Episode 45 | AUSTRALIA'S TWISTED HITCHHIKER Serial Killer
We’re often warned of the dangers of hitchhiking but those warnings aren’t always heeded. In Japan where I live, hitchhiking is incredibly rare. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone thumbing a ride in more than 20 years living here. Ironic too as it’s probably the safest place on earth to bum a ride. If you are a traveler on a budget and have a zest for adventure and nerves of steel it’s a fantastic way to meet new people and save a bundle on transportation. For a backpacker, Hitching a ride is all in a day’s work. And let’s face it, most people are good. Most people are good. In the today's podcast we’re going to dig into a gruesome story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer who was not good. He largely preyed on hitchhiking backpackers who were looking for adventure in the Belango State forest of New South Wales. His name was Ivan Milat nad he was as demented as they come.
When Ken Sally and his running club went on their weekly run through the many trails that crisscrossed the forty thousand acres of the Belanglo State Forest in New South Wales, Australia. What they expected was the clean, fresh, country air that the city could not offer them. What they would find was the decaying remains of a body in a black shirt. Police arrived on the scene and pretty quickly, one body would become two but with nothing else to go on, the case would go ice cold. But in just a year, these two murders would lead to one of the biggest murder investigations in Australia’s history.
Newspapers around the world were in non-stop sputter detailing the discovery of bodies from a suspected new serial killer that Hell had spat up. In Birmingham, England air-conditioner engineer, Paul Onions was glued to a newspaper. The headline read: ‘the forest of death’. It detailed some bodies discovered in faraway Australia between 1991 and 1993. The victims all seemed to be hitchhikers who were either shot or stabbed. So far six bodies, in various states of decay had been found. While the details of the murder themselves were sketchy, the outline the police mentioned the killer might be using sounded strangely familiar to a close encounter he had had while in Australia just four years before.
Finger out in the road, bag on your back, hope in your chest… That was how British-born, Paul Onions was making his way touring Australia. He had come to see the sights and party. But, with his wallet going leaner and still six months left on his visa. Onions decided to find casual work. He was directed to the Riverina district. The journey was simple; a train ride to Sydney then a bus to his destination. After arriving at Sydney, Onions decided to save his money the best way he knew; with his thumb out and his backpack on. Who needs to spend money when hitching a ride can get you there for free? It was a long wait under the hot sun and Onions soon had to pack up his thumb and get some refreshment. He spotted a nearby shop and went over to buy a drink and a bar of chocolate. Deep inside, he was reconsidering his travel choice. This was not his lucky day.
Or was it. A fit, well-muscled man sporting a prominent handlebar mustache approached him and asked: “You need a lift?”
Paul gratefully accepted and told the stranger his destination. Together, they climbed into a silver Nissan four-wheeler and headed south.
Onions settled into the passenger seat, exchanging small talk with his new journey comrade. The small talk took a turn when the man, who had introduced himself as Bill, started asking more pointed questions: ‘where are you from?’ ‘When are you due back?’ ‘Who knows you’re here?’ ‘What do you do?’ The awkward questions alarmed Onions a little. Yet, Bill was not done. Not by a long shot.
Bill started ranting, making xenophobic and racist remarks. An uneasy silence descended between the two, marred only by the sound of the radio. As they got closer to the Belanglo State Forest, Bill pulled to the side of the road. He needed to get some radio cassettes he’d said. Onions saw it as an opportunity to stretch his legs and reached undo his seatbelt. When he heard Bill’s cold voice tell him to stay where he was. It was then Onions noticed there were cassettes between their seats at very easy reach.
Suddenly, ‘Bill’ pulled a gun on him: “This is a robbery” he announced. Just in case Onions mistook the gun for flowers. Onions was shaken, he couldn’t tell if this was real or a joke, then Bill bent forward and grabbed something from under the seat.
The rope frightened Onions in a way the gun had not and all attempt to calm Bill disappeared from his mind. Onions jumped straight out of the vehicle and broke into a run into the oncoming traffic. Vaguely, he heard the door slam behind him and Bill’s voice shout: “Oi Get back in the truck mate!” Bullets wheezing around him, confirmed his biggest fear.
‘Bill’ was giving chase.
Onions zigzagged and weaved to the best of his abilities while trying to wave down one of the cars speeding past him. The exhaustion from the chase was wearing him out, then he felt Bill’s hand on his shirt and it was the boost he needed. He broke free and ran into the middle of the road. If he was going to die, it would be on his terms.
But, it was not his day to die. A van slowed down and Onions leaped inside, shutting the door, shouting to the terrified occupants within that the man chasing him had a gun. As they sped off, he looked into the side mirror and saw Bill, gun in hand, a grin on his face.
Onions made a police report at the second police station… the first was closed. Not what you want to find when a mad gunman is shooting at you. He left Australia a few months later, promising himself to never hitchhike again. Now, four years later, the events of the day played vividly through his mind as the world fizzled with news about the bodies that were found where he was attacked.
Onions called the Australian High Commission and was given a Taskforce hotline. He reiterated his attack to the officer on the other end. Shortly after receiving the call from Onions, the task force received two more calls. One from the woman who had saved Onions in her van. She would describe point for point all that Onions had said. The last call came from a woman who claimed her boyfriend worked with a man she thought should be checked out: he owned a property near the forest, drove a silver four-wheel-drive and he owned guns. A whole lot of guns.
His name, she said was Ivan Milat. His victims knew him by another name; Bill.
Bill aka Ivan Roberto Marko Milat was born in Guildford, Newcastle, Australia, the fourth of fourteen Milat kids born to a Yugoslavian man who immigrated to Australia after the first world war. His mother was of Australian origins and barely half his dad’s age. She played homemaker to a football team of kids. When he was not working, his father ruled the roost with an iron fist and kept them from interacting much with neighbors. They lived in a 3-bedroom house on the outskirts of Sydney where they slept in triple-tiered bunks. The children all learned to shoot from a young age with guns being as common as shoes in the house.
At 13, Ivan Milat started skipping classes and so, he found himself in Boys Town, a school that claimed to help overburdened families with wayward sons. Today, Boys town has faced the largest child abuse case in Australia… but that’s not today’s story.
With fourteen mouths to feed and just one working parent, the large family had one need and one need only – money. So, at age 15 like his brothers before him, Milat said goodbye to school and started working on building sites. As they got older, the Milat boys escaped from their father’s strong hand of order straight into the hands of law enforcement. Seven of the ten Milat boys became very familiar to the police as they engaged in crimes ranging from petty thefts and burglaries. When neighbors heard sirens coming down the street, they knew the Milat boys had been up to something. And wouldn’t you know it? Ivan was among the seven notorious Milat boys in the neighborhood. And he would soon begin using a revolving door from court to jail. His mother conveniently blamed his many trips to jail as the cause of Ivan’s spiral into delinquency.
Milat’s criminal CV started with burglarizing a house. He was arrested but, because he was just 17-years old, was placed in a juvenile detention center for six months. At 19, for his involvement in a shop break-in, he finally saw the insides of a prison. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Milat must have loved it there because, just a month after his release, he was back in; arrested for driving a stolen car. This time with a sentence of 2 years with hard labor. Then again, at 22, he was back at it with a three-year sentence for theft. But all was not sad and gloomy for this bad seed, he was also a bit of a ladies’ man and is rumored to have had affairs with two of his brothers’ girlfriends at the same time. A Playa! But acquiescing women seemed to not be enough for him. As his years began to count his crimes began to mount and at 26 the seriousness of his acts became darker. Milat was charged with abducting two 18-year-old female hitchhikers and raping one of them.
While waiting for trial he and his brothers went into business together, committing a string of robberies. When they heard the police were looking for them, Milat faked his suicide and fled to New Zealand. A year later, he was rearrested and put on trial for abducting the two girls, rape, and robberies. The victims would testify that he had tied them up and threatened them with a knife during the attacks. Unfortunately, he was acquitted of both crimes. And Milat was free once more to be a blight.
But seemingly overnight, Milat turned over a new leaf. He got hired as a truck driver for the Roads and Traffic authority and would work there for the next twenty years, driving all over the state. He then decided to settle down. His bride of choice? His own cousin’s pregnant girlfriend. The pair started dating. Milat treated his cousin’s son like he was his own. A few short years down the line, they got married and had their only child, a daughter. The family lived together in a caravan that Milat was exceedingly proud of, obsessively keeping everything spick and span… Just the perfect little family.
But this podcast isn’t about bad guys turning their lives around after getting scared straight.
Behind the white picket fence, constant days on the road and Milat’s frugality were putting a strain on the marriage. It also certainly didn’t help that Milat had an affair with one of his brothers’ wives. His wife also noted that Milat was becoming increasingly gun-crazy and often took to beating her. One day, while he was away at work, she packed up the house with the help of her mother and fled. Filing for divorce two years later.
To avoid tax and keep his runaway wife from claiming any of his income, Milat quit his regular job and took to working under aliases. Among his friends, Milat was known as a non-smoker, a non-drinker, an avid shooter, and often hunted in the Belanglo state forest, where bodies began to turn up.
His pride and joy was his car; a silver Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive. And then, for seemingly no reason at all, in 1994, Milat sold that pride and joy. His friends couldn't make heads or tails of it. But Milat knew something they didn’t. The police had found the first two victims of his favorite past-time. You see, while his friends knew that Milat loved to hunt, what they didn’t know was ‘the hunted’ weren’t merely the four-legged variety.
The first victim was found by joggers in the Belanglo forest. They had come upon her body during their morning run. What a way to start your morning. Police were called in and they discovered another body about a hundred feet from the first. The victims were identified as two female British backpackers who had been reported missing 5 months earlier. They were last seen with thumbs out, looking for a lift to Adelaide. They had been sexually assaulted and killed. Police searched the area but, didn’t find much. With little else to go on, the case went cold.
A year later, a local man was in the forest looking for firewood, he found more than he bargained for when what he discovered were bones. Police were called to the scene and they quickly uncovered a second set of bodies. These would later be identified as a young couple from Frankston, Victoria. The duo had gone missing four years earlier while hitchhiking from a festival in Goulburn. The discovery puzzled the investigators. They had found a camera and backpack that belonged to them over 120 kilometers away, four months after they were reported missing. It seemed they were killed here while their belongings were thrown out of a car along the highway.
Bad news for tourism. Australia was now listed in the top 5 of dangerous places for tourists and the police were not having it. 300 police officers were deployed to the forest to uncover more evidence so they could begin proper investigations. Police started to realize there was a possibility that there were more bodies in the area and began to search the entirety of the 40, 000-acre Belanglo state forest. It would take a month for their diligence to pay off. A fifth body was found. He would be identified as a German who had gone missing two years before. There were pieces of clothing found near his skeleton but they were not the victim’s, they matched the description given for another missing backpacker. Three days later, they would find the body of that missing backpacker as well as his wife. They were last seen a year before leaving a hostel in Kings Cross, hitchhiking.
Well the total number of bodies found in the Belanglo State Forest was now a terrifying seven. All hitchhikers. The police would also find .22 caliber rifle shells where one of the earlier bodies had been found but there was little else to go on.
Aside from the obvious similarities that all the victims had disappeared and then been murdered, the examination would also reveal that the victims were most likely held in bondage, with some having a stab wound in the upper area of their spinal cords that would have rendered them immobile. Yet, the causes of death were very different. Examination of the remains showed that some of the victims had not been killed outright, and had most likely been tortured. While those that had been killed immediately were just as dissimilar. One had been stabbed and shot in the head multiple times, another had been stabbed repeatedly. Another was slashed in the face as well as stabbed. Yet another was decapitated. And on and on. This caused the investigators to believe the crime was committed by more than one person.
Investigators decided to check their records for crimes committed against travelers coming from the Liverpool area and what do you know, Milat’s acquittal for the abduction and rape of the hitchhikers had investigators eyeing him as a suspect. His long criminal history did nothing to help his case, and he immediately shot up to the top of their list. Investigators soon learned that shortly after the discovery of the first two bodies, their prime suspect had sold his rig, that Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive. Not suspicious at all. His friends also told them about his obsession with weapons.
They made discreet inquiries at his place of work and soon pieced together that Milat was notably absent on the days that the hitchhikers went missing. The noose was tightening but there wasn’t enough evidence for an arrest. They started surveillance on their prime suspect and, what do you know Milat surveilled them right back… staring back at police from his front windows with a pair of binoculars. Ballsy.
By this time, news of the five multinationals found dead in the Belanglo State Forest was making headlines across the world, and into the ears of Onions, Paul Onions... the one who had gotten away. With one simple call to the Australian consulate, he broke the case wide open. Onions were immediately flown back to Australia. He took police to the spot where ‘Bill’ had attempted to rob and abduct him. The next day, police showed him a video lineup of a group of suspects. Four years had not dampened his memory of the attacker. He zeroed in on picture number four. The handlebar mustache of Ivan Milat stared back, sending cold shivers throughout his body.
The police now had enough evidence to arrest Milat for the assault of Paul Onions… for starters.
50 police officers made their way to the residence Milat shared with his girlfriend. There, he was arrested without incident. The subsequent search of the home unearthed numerous weapons including a number of them that matched those used in the murders; parts of a .22 caliber Ruger rifle, a browning pistol, a bowie knife, and even a map of the Belanglo State Forest. But, most implicating of all, they found loads of items that belonged to several of the victims: their clothes, camping equipment, cameras, water bottles, foreign coins among others. In his garage, they found a pillowcase containing a homemade silencer and five ropes, one of which had bloodstains. They also had a photograph of Milat’s girlfriend smiling for the camera, wearing a top that was last seen on one of the victims on the day she disappeared.
Simultaneously, the homes of his mother and five of his brothers were also searched. The police turned up a sword that is believed to have been used to behead one victim, and guns that matched the murder weapon. They also found pieces of clothing, backpacks, tents and bedrolls all belonging to different victims.
Milat was charged with the murder of seven backpackers, armed robbery, the attempted abduction of Paul Onions, and several firearm offenses. Two of his brothers, Richard and Walter were also charged based on weapons, drugs, and stolen items found on their properties.
Ivan Milat’s lawyer’s defense was simple: His brothers, Richard and Walter did it. So much for family allegiance. The fact that both brothers were at work during the time of the murders while Milat was not, didn’t hold water for Ivan the Terrible.
His case was not helped by the two star-witnesses for the prosecution: Paul Onions and his ex-wife. Paul Onions recounted the chilling tale of his run-in with Milat. The nail in his coffin was his wife testifying that Milat had indeed been to Belanglo State Forest on four separate occasions with her in tow. This refuted his claims that he had never been there.
Investigators found that they could trace Milat’s homicidal impulses to problems with his love life. If all was well, he was not killing, once there was an upheaval, he went a-killing. There was a case where he abducted two Asian girls that were hitching a ride. This happened during one of the temporary break-ups with his wife. Six months after she divorced him was when the first set of backpackers went missing. For the next two and a half years as a single man, Milat let his demons run loose as a ruthless, cold-blooded killer stalking the Hume Highway, looking for backpackers to prey on. Then he met his new girlfriend and the killings suddenly stopped. Damn.
Milat spoke in his own defense. During the cross-examination, when the prosecution asked him to explain how victims’ properties and weapons involved in their murder had come to be hidden in his home. Milat answered that someone had come into the house and planted it. The jury didn’t buy it. And neither do I!!
Milat was found guilty of all the murders and was given seven life sentences as well as the attempted murder, false imprisonment, and robbery of Onions; each count carrying a six-year term.
Milat’s mother, like most mothers, refused to believe her son was guilty. But, one of his brothers, Boris, thought differently, saying: “All my brothers are capable of extreme violence given the right place and time. The things I can tell you are much worse than what Ivan’s said to have done. Everywhere he has worked, people have disappeared. If Ivan’s done these murders, there are a hell of a lot more, nearly 30.” Another of Milat’s brothers, Robert Milat, is reported to have been telling co-workers “there’s more out there. They haven’t found them yet” when the first two victims were uncovered. Another time he had said, “they haven’t found the Germans out there yet.” This was months before the bodies of three Germans were discovered. And once, “stabbing a woman is like cutting a loaf of bread.”
Milat’s jail term did not start on a happy note. On his very first day, he was beaten by another inmate. A year later, he tried to escape alongside a convicted drug dealer and former Sydney Councilor. The plan failed. The next day, his partner in the escape was found hanging in his cell and Milat was transferred to the Maximum security section of another prison. But it wasn’t always thorny for the backpack killer, one time a toaster and TV were found in his cell! Public outrage resulted in the appliances being removed. When he was not plotting, he was appealing. Between 1997 and 2011, Milat made seven appeals against his conviction. Thankfully they were all dismissed. Once he even cut off his little finger with a plastic knife, planning to mail it to the High Court of Australia to force an appeal. This was not his first attempt to browbeat the prison authorities to have his way. In fact, Milat had a history of self-harming to get his way. He once went on a nine-day hunger strike. Why? He wanted a PlayStation. The prison authorities didn’t agree. Another time he swallowed three razor blades, 24 staples, and the chain from a pair of nail clippers in an attempt to commit suicide. He survived it. Damn.
Eventually, the kitchen came to roost as Milat was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. Turns out years of starving yourself in protest and swallowing sharp objects could have an effect on your health… who knew? He died from stomach cancer in prison at the age of 74 in 2020. But he had one more demand up his sleeve; a letter he’d sent to his family asking that his funeral be paid for by the New South Wales Government. Cheeky mate. Real cheeky. This, dying wish was also denied. To date authorities still believe one or more of Milat’s brothers got away with murder. At the scene where bodies were buried, they had found cigarette butts and empty bottles of liquor. Milat was many things but a drinker and smoker he wasn’t. Even the forensic pathologist that performed the autopsies on the victims said it was unlikely that it was just one killer; he noted that on some bodies, the bullet wounds had come from different directions. They are also certain that they had not even scratched the surface of Milat’s homicidal rampage. The unsolved murder of one 29-year old mother is just one of many. She had been stabbed to death, her body placed face down, hands behind her back near a fallen tree and covered to hasten decomposition. Just like all his other victims. Her killing was a year before the first backpack murders were recorded. Apart from hers, Milat remains suspected in the disappearances of six Newcastle women and eight tourists. Two survivors have come forward with information that they were abducted and raped by Milat just a year apart.
Murder seems to run in the Milat family… Ivan’s own great-nephew, Matthew Milat, was sentenced to prison for the murder of his friend in the very same Belanglo State forest. He had struck the ‘friend’ with a double-headed ax while another friend audio-recorded the attack. With friends like these,. The young Milat even gloated about it to the press, saying: “that’s what Milats do.” He was just 17 years old.
Stay safe out there folks. Don’t let this horror story discourage you from hitching a ride, most people are good.. but…