Then a rather hideous change occurred in Australian society. Julian Knight killed 19 strangers in the Hoddle St Massacre in Melbourne (1987), Frank Vitkovic killed 8 people in the Queen St Murders in Melbourne (1987) and three mass shootings happened in NSW in 1990, 1991 and 1992. So serious was the crisis that guns were outlawed from private hands straight after Martin Bryant shot 35 people in the Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania in 1996.
Perhaps the lack of a gun culture was why it was so difficult to even detect The Backpacker Murders in the Belanglo State Forest of New South Wales, only an hour's drive from Sydney. This spate of serial killings occurred during the early 1990s and may have been carried out by one or two people. The bodies of seven missing young adults (none was older than 22) were eventually discovered partly buried in the state forest between 1992 and 1993. Five of the victims were European backpackers visiting Australia and the others were Australian backpackers from the southern states. Over 300 police officers were assigned to the case.
Who would pose with a gun in Australia?
Ivan Milat must have thought he was invincible
Local man Ivan Milat (born 1944) was one of 14 children born to an impoverished migrant family, rural, isolated and gun obsessed. Despite exhibiting psychopathic tendencies from his early teenage years and an active criminal record as an adult, it took a long time to identify Ivan Milat as the Backpacker Murderer. And consider how long it took. In January 1990 the first attempted murder occurred in the state forest, followed by the successful murders, but Milat did not have to appear in court (on robbery and weapon charges) until May 1994!
Milat never confessed to any other crimes. It was only forensic evidence that could link Milat to the gruesome and violent killing of the hitchhikers — he used hunting knives, ropes, cloth gags and a collection of legal and illegal firearms to brutalise and subdue his prey.
Following continued police investigations, Milat was finally charged with the murders of the seven backpackers. In March 1996, the murder trials opened and he was eventually convicted. Today Milat is serving seven consecutive life sentences.
Police have always suspected there were other victims in the early 1990s that have not yet been located. What they did not know was that Ivan Milat shot a Sydney taxi driver and paralysed him in 1962. As one of the Milat brothers told the police, Ivan was only 17 at the time. According to The West Australian, the discovery reveals a new victim and a path of brutal criminality that began long before anyone suspected.
Although docu-dramas usually irritate me because they exaggerate the “real” characters for dramatic effect, I very much wanted to watch Catching Milat on tv. Catching Milat (played by Mal Kennard) tells the story of how the NSW Police Taskforce, and in particular Detective Paul Gordon (played by Richard Cawthorne), tracked down and caught the man responsible for the infamous Backpacker Murders. Yes the Milat family members were dysfunctional, the public terrorised, the computers primitive and the police not always successful, but it was the process that was so fascinating. This real live case gripped the nation back in the early 1990s and, due to its backpacker victims, attracted fearful international headlines. Now in May 2015, the case is gripping the nation once again.
The second half of the Catching Milat miniseries will screen on the Seven Network on Sunday 24th May 2015.