for that.”
After another few kilometres of him racing as fast as he could, with the women demanding, “Let us out!”, he suddenly screeched to a halt on the hard shoulder and said, “Get the fuck out!”
The women got out quickly but I moved slowly, maintaining eye contact and telling him, “Thanks mate, we really appreciate the lift.” However, I was watching the women out the corner of my eye through the back window to see if they’d collected our backpacks from the ute compartment. I didn’t want him driving off with our belongings.
Once I saw they’d retrieved our bags I exited his vehicle too, mindful he might drive off with me alone, although he was probably more keen on capturing the other two.
The whole episode was relatively short, perhaps 20 minutes, and he’d only driven us about 50km from the abandoned quarry 100km or so north of Melbourne from where he’d found us.
He – and I’m adamant it was Ivan Milat – seemed hell-bent on taking us somewhere, which leads me to suspect he had other kill sites apart from Belanglo Forest in NSW (another 500km north) where his known victims were found.
Another Intimidated Passenger
Five years earlier, just after Easter 1982, Amanda Sinn, a 23-year-old PE teacher at Gloucester High School, NSW, 120km north of Newcastle, was hitch-hiking with her German boyfriend south to Stroud. She recalls, “A Holden panel van stopped, offering us a lift. There were three men seated on the bench seat at the front, I now believe these three men to be members of the Milat family. One of these men got out of the panel van to physically give me a leg up over the back tailgate of the car. When he did this he put his hands directly up the back of the army shorts I was wearing. Both my friend and I knew we were in immediate danger from this moment on.”
They discovered the panel van was full of hunting and camping equipment, including rifles, sleeping bags, tents and gas bottles.
“The driver and the man in the middle were very quiet. They rarely said anything, only occasionally sniggering and sneering. The man next to the front passenger door was the man I believe to have possibly been Ivan Milat. The two men next to him were definitely his brothers as this was repeatedly mentioned over the course of the next half an hour.”
The hitch-hikers were told the men were returning from a hunting trip near Barrington Tops, although there were no animal corpses in the van.
“The conversation soon turned to their agreeing to want to take us out to a property just out of Newcastle (Maitland way). The driver occasionally joined in on this, but the one in the middle, the smallest and stockiest was mainly silent. ‘Ivan’ insisted that I be taken out there ‘to learn how to ride’. At this they all laughed and stated that, ‘you don’t need to know how to ride to ride, if you know what we mean’.”
Events took a sinister turn when ‘Ivan’ discovered Amanda’s boyfriend was a German national with limited English language. He took hold of his rifle and repeatedly pointed it the German, laughing as he did so.
“The last 10 minutes were terrifying,” she continues. “I knew enough to try not to show my fear and continued to attempt to make conversation with “Ivan”. My eyes were betraying me as I knew my pupils had dilated with fear. He reacted to this within a second and became very excited. The gun was moving about a lot during this with him saying “Oh you’re afraid. You’re afraid are you? What are you afraid of?”
They’d travelled about 50km south to Stroud and the three men decided that they needed a drink, opting to purchase take-away from the Stroud Hotel.
“As we began to pull up at the Stroud Hotel where one of the brothers, I think the quieter one in the middle, was going in to buy alcohol, I asked him if I could go with him to go to the toilet… He came around and opened the back tailgate for me to get out. At this I grabbed my boyfriend with one hand and pulled him with me out onto the road. We tumbled out and ran for the safety of a milk bar (shop) on the opposite side of the road. The brothers screamed after us three times, ‘What the fuck are you doing? We’ll fucking kill you? If we see you on the road, we’ll fucking kill you!’ We collapsed in tears once into the shop and the owner locked the doors behind us. We stayed there for some time.”
There remain at least five unsolved cases of young women abducted and murdered in the Hunter Valley-Newcastle region between 1970 and 1986 when Milat either lived or worked in the area. Police Strike Force Fenwick was set up in 1998 by detective Clive Small, who oversaw the Milat investigation, to investigate the disappearances of roughly 20 young females from the Newcastle region over a two decade stretch.
One young woman went missing from The Star Hotel in Newcastle on 30 December 1978, during a period Milat was known to be staying at the hotel – he was working in the vicinity repairing roads.
Police hope Milat may provide a ‘deathbed confession’ and allow relatives of the many missing victims to obtain some sort of peace with the knowledge of how their loved ones perished.
Anthony Roberts, Corrections Minister, said, “Milat, if you have one ounce of decency in your body, cooperate with the police and at least bring some closure to those families.”
NSW Police Minister David Elliott demanded Milat “do one last honourable thing on his deathbed.”
NSW Corrections Commissioner Peter Severin said, “I personally would be very keen for Mr Milat to come forward with the information that he is still refusing to share with the people of NSW and the larger Australian community.”
However, Milat’s nephew, Alistair Shipsey, told Ten News, “What’s he going to confess about? He didn’t do it! He’s not a monster, he’s got a heart of gold.”
Shipsey, like many of the Milat clan, some of whom were gifted with property belonging to the murdered backpackers, is a staunch defender of his uncle. In 2014 Shipsey self-published a book, The Milat Letters, featuring correspondence his uncle wrote him from prison.
Shipsey believes police pinned the killings on Milat because the government needed a culprit in order to wind up the manhunt for the killer of the seven Belanglo Forest victims, during their bid to secure host status for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“They had to assure the Olympic Committee that tourists wouldn’t be murdered,” Shipsey told Illawarra Mercury on 22 May this year, on the 25th anniversary of Milat’s arrest.
Shipsey claims police planted evidence to convict his uncle, but former Assistant Police Commissioner Clive Small, who was the superintendent overseeing the manhunt that eventually caught Milat, has already refuted this wild accusation.
On the Kyle & Jackie O radio show on KIIS 1065 on 25 May 2015, Small revealed that over 500 pieces of evidence linking Milat to the murders was presented to the jury during the trial. “I’m not sure how we would have got the 500 items past all the journalists that were there surrounding the properties.”
Getting Milat to confess may be more challenging than the public realise. Now he’s stricken with throat cancer and has a feeding tube down his throat, his speaking ability is constricted. The fact that he has been recorded as suffering from first stage dementia further hinders any concise revelations.
For the man who put his innocent victims in early graves, it looks like Milat will take his own gory secrets to the grave.