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Australia From 1.5 million pieces of information one name stood out

23:50  27 october  2019
23:50  27 october  2019 Source:   smh.com.au

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Five of the seven victims were from overseas, their movements in Australia unclear. The investigation, he said, was going to be long and difficult. Realising help from the public was going to be crucial, the taskforce had set up a toll-free hotline on November 9. In the first 24 hours, 5119 calls came in.

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Daniela Goggi et al. posing for a photo: Milat's victims, pictured clockwise from top-left: Deborah Everest of Australia, Anja Habschied of Germany, Simone Schmidl of Germany, James Gibson of Australia, Caroline Clarke of the UK, Gabor Neugebauer of Germany and Joanne Walters of the UK.© Supplied Milat's victims, pictured clockwise from top-left: Deborah Everest of Australia, Anja Habschied of Germany, Simone Schmidl of Germany, James Gibson of Australia, Caroline Clarke of the UK, Gabor Neugebauer of Germany and Joanne Walters of the UK.

It was late one evening and I was having a beer with NSW Police Detective Superintendent Clive Small at a pub in Gladesville.

He’d recently been appointed the head of Taskforce Air, set up to investigate the backpacker murders.

At the outset in October 1993, there was no suspect. While Small was quietly confident that midweek evening, he confided there was a possibility the case might never be solved.

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After all, the first victims had gone missing years earlier at the end of December 1989.

Five of the seven victims were from overseas, their movements in Australia unclear.

The investigation, he said, was going to be long and difficult. He had another worry. Information overload.

Realising help from the public was going to be crucial, the taskforce had set up a toll-free hotline on November 9. In the first 24 hours, 5119 calls came in.

It was a mixed blessing – the lead might well be there but at the same time the taskforce was swamped.

At the back of Small’s mind was the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who killed 13 women between 1975-80.

Sutcliffe had been questioned early and interviewed on numerous occasions by British police and let go. As recorded in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Crime "Sutcliffe was finally picked up almost by chance … in a car with stolen number plates."

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Small and his leaders– detectives Rod Lynch, Bob Godden and Bob Benson - were deeply concerned about missing a vital clue.

Between them they had over 100 years of experience investigating crimes as varied as race fixing, rape, arson, murder, fraud and drug trafficking. They were disinclined to leave anything to chance.

The police computers weren’t coping. In December 1993, the taskforce called in new technology, 12 different software packages.

In a rare foray into the world of crime, the Australian Financial Review reported it under the headline: "High Tech tool speeds up backpackers murder probe."

The newspaper reported the technology could save hundreds of man-hours by sifting and sorting names, addresses, vehicles, locations to "mine" similarities and connections.

While installing the technology slowed the inquiry for a while, both Small and his deputy, Lynch, were confident it reduced their chances of missing a vital clue.

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There’s a theory among detectives – some reckon it’s true, some think it’s a fallacy, that in big murder inquiries the perpetrator is identified early – that somewhere in the flood of information is a name or a clue that holds the key.

It’s a matter of finding it. And proving it.

In the end, the taskforce accumulated 1.5 million pieces of information.

But among the 5119 callers to the hotline, two were to prove of note. Both were from women.

The first one said she didn’t know if she could help but there was this bloke she knew of, he lived near the Belanglo State Forest and had lots of guns.

"What’s the person’s name," the operator asked.

"Ivan Milat," she replied.

She had no further information. No evidence. Just a tip.

It was recorded and sent to the taskforce which was aware of the Milat name. Two local detectives had days earlier passed on rumours that a bloke by the name of Paul Miller had been boasting to workmates about the killings, in a general sense at least.

Paul Miller was an alias for Richard Milat.

A third brother, Alex Milat, had made an extraordinary statement to police, saying he’d been in a car when he’d seen two vehicles turning into the Belanglo State Forest. The vehicles had contained a number of men and two young women. Some of the men were carrying guns.

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Both women had been gagged with a piece of cloth and appeared distressed. He told police he’d seen this in April 1992, but hadn’t bothered to report it.

"I was of the opinion that it was just some young blokes taking some girls into the forest to have a good time…"

Police were sceptical, not least because Alex recalled an extraordinary amount of detail for a fleeting encounter – cars passing each other - which would have lasted seconds at most. And he was the passenger. The driver recalled no such incident.

From this, it might sound like Ivan was a good suspect from the start. But police needed that old-fashioned thing called evidence. Which is where the second call out of the 5119 comes in.

It was from Canberra, a woman who wanted to report something she’d witnessed in January 1990.

She recounted how she’d picked up a young man on the Hume Highway.

Driving along she’d come over a rise and seen two men struggling on the median strip that divided the dual carriageway.

One had broken free and flagged her down.

The backpacker’s story was extraordinary. He said he’d been given a lift and then the driver had pulled a gun on him, saying it was a robbery. Fleeing, the driver had started shooting at him. In broad daylight, on one of the busiest roads in the country.

She drove her terrified passenger to Bowral Police station where he repeated his story.

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Four days later, a hotline operator took a call from a young man in the United Kingdom. He’d seen the publicity.

He recounted an amazing escape while hitch-hiking in January 1990.

Picked up by a man who said his name was Bill, the backpacker said the man had pulled a gun on him and opened fire when he ran way before being picked up and taken to Bowral Police.

His name was Paul Onions. The information was sent to the taskforce.

While the Milat name had previously surfaced, this was the crucial breakthrough.

Onions was an eyewitness. The one who’d got away.

Brought to Australia and shown a series of photos, he picked out the man he knew as Bill. It was Ivan Milat.

The evidence against Milat was overwhelming. Items belonging to the backpackers were found in his home and of some relatives. Backpacks, cooking utensils, a camera. Small estimated there were about 100 items in Milat's home that linked him to the murders.

As for Onions, the slightly built Englishman, the crucial witness, he later said of Milat: "He was the first real Australian person I had met."

Neil Mercer has been covering crime in Sydney since 1981. Some of the material in this article is taken from his book: 'Fate: Inside the Backpacker Murders Investigation'.

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