PETER FALCONIO – Dead or Alive

On the 13th December 2005 Bradley John Murdoch, 46 was found guilty by jury in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in Darwin Australia for the murder of Peter Falconio and the assault and attempted abduction of his girlfriend Joanne Lees. The verdict was unanimous, and Murdoch was sentenced to 28 years.

The mystery surrounding the presumed death in Australia on 14th July 2001 of 28 year old British citizen Peter Falconio persists. Both he and Joanne Lees, 27, were travelling and working in Australia at the time. They had arrived in January 2001. On the 25th June they set out from Sydney in New South Wales heading for Darwin in the Northern Territory via Canberra, Melbourne, and Adelaide. They were returning via Brisbane. The had bought an old iconic VW T2 Combi van for this part of their adventure. The distance to Darwin was 4,635 km, (2780 miles), and most of the trip would be on Route 87, the Stuart Highway.

A recent Channel 4 documentary, Murder in the Outback: The Falconio and Lees Mystery had a leaning towards doubting the evidence given by Joanne Lees, (the only witness), and the DNA evidence that convicted Murdoch. The four-part programme featured the one-time Australian lawyer, Andrew Fraser who has befriended Bradley Murdoch and believes he is innocent. Andrew Fraser, a disgraced attorney was ironically serving a prison sentence for his involvement with cocaine importation throughout the period of the Falconio murder, investigation, and Bradley Murdoch’s trial.

By the 12th July 2001 the couple had reached Alice Springs, a small but important town in the middle of the Australian continent. Neither were great outdoor types and what they embarked on took some courage, perhaps a little naivety shielded them. What they were not prepared for was the awful outcome as described by Joanne Lees, who managed to survive the attack

The couple by chance were sharing the Stuart Highway with Bradley Murdoch who regularly drove between Sedan, near Adelaide in South Australia and Broome in West Australia. He was transporting large quantities of illegal cannabis in his white Toyota 4×4 Ute. He travelled in company with his dog Jack and meticulously timed his journeys so that his arrival in Broome would coincide with police shift changes. He sometimes towed a trailer so he would look like a “Tommy Tourist”.

The couple had arrived In Alice Springs on the 12th July and departed on the 14th July at around 4:00 pm. Before they set off they were in The Red Rooster fast food outlet which was in the town centre on route 87. By coincidence Bradley Murdoch also stopped here around the same time and it is where he might first have spotted the couple. This is also where his defence claimed Joanne Lees picked up Murdoch’s DNA, leaning back on a chair that he had touched with an open wound on his hand. Murdoch completed a drug run along this route about once a month.

By early evening 200 km north of Alice Springs the couple stopped at the Ti Tree rest stop. They refueled the VW with 37 litres of leaded gas at 6:50 pm, smoked a joint and watched the sunset. When the couple set off it was getting dark and after 8:00 pm they were another 120 kms up route 87. Their plan was to stop the night at Devils Marbles, just a further 100 km north. Driving at night for pleasure on these type of roads is never recommended but anyone who has seriously travelled will know how easily these circumstances can evolve.

Darkness in such a vast and unpopulated region at night is a condition rarely experienced in Europe. With no ambient light combined with simple cloud cover, investigating such places at night has been described as,

“Like a blind man in a dark cellar looking for a black cat that wasn’t there”.

It is no wonder that Joanne Lees description of the events in such darkness appeared uncertain. It is frankly remarkable that she was able to recall the details she gave. Bradley Murdoch, totally used to such conditions would have been acutely aware of this advantage when he attacked this defenseless pair.

Driving along Highway 15 in California between Pasadena and Barstow, (180 km), with my wife in 2000 was a similar night drive experience. In fact, a busier route than the Aussie Route 87 my wife became very scared of the acute darkness particularly at times when there were no other vehicle lights in view. When we eventually saw the ambient glow of Barstow where we spent the night, she was immensely relieved and began to nervously sing. It’s a very different landscape in daylight.

Joanne Lees claimed that she and Peter were aware of headlights behind them. This following vehicle could clearly and easily overtake their modest VW but it had remained behind them since they had passed the Barrow Creek Truckstop just 12 km back. The vehicle driver came up alongside with his interior light on gesturing and pointing to the rear of their vehicle. It was a white Toyota 4×4 Ute. Peter Falconio, concerned, pulled over on the dirt shoulder and the following driver pulled over close by and got out of his vehicle with his dog. He walked up to the VW and spoke to Peter Falconio. He remarked that sparks were coming out of the rear underside of the VW. Peter got out and joined the stranger at the back of the VW. After a short discussion he came back to the driver’s side and asked Joanne to slide across into the driving seat in case a closer inspection required her to rev the engine. He appeared completely calm. Peter Falconio rejoined the stranger behind the vehicle, and they were out of view. Joanne Lees then heard a bang and assumed that as she had her foot on the accelerator it was an engine backfire.

People unaccustomed to gunfire will naturally substitute the noise with something more familiar. Joanne Lees never stated that she thought it was a gunshot at this stage.

Next, the stranger appeared at the driver’s door and threatened Joanne with a handgun. In her statement she maintained that she was forced back into the passenger seat and her hands were fastened behind her with a binding fashioned out of cable ties. She was then pushed out of the passenger door and stumbled face down on the dirt shoulder lacerating her knees and elbows. The attacker then attempted to tape her legs with tape but failed to fully and securely bind them as she protested and struggled. He then tried to tape her mouth and placed a sack over her head before he dragged her to his own vehicle. Bundled inside she was still struggling and calling out for Peter. She never saw Peter Falconio again. At some point whilst Murdoch was busy moving something in the darkness, (she couldn’t see), she managed to get out of the vehicle and with her hands still bound ran into the darkness and hid in the salt bush scrubland. She described how she laid there for hours about 35 metres from the road while Murdoch searched for her with a torch. Passing close by at times, he failed and eventually gave up. His dog was uninterested.

She remained in the bush fearful he would return and kill her. In the darkness it was impossible to see what Murdoch was doing and what had happened to Peter Falconio. At some point he moved the VW Combi because it was later found driven about 80 metres off the road. His DNA was later found on the steering wheel and gear lever. When she eventually emerged over 5 hours later when she was convinced he had gone she made her way to the highway in total darkness and managed to stop a road train driver. He removed her binding with bolt croppers and took her back to Barrow Creek and the police were notified. When the police arrived at the scene later that morning there was a pool of blood at the location which somebody had tried to cover with dirt. There was evidence of Joanne Lees footprints in the vicinity but apparently nothing that could be attributed to anyone else and despite the fact that the VW Kombi had been moved. There was no sign of Peter Falconio.

Joanne Lees described Murdoch’s handgun as “silver”. This finish is correctly described in firearm terms as “nickel-plated”.

The documentary showed an artist’s impression of Joanne Lees description of the handgun she was threatened with; it looked like a cartoon drawing. She made it quite clear that she knew nothing about firearms and had never seen a gun up close. From her description to the police it was plain that the weapon was a nickel-plated revolver, which would look like the .22 example image below. Showing a witness examples of such a weapon would be simple process for any police force.

Critics who featured in the documentary have demanded to know why there was not more blood at the scene or indeed blood spatter and brain matter on the rear of the Combi. Why should there be? The police concluded that Murdoch used a .22 revolver. Such a weapon was powerful enough to kill but the bullet was unlikely to over penetrate, thus it remained in Peter Falconio’s body. There is also this assumption that he was shot in the head; he might well have been but equally he could have been shot in the heart. Both target areas could result in instant death. The amount of blood left at the scene, (which was proved to be Falconio’s), could easily have been appropriate. It is hardly surprising that the police never found a nickel-plated .22 revolver or any ammunition for it.

In the Channel 4 documentary Andrew Fraser sounded convincing when he very authoritatively stated that there was,

“No projectile and no spent casing”.

The projectile was in Falconio’s body and a revolver does not eject fired cartridges; spent shell casings remain in the cylinder chambers. They have to be removed by the firer.

Falconio’s and Lees relationship was not perfect. In the grand scheme of normal existence that was neither peculiar nor wrong. If Lees had stumbled into a sexual affair with another man whilst they were in Sydney so be it. She was unfairly judged on this issue, and it was completely and utterly irrelevant. Peter Falconio’s disappearance must have made that situation in their relationship all the worse because she undoubtedly would have anticipated that every detail of their life together would be investigated. Joanne Lees harboured a poor relationship with the media when they descended on Australia and initially a strained relationship with the investigating police. She was totally traumatised by the events. The conspiracy theories and wild speculation took off.

Bradley Murdoch was a violent and dangerous career criminal. That didn’t make him guilty of the murder and disappearance of Peter Falconio but by the time the police interviewed him in November 2001 he was easing into the frame. Murdoch wasn’t arrested but he became agitated by the police interest in him. People had stated that they thought they recognised him and his vehicle from the Barrow Creek CCTV footage. He started to change his appearance and that of his vehicle. He had a criminal past that was of great interest to the police.

In 1980 he received a suspended prison sentence for an act of dangerous driving which resulted in the death of a motorcyclist.

His 1980 marriage to his partner Diane had ended in separation in 1986 because of reported domestic violence and abuse. They had a son but Murdoch had little contact with him.

In 1995 he received a 21-month jail sentence for shooting at Aborigine football fans celebrating an Australian Rules match in the remote Kimberley region in Western Australia. They were blocking access to a narrow bridge at Fitzroy Crossing. He drove to the Brooking Springs cattle station where he was working and helped himself to a .308 bolt action rifle and a lever action .22 rifle. He returned to the location, intoxicated, and started firing at parked vehicles. It was alleged that he narrowly missed a woman’s head with one shot. He served 15 months in prison. On release he got a job as a diesel mechanic in Broome.

Murdoch had a leaning towards white supremacist values. He was a racist and had a tattoo of an Aborigine being hanged.

Murdoch’s transport was his cherished Toyota Landcruiser 4×4 Ute. The term “Ute” is common to Australia and simply describes a utility vehicle. In most parts of the world such vehicles are described as Pick-Ups.

He had an interest in firearms and often carried a handgun in a shoulder holster. His drug dealing friend and business partner James Hepi who he had met in Broome knew he owned a variety of firearms including handguns. They had gone into business in 1999 and were moving large quantities of cannabis from Hepi’s property in Sedan near Adelaide in SA to Broome in WA. By 2001 their relationship was deteriorating, and they had started to fall out over workloads and money. On the 17th May 2002 the police had caught up with Hepi and his drug business activities and he divulged his association with Bradley Murdoch. In return for favorable conditions he voiced his suspicions of Murdoch’s involvement with Falconio and Lees. A DNA sample was sought from Murdoch’s brother and then Bradley Murdoch disappeared. Police were fearful that they had lost him forever in the vastness of Australia. But Murdoch’s sexual propensity got the better of him. His behaviour was very odd.

In August 2002 he was arrested as he came out of a Woolworths store carrying groceries. Brought to the ground by armed police he was found to be armed in his customary fashion. He was accused on 7 counts of rape, aggravated sexual assault and the abduction of a mother and her 12-year-old daughter in Swan Reach, South Australia. He knew them as a result of befriending the woman’s partner who was in hospital at the time suffering from cancer. He was lodging in one of their properties. He was accused of abducting and handcuffing the girl with cable ties, taping her head and mouth, stripping her, and raping her twice. He then abducted the mother and chained them both in his vehicle and drove for 25 hours stopping three times and sexually assaulting the mother. He eventually let them go. The mother was convinced he was going to kill them both. She had remarked that Murdoch was obsessed with the Falconio murder, claiming he was being set up by the authorities.

Police searched his vehicle and found a .308 rifle, a Beretta semi-auto pistol in a holster, a crossbow with 13 bolts, an electric cattle prod, long handled shovels, disposable gloves, tape, cable ties and restraints made from cable ties. This went to court, but he was acquitted because of lack of evidence. The mother who had worked as a prostitute failed to involve the police early enough.

Despite his acquittal it was a breakthrough the police were not expecting and once he left the Adelaide court, he was immediately re-arrested and extradited to the Northern Territory.

Whilst Murdoch was supposedly meticulous with his work and enterprises, he clearly had a perverted sexual motivation and a desire to rape and sexually assault. The prosecutors at his Darwin trial claimed he was concerned that Falconio and Lees were following him, and he became paranoid. That might well have been the case but perhaps it might have been his motivation to pursue Joanne Lees who he noticed in the Red Rooster restaurant in Alice Springs. Clearly travelling in their distinctive orange VW Murdoch might have set out to take advantage of their vulnerability. They were mere visitors in his vast homeland territory, a continent in which he had enjoyed operating with total impunity.

According to his accomplice, James Hepi, Murdoch had become increasingly paranoid about the drug run routes he was using from Sedan to Broome especially when crossing state borders. Via Alice Springs the most direct was Route 5 which turns west of the Stuart Highway at Burt Plain just 15 kilometers north from Alice. This is the Tanami Road. The distance from Sedan to Broome via the Tanami road was 3,254 km, (1,952 miles).

Another option was to drive further up the Stuart and turn west onto Route 80 just before Birdum and Daly Waters. This route to Broome via Top Springs was 3864 km, (2,318 miles). On the northern road from Top Springs through Timber Creek it was 3,987 km, (2,392 miles). Murdoch had these options, even if some routes were significantly longer it gave him choices.

Perhaps this was his intention on this particular run and thus he found himself conveniently “in convoy” with the couple. Australia is a vast country, but major routes are not like the often crowded patchwork options we have in Europe.

The CCTV footage of what was deemed as Murdoch at the Barrow Creek service area after the abduction meant that he had decided to turn back towards Alice Springs and drive to Broome on the Tanami Road route. He must have tried to anticipate where the police would emerge from if Joanne Lees had managed to get help. Getting off the 87 was a priority. However once the police were on site it was many hours after the event. They quite naturally had to consider it was possibly a local perpetrator and they initiated a number of localised road blocks. By this time Murdoch was long gone. It was considered impossible to get to Broome in the time he did it and Murdoch made much of this when interviewed by the police. A reconstruction of this route proved it was entirely possible. Murdoch regularly drove long distances with the help of tea laced with amphetamines.

Murdoch’s defence argued that the courtroom drama that ensued with Murdoch and Hepi hurling expletives and accusations at each other was an indication of Murdoch being framed. The prosecution focused on more important features. The DNA on Joanne Lees T shirt, the lower grade DNA in the VW vehicle, his description, the CCTV footage, his guns, the cable tie bindings and proof of his whereabouts at the time of the incident. The NT police officer heading the investigation, Colleen Gwynne had also through the remarkable efforts of one of her detectives found something else. Whilst meticulously searching Murdoch’s belongings he found a small Mary Jane elastic hair band wrapped around his shoulder holster. Joanne Lees had such an item at the time. Gwynne noticed Murdoch visibly recoil at the sight of it in the courtroom.  

There are interesting similarities between Bradley Murdoch and Barry George, (who was convicted for the shooting murder of Jill Dando). Both had a criminal past and changed their appearances after the respective events. The pair had liking of firearms and a penchant for inflicting violence towards women including their wives. Both were convicted on circumstantial and direct evidence, FDR and DNA. George was eventually acquitted following appeals after spending 5 years in prison. Murdoch despite lodging two appeals remains in prison. He will be 74 when he is released.

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