The Backpackers

A vicious serial killer terrorized and hunted young backpackers in Australia’s Belanglo State Forest in the early 1990’s. The impact of his heinous crimes still resonates with residents to this day. How he committed his crimes made even the most seasoned investigators shudder and the true number of victims he’s suspected of murdering may never be known.

The Episode

Hi park enthusiasts,

I’m your host Delia D’Ambra…

Can you believe we’re nearing the end of Season 3 already? I hope the stories I’ve shared with you this summer have honored the victims while at the same time reminding us how dangerous the elements AND people lurking in the great outdoors can be.

There’s one more episode next week, but after that I’ll be taking a break for a few months. Don’t worry though, I’ll return with new episodes.

Before I took the time away, I KNEW I needed to tell you today’s wild story…

It’s about a series of crimes that spanned several years in Australia’s Belanglo State Forest…a stretch of bush and wilderness where seven murders occurred in the early 1990’s.

The victims were innocent young people backpacking and exploring the beautiful landscapes of Southern Australia.

When I first started researching Belanglo State Forest, I expected it to be in a desolate area of New South Wales but it’s not. It actually sits about an hour and a half southwest of Sydney, just off well-known Hume Highway.

The forest is predominantly filled with pine trees and is regularly logged, leaving sections filled with downed timber that just sort of stacks up on one another. It’s easy to get turned around if you don’t know where you’re going.

The park itself is roughly 9,400 acres and you can camp, hike, go off-roading or mountain bike there. A lot of visitors check it out just for a day or two.

Back in the early 90’s one man visited every day and wasn’t taking in the beautiful sights of the towering pine trees…he was busy burying bodies…at least seven of them and authorities now believe, possibly more.

This is Park Predators.

On December 29th, 1989, Pat Everist was at her home in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia when her phone rang.

On the other end of the line was her 19-year-old daughter Deborah.

Deborah had called to let her mom know that she and her boyfriend, 19-year-old James Gibson, were okay. She explained that she and James had just checked out of their hotel in Sydney and would be returning home to Melbourne from their backpacking trip in a few days.

The day before Deborah called Pat, a devastating earthquake had rocked the city of Newcastle, which sat just North of Sydney. So, to ease any worries her mom might have had, Deborah wanted to let Pat know she and James were nowhere near New Castle. They were headed South and would be taking the next week or so to travel to a music festival in the town of Albury, which was sort of right in between Sydney and Melbourne.

Pat was relieved to hear this news from her daughter and honestly just relieved in general that Deborah was keeping good on her promise to check in with her mom every two days either over the phone or by sending post cards.

James and Deborah had only known one another for a few months, and at first Pat had been a little apprehensive about letting the pair take off together on a backpacking trip for a week where they’d be with a lot of strangers and hitchhiking rides on the highway…but Deborah was almost 20 years old. Pat couldn’t keep her at home forever.

This was the first time Deborah had ever been backpacking, so she and her mom had made a special pact to make sure they touched base often.

Deborah promised Pat she’d check in again right after the New Year and send her a post card when she and James got to Albury.

But a few days came and went…and Pat never received another call from Deborah. New Years’ Day passed, and she didn’t receive a post card either… which she knew wasn’t a good sign because Deborah was normally really good about sending reminders and cards for holidays or special events.

The source material isn’t super clear on what day Pat reported Deborah and James missing but at some point, by the end of the first week of January, Pat contacted James’s parents Peggy and Ray Gibson and both families went to the Melbourne Police Department in Victoria to let investigators know they were concerned about the young couple’s whereabouts.

Melbourne Police quickly got in touch with New South Wales police officials and together the two agencies tried to figure out the last time anyone had heard from or seen Deborah and James.

Missing persons bulletins went out for the young couple and described James as being five foot nine with a slim build, had brown hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion. Deborah was described as having black dyed hair, blue eyes and standing just five feet tall.

Law enforcement in New South Wales conducted several foot searches for the teens near where they’d been staying in an area known as Surry Hills in Sydney, but the searches weren’t really that targeted because police officers had no way of knowing if the pair had already left the city and were headed towards Albury.

The police didn’t outright say it, but it seemed from the material I read that their sense of urgency in locating Deborah and James wasn’t very high. I think they just thought ‘hey, here are two young people who have been traveling and hitchhiking. They’ll turn up soon.’

The problem was…they didn’t turn up.

James and Deborah’s families got REALLY concerned when James was a no show at his sister’s wedding in late January…and even more red flags went up when he failed to attend the first day of a geology class he’d enrolled in back in his hometown near Melbourne.

Deborah failed to ever contact her mother again and so despite the police’s assumption that nothing bad had happened to the couple…their families DEFINITELY felt otherwise.

Unfortunately, two months passed with no information or sightings of the pair. Investigators had little to go on…until a vital clue showed up.

On March 14th—three months after the couple vanished— James’s father Ray got an interesting phone call. A woman called the Gibson’s home in Melbourne and told him that she believed she’d found his son’s backpack on the side of a road that led to a popular nature area called Galston Gorge.

Galston Gorge is about 45 minutes northwest of Sydney…very far from Melbourne…and NOT in the direction of Albury.

This woman described the bag as being a red and black rucksack, but its top had been cut or ripped off…inside though, was a strip of fabric that had James’s first and last name written on it.

Ray immediately went to the police and told them about the woman’s discovery and that same day the authorities in New South Wales had the bag in their possession. The source material doesn’t go into detail as to what all police found in the bag…it’s only described as being in pretty decent shape with a few personal belongings tucked into it…. but the one thing James’s parents said was missing though was their son’s camera.

Eight days later, a resident who’d been visiting Galston Gorge came forward after watching news reports about the backpack’s discovery and told investigators that they’d found a camera in a drainage area near Galston Gorge months earlier BUT had never told the police about it because they figured it was just abandoned by the owner. They treated it like a finder’s keeper’s situation.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the person who found the camera reported picking it up on December 30th, 1989…the day after Deborah last spoke with her mother. Thankfully, this person still had the camera and turned it over to investigators. James’s family positively ID’d it as belonging to their son.

By the start of April 1990, police ramped up their search efforts to find Deborah and James and I guess at this point realized they needed to be taking the case a little more seriously. No articles state whether or not they processed any film from James’s camera, but I have to think they did.

Finding the young man’s belongings near Galston Gorge at least gave search teams a starting point of where to look for them. For two days, teams of divers scoured creeks near the gorge, but no sign of the couple turned up.

Bad weather and rainfall that had come into the area hindered the authorities’ ability to thoroughly search. Water levels in certain spots in the gorge were constantly changing and strong currents made it difficult for the divers to navigate where to look.

In the end, the search of the gorge was fruitless, and the case yet again went cold. The one-year anniversary of Deborah and James’s disappearances came and went with no reported sightings, no new leads and no new information coming in.

On Tuesday January 22nd, 1991—a year after Deborah and James went missing– authorities in Victoria received another report of a backpacker vanishing.

Erwine Schmidl visiting Melbourne from Germany had anxiously waited for her 22-year-old daughter Simone, who everyone called “Simi”, to meet her at the Melbourne airport on January 22nd.

Erwine had flown in to spend a few days camping with her daughter after living for several months apart. Simi had spent the fall and winter of 1990 backpacking all over Australia…and by January of 1991 had been staying temporarily with friends in Sydney. On the afternoon the mother and daughter were supposed to meet up, Simi had been a no-show.

Right away, Erwine knew something was wrong, because Simi was normally a very punctual person and if she’d been delayed in her travels from Sydney to Melbourne she would have called or written a letter informing her mother she was going to be late.

No communication and no sign of her daughter threw up red flags in Erwine’s mind right away. So, she went to the Melbourne Police Department to report Simi missing.

She tried to explain how unusual and alarming it was to not hear from her daughter…but the police didn’t fly into action right away. They tried to assure Erwine that Simi was probably just delayed or had taken time to explore on her own. But Erwine disagreed. She knew her daughter…and she knew this was NOT normal behavior for Simi.

According to reporting by the Sydney Morning Herald, police investigators didn’t sit on their hands entirely. They did actually do some investigating to try and establish a timeline for the missing 22-year-old.

Police learned from speaking with some friends Simi had stayed with in Sydney that she’d left the city the morning of January 20th with plans to catch a train south to Liverpool and then hitch hike to Melbourne where she was scheduled to meet her mother at the airport.

The Age reported that her friends had walked with Simi to the train platform in Sydney to see her off but when they’d arrived, they’d all learned that every train scheduled for that day had been cancelled. After that, Simi hopped on a bus to Liverpool and then said she would hitch hike to Melbourne from there.

Authorities put out a be on the lookout bulletin for her in which she was described as five foot four inches tall, with blue eyes, black curly hair and a fair complexion. One specific detail was that she always wore round-rimmed glasses because without them she only had 20 percent vision. The last outfit her friends in Sydney had seen her in was a yellow singlet top, long green shorts, and hiking boots.

Calls from several people living between Melbourne and New South Wales noted that the last known sighting of her had been on the side of the road near Albury.

The distance between Sydney and Melbourne can be anywhere from 9 hours to 11 hours depending on which route you take. It’s remote in some parts and you pass by several national parks and state forests that stretch between New South Wales and Victoria.

In the early 1990’s hitchhiking was known to be an unsafe practice in Southern Australia, but to save money and time many backpackers like Simi asked truckers or motorists for a lift anyway. They knew full well the long route had its fair share of crime, but it was either hitch a ride for free or pay a pretty penny for a bus ticket. Most people chose the former.

According to a woman named Jeannette Mueller who’d travelled with Simi for a few months before she vanished, Jeannette and Simi often hitched rides with truck drivers between Melbourne and Sydney. Rarely did they get into cars.

Jeannette told The Sydney Morning Herald that in January of 1991 Simi had said she wanted to get from Sydney to Melbourne as fast as she could to meet her mother. Jeannette remembered Simi mentioning that instead of getting a ride with a trucker and having to possibly stick with the driver’s delivery route that would slow her down, she was going to hitch a ride from a regular motorist in a car.

Jeannette said she’d cautioned Simi against that idea because it was dangerous…but Simi promised she’d be careful.

After her mother reported her missing, several months passed and no sign of Simi turned up. Erwine stayed in Victoria and traveled between Melbourne and Sydney several times looking for her daughter but in the end, it was in vain. NOTHING surfaced…Until a few months later, in May of 1991.

Sandra Harvey for The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a bushwalker in the woods near the town of Bright about an hour and half south of Albury stumbled upon a pair of prescription round-rimmed glasses and a German-brand sleeping bag that had been dumped in the bush.

The source material doesn’t specify exactly how authorities tied these two items to Simi, but I think just based on the fact that she was German, and the brand of the sleeping bag that was found was ALSO German was a hint. Also, the eyeglasses were sort of unique. So, maybe that was a dead giveaway too. I don’t know. I couldn’t find any articles that detailed the connection, but I think it might be safe to assume that the police could have showed these items to Erwine and maybe she identified them as belonging to her daughter.

Either way, it seems like right after the glasses and sleeping bag were located is when investigators really started to get concerned that something bad might have happened to Simi. She was still technically just a ‘missing person’…but the fact that her essential personal belongings had been tossed like trash and no one had heard from her in months, just seemed extremely odd.

A homicide detective for the Melbourne Police Department told the Sydney Herald quote— “If she were alive, I’m sure that in some way she would have contacted friends or relatives. We just have no leads at all.” –end quote.

At that point, investigators in New South Wales and detectives from Victoria knew they had a growing number of missing backpackers between their two jurisdictions…but nothing so far indicated Simi’s case was related to Deborah and James’s.

News reports began to group Deborah, James and Simi’s cases together simply based on the fact that they were all missing…But in reality, there had been months and even a year between their disappearances, so it wasn’t appropriate, at least in the investigators’ minds, to consider them connected in any way.

But that quickly changed…because by the end of 1991, another young couple visiting southern Australia vanished without a trace…marking the official start to a pattern authorities could no longer ignore.

Anke Neugebauer could barely hear her son Gabor when he called her on Christmas Day 1991.

The 21-year-old told his mom that he and his 20-year-old girlfriend Anja Habscheid were crouched down on the hallway floor of the Backpacker’s Inn in the Kings Cross neighborhood of Sydney. It was four o’clock in the morning and he forewarned his mom that the long-distance call from the hostel’s payphone to Germany might not last.

Through the crackled and static line, Anke listened as her son explained he and Anja had plans to fly out of Australia on January 1st, 1992 and head to Bali. He said their plan was to hitch hike from Sydney and make a pitstop in Darwin before jetting out of the Darwin airport to Indonesia.

According to reporting by Mark Riley, Gabor told his mom during that phone call he wanted to leave Australia as soon as possible as fast as possible. The couple had been backpacking for two months and wanted to see new countries.

Gabor told Anke that he’d made arrangements with the postal service to have he and Anja’s mail forwarded to Darwin. So, if she sent them any letters before January 1st, they wouldn’t get them until after the New Year.

According to Karen Davey’s reporting, after island hopping in Bali, the couple was scheduled to fly home from Indonesia to Germany on January 23rd.

Unfortunately, the phone connection worsened during this part of their conversation and the line abruptly cut off. Anke figured her son had run out of money or the hostel’s telephone service was crappy. She waited a few minutes for a call back, but it never came.

Several days went by and neither Gabor nor Anja’s families heard from them. No postcards or phone calls arrived in Germany letting their parents know if they’d made it to Darwin. The Age reported that Anja had had been pretty good about regularly checking in with her parents and so had Gabor. So, their silence and lack of communication was definitely out of character.

Finally, when January 23rd rolled around and Gabor and Anja didn’t step off their flight at the Frankfurt, airport in Germany, their families alerted authorities in New South Wales.

The Neugebauers explained to detectives that no one had heard from the couple in weeks…there had been no activity in either of their bank accounts. Also, $3,000 worth of traveler’s checks had gone unused.

The families also told police that upon further investigation, they’d discovered the pair had missed their flight from Darwin to Bali on January 1st…AND never punched their ticket for their flight from Bali back home to Germany on January 23rd. So, that meant they’d been missing for roughly three weeks…and never left Australia.

Police started looking into the case and in early February officers visited the hostel in Sydney’s Kings Cross neighborhood, where Gabor and Anja had been staying. Investigators learned from speaking with staff there that on December 26th, the pair had checked out and left to hitch hike towards Darwin but after that, no one at the hostel had seen them.

Right away, authorities realized they had yet another set of missing backpackers on their hands.

Gabor and Anja’s case was headed up by New South Wales investigators…but according to multiple news reports there were conversations going on between investigators in Sydney and the Melbourne Police Department in Victoria about the now five backpackers that had been reported missing since December 1989.

The one thing detectives felt was going to be helpful when it came to hopefully locating Gabor and Anja was the fact that they stood out from the regular backpacking crowd. Gabor was reported to be six feet tall with a distinct dirty blonde shaggy haircut that was long on the top and short on the sides. Anja had long reddish-brown hair with bright red extensions sewn in on one side. Both had ear and nose piercings too, which authorities hoped would make them stick out even more to people.

But even with their unique descriptions floating around and detailed bulletins circulating all over southern Australia, no information about Anja and Gabor’s whereabouts came in.

In April, their parents and siblings flew to Australia and rented campervans to travel along Hume highway looking for them. For weeks the families drove up and down roads and into nature areas looking for the couple. They spent $20,000 and hired their own search and rescue teams as well as a private investigator…but in the end they found nothing.

Both families were genuinely concerned the couple had been abducted or killed. Gabor’s dad told The Sydney Morning Herald that during searches he’d learned from other tourists that Australia was branded as a dangerous country for visitors to hitch hike in. Around that time, The Daily Express had ranked Australia as one of the five most dangerous destinations for anyone looking to bum a ride from a stranger.

In an interview with Sydney Morning Herald reporter Deborah Cornwall, Anja’s brother Norbet said quote— “We decided the only way to know what was happening was to come here to look for ourselves. For us there are only a few possibilities. If somebody is murdered, the first thing you do is steal their money, but no checks have been cashed. They could also have had an accident, fallen over a cliff…but nobody has seen it. We know they would contact us if they could.”—end quote.

Karen Davey reported that by the end of April 1992, the couple’s family were beginning to feel like their searches were no longer of use.

Police agencies involved in the case, which at that point included federal police investigators, had volunteered some resources to help the families but, in the end, no one knew where Anja and Gabor were or what had happened to them.

The authorities filed the case away hoping new leads would emerge…just like investigators looking into Deborah Everist, James Gibson and Simone Schmidl’s cases had been forced to do.

And almost on cue… TWO more foreigners who’d been backpacking outside of Sydney vanished.

A week after April 16th, 1992, Ian Clarke, who was living in London, England did not receive a scheduled telephone call from his daughter, 22-year-old Caroline Clarke.

Ian hadn’t expected to hear from Caroline every day, but on a regular basis she’d called home to keep her parents updated on her plans. For months she’d been travelling with 22-year-old Joanne Walters, a friend she’d met after arriving in Australia.

By the end April of 1992 the pair was winding down their adventures and making plans to leave the country to head to China.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Caroline had sent a letter to friends back home in London on April 8th explaining they were going to hitch hike west from Sydney to work as fruit pickers in Victoria. From there they’d head to Darwin to fly out of the country.

Caroline and Joanne had communicated these plans to their parents the last time they’d each called home on the evening of April 16th.

But after failing to hear from them several days after that phone call, Caroline and Joanne’s families reported them missing to police in New South Wales. The families explained that the women’s travels had to wrap up by the end of the month because their visas were going to expire on April 28th. So, literally they couldn’t legally travel in Australia later than that date.

Hundreds of phone calls and tips came into New South Wales investigators after that…which included a potential sighting.

Staff at the Backpacker’s Inn in the Kings Cross neighborhood of Sydney reported that Joanne and Caroline had stayed at the hostel the night of April 16th…but had checked out on the morning of April 17th.

The name of that hostel may sound familiar, because it’s the same place Anja and Gabor stayed about six months earlier–during Christmas of 1991.

And you’re not alone if you think that’s weird. Investigators looking into Joanne and Caroline’s case early on recognized the strange similarities between the two cases and told reporters for The Herald and The Age that they were considering the disappearances of all four backpackers linked.

In June of 1992—about a month and a half after Joanne and Caroline vanished—newspapers in Australia went wild with the young women’s story. No other case of missing foreign backpackers had gotten as much attention as theirs.

I don’t know if that’s because they were two young women from affluent families in the UK or if there was just more interest in their story than others before them. But there was definitely a lot more source material out there on their case than Anja and Gabor’s and certainly much more than Deborah Everist or James Gibson’s disappearance.

Unconfirmed sightings of Joanne and Caroline were reported in the press every few days, throughout May and June of 1992 which hurt investigators’ ability to contain the flow of information.

A lot of the alleged sightings were false and caused more confusion than help. The only sighting police took seriously came in July 1992 when a witness came forward and said they’d seen two women matching Joanne and Caroline’s descriptions accepting a ride at a service station outside of Sydney from a man who was driving a small pickup truck. The vehicle was said to have a Victoria license plate and was either silver or white.

Frustratingly, searches for the pair or that kind of truck in and around the service station turned up nothing.

To make matters worse, Joanne and Caroline’s families reported no activity in their bank accounts since April 17th. The last transaction on record was a withdrawal of a few hundred dollars from Caroline’s account at a local bank in Sydney.

By the end of July, the situation was looking pretty dire. A police detective told the Sydney Morning Herald quote—“As time goes on, our concerns get worse and worse. There’s about 1,000 different theories about why they disappeared.”—end quote.

Reporter Sandra Harvey wrote a long piece for the Herald unofficially linking all of the missing backpacker’s cases together. She basically summarized the circumstances surrounding the disappearances of Simone Schmidel, Caroline and Joanne and Anja and Gabor into one speculative story, but strangely, she left out details about Deborah and James.

The authorities’ reaction to the kind of press was unofficial agreement. They went on record saying that they agreed it was extremely odd none of the missing foreigners had contacted their families or used their bank accounts…. BUT detectives wouldn’t go as far as saying they thought any of the missing young people were dead.

All police would confirm was that they were working on finding answers…and the best way they knew how to do that was to bring in homicide detectives who had the skills to work the cases as IF they were murders.

Nick Papadopoulos reported for The Sydney Morning Herald that in August of 1992, Joanne Walter’s parents, Jill and Ray traveled to Australia to search for their daughter and her friend. They spoke to newspapers and TV stations trying to stir up new leads.

They emphasized how much of a planner Joanne was saying quote – “She didn’t do anything on the spur of the moment. If she turned right or if she turned left, she’d let us know.” – end quote.

Unfortunately, the rest of the summer of 1992 dragged on and nothing new materialized in any of the cases…including Joanne and Caroline’s.

BUT then…in mid-September of 1992, everything changed.

Around three o’clock in the afternoon, on September 19th, two men running between old fire access trails in Belanglo State Forest stumbled upon something horrific.

The men were out training for a race when they noticed a bunch of leaves and brush piled up underneath a large boulder. As they got closer and closer, they smelled a strong odor of decomposition and by the time they were right up on whatever was stinking so bad, they realized it was a pile of bones, clothing and what looked like human hair covered by a mound of debris and dirt.

They quickly stepped away and high-tailed back to the rest of their training group. By four o’clock they’d phone the police in the nearby town of Bowral in New South Wales and reported what they’d found.

Within a half hour of receiving the 911 call, investigators from Sydney’s homicide division arrived on scene and the runners took them back to where they’d found the strange items. Authorities spent the remainder of the night processing the scene and by the next morning—September 20th— they announced they’d found human remains that appeared to belong to a young woman.

Crime Library reported that about 100 feet away from the first body, investigators found decomposing remains of a SECOND body tucked under a bush and covered with leaves.

Right away, detectives’ assumptions were that the remains likely belonged to Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. On September 22nd—two days after the bodies were found—a forensic pathologist in Sydney used the women’s dental records to confirm their identities.

In his report, the pathologist noted that Joanne had been stabbed multiple times in the chest and back, to the point where one of the wounds had been so deep that it had severed a few of her ribs and her spinal cord which caused her to be paralyzed before her death.

Caroline had also been stabbed a few times in the neck, but in addition to that, she’d suffered several gunshot wounds to her skull that indicated someone had shot her at close range. During the pathologist’s exam he’d found four bullets in her head and determined that based on the angles the shots had entered and exited…Caroline had possibly been used as target practice. Meaning, every time she’d been shot…she’d been repositioned with her arms over her head…and then shot again.

Absolutely, horrible to imagine, I know.

On or next to both victim’s bodies were articles of their clothing and shoes along with strips of fabric that investigators believed had been used as gags or restraints.

Their state of decomposition indicated they’d been killed roughly five months before being found—which would have been April when the vanished.

Right away, homicide investigators started working the case and they determined that more than likely the victims had been killed in the woods…NOT killed elsewhere and dumped in the forest after the fact.

The detectives quickly ruled out robbery as a motive because both women still had expensive jewelry on their hands. However, it was noted as peculiar that neither of the women’s backpacks, sleeping bags, or tents were in the immediate area with their bodies.

Whether the crime was sexually motivated was a bit harder to determine. Joanne was shirtless and still had her jeans on and unzipped…but the top of her pants still had the button hooked in place which meant she was either never assaulted or her attacker had buttoned the pants after assaulting her but not zipped up her zipper.

Due to the state of Caroline’s remains, investigators were unable to determine if she’d been sexually assaulted. She did however still have her bra and pants on.

According to Crime Library, physical evidence collected near the bodies also indicated the killer or killers had spent some amount of time with the women either before killing them or after the crime. Detectives found several cigarette butts all the same brand and at least 9 spent bullet casings for .22 caliber ammunition scattered on the ground.

To help create a profile of who could commit such a heinous crime to two innocent young women, New South Wales investigators brought in a forensic psychiatrist named Rod Milton to characterize a potential suspect.

What Rod came up with was a profile of a man, in his thirties who likely lived near Belanglo State Forest…had extremely good knowledge of the woods…owned firearms and knives…had a four-wheel drive vehicle and was 100 percent motivated by rage and pleasure. Rod also said that it was possible at least two people committed the crime…but one of them was definitely a ringleader.

That description wasn’t necessarily a profile police could take around town asking the public to identify…so for the time being authorities kept the information to themselves and continued digging.

News of Joanne and Caroline’s murders reached far and wide by October and November of 1992.

Publications in Australia and England ran stories about the crime non-stop. The women’s families were obviously devastated…Jill Walters, Joanne’s mother, told The Sydney Morning Herald quote—“These are evil-minded people. They’re dogs with rabies and there’s only one way…they’ve got to be put down and destroyed. There’s got to be some system whereby we destroy these people for their evil genes.”—end quote.

As angry as the women’s families were… they at least had answers as to what happened to Joanne and Caroline.

The parents of Gabor, Anja, Simi, Deborah and James were left to wonder if their kids were somewhere out in Belanglo State Forest too…just waiting to be found.

But authorities in Sydney and Melbourne quickly shut down rumors that there could be more bodies in the park and assured the public that it was still safe to backpack in Southern Australia.

That reassurance didn’t really go a long way though because many tourists and backpackers stopped hitch-hiking Hume Highway and word spread around Sydney that visitors should stop going to the park.

Something that made the forest even more solemn was the fact in October of 1992, Joanne’s family held a memorial for Joanne and Caroline at the spots where their remains were found. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that more than 80 people attended and laid wreaths and lit candles to honor the young women’s lives.

After that vigil, leads in the case dwindled and law enforcement could not figure out who had killed the young women or really develop any viable suspects. Investigators told The Herald that they’d fielded 7,500 tips and questioned at least 500 people, but NOTHING led them to one prime suspect they could focus all their energy on.

A year went by and just when everyone thought there was no end in sight…something unbelievable happened.

The Age reported that on October 6th, 1993, a man metal detecting in Belanglo State Forest near a dirt trail stumbled upon an intact skull and an assortment of what looked like human bones.

He quickly reported his find to police in Sydney and some source material even says he removed the skull to bring to the police. By two o’clock in the afternoon detectives and forensic teams had arrived on scene and it didn’t take them long to unearth a partial human skeleton in the woods. It had been half hazardly buried underneath some leaves and branches…just like Caroline Clark and Joanne Walters’s bodies had been.

A few hours later, not far from the first set of new remains, authorities located ANOTHER badly decomposing skeleton. No ID’s or personal belongings were found with either set of remains and it was hard for investigators to tell at first glance whether the bodies were male or female because they were in such bad shape.

Both skeletons were found about a half kilometer away from where Caroline and Joanne had been buried.

The reality that investigators were dealing with FOUR potential victims buried in the same geographic area of Belanglo alarmed everyone.

Identifying the two new bodies was kind of a guessing game for investigators until official autopsies could be done.

The possibilities were that the skeletons could belong to the young German couple, Anja and Gabor who’d vanished in October 1991…or they could be James Gibson and Deborah Everist who’d been missing since December 1989…or one of the bodies could be Simi Schmidl —OR the remains belonged to two people that police didn’t even know about yet.

Within a few days though, law enforcement got their answer.

The bodies belonged to James and Deborah. Forensic pathologists who’d come out to the gravesites compared dental records to the skulls and positively ID’d the two victims.

According to Crime Library, there were several articles of clothing and jewelry that also helped sure up the identities. Next to James’s remains was a black felt hat that he was known to wear and on Deborah’s bones police found several bracelets with semi-precious stones as well as a crucifix necklace that her family said belonged to her.

The pathologist who conducted their autopsies found that James had been stabbed several times in the chest and back, which included a devastating wound to his spine that paralyzed him before his death. Deborah had also been stabbed multiple times, mostly to her face, chest and head.

In the wake of James and Deborah’s remains officially being identified, Pat, Deborah’s mother spoke with reporter Mark Riley for the Sydney Morning Herald. She said she never imagined something like this would happen to her daughter on her first backpacking trip. She told Riley quote— “It worries me. This was the first time my daughter had ever done it, so don’t think that just because you are doing it once, it won’t happen. It does. I would just like anyone who has information to come forward and talk to the police. We must save this from happening to other young people and other families suffering.” – end quote.

The police continued to scour the forest and widened their search grid by several kilometers after finding Deborah and James. They brought in more officers and utilized as many scent dogs as they could. A spokesman for the department told news outlets that they did not expect to find more bodies…but they couldn’t know for sure until they looked.

Unfortunately…there were more bodies waiting to be found.

On November 1st, 1993—less than a month after Deborah and James’s remains were found–a police officer searching the forest floor discovered a human skull in a clearing. Next to it was a shirt, green shorts, pieces of jewelry, a pair of women’s pink jeans, .22 caliber bullets and some blue and yellow rope.

Dental charts confirmed the body belonged to Simi Schmidl but all of the clothing did not appear to belong to her. The pink jeans were not her size. That particular clothing item was something investigators knew from talking with Anja’s family COULD belong to her.

Two days later—on November 3rd—authorities found TWO more bodies in shallow graves a few hundred yards away from Simi’s makeshift burial site.

All of the bodies were transported to Sydney for autopsies and just like the other victims before them, the pathologist determined that each victim had been stabbed multiple times with a large knife.

One of the skeletons was fairly intact, but the other was missing the skull. The full skeleton was quickly identified as belonging to Gabor…and the other was presumed to be Anja. In addition to being stabbed in the back and chest, Gabor had also been shot several times and strangled. Wound angles on Anja’s skeleton showed that she’d been purposefully decapitated. Where her skull was though was still a mystery. Authorities could not find it in the woods.

Around this time, ballistic results from the bullets found in Caroline Clarke’s body and the shells from around that crime scene came in. Techs determined that all the cartridges came from a .22 caliber U-S made semi-automatic Ruger rifle. Based on the etching found on the bullets, authorities could tell they’d been fired from that unique style .22. The murder weapon had a shorter than normal barrel. Detectives sent off the bullets recovered from Gabor’s body and preliminary results showed those bullets also were fired from the same style gun.

Crime Library reported that authorities looked into how many Ruger rifles with short barrels were imported into Australia and unfortunately more than 50,000 had been purchased in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.

A lot of the gun stores in Southern Australis had kept records of sales for these types of guns but many didn’t keep receipts for cash transactions…so essentially, that lead was kind of a dead end because going through every purchase for the last three decades was going to take too much time, according to investigators.

Instead, authorities visited local gun clubs near Belanglo State Forest and questioned gun owners about their firearms. The effort didn’t help police identify a potential shooter, but they did take an interesting report from a man some members of a club near the town of Bowral recommended detectives speak with.

This witness’s name was Alex Milat and he told authorities that in 1992 he’d seen something kind of odd in the forest one night. He said while coming home, he’d noticed two vehicles…a sedan and a four-wheel drive truck driving on one of the old fire trail roads. As the truck passed him, he said he saw a man behind the steering wheel and in the back seat were two other men and a woman. The woman had some kind of fabric tied around her head that appeared to be gagging her. In the sedan he saw the same thing… a few men and a young woman who also appeared to be gagged or bound. He said he’d tried to take down one of the car’s license plate numbers but didn’t get the full numeric and in between now and then he’d lost the few numbers he had written down.

Police were extremely interested in Alex’s story and pressed him for more details…most importantly they asked him WHY he hadn’t reported this sighting to police sooner, but his answer was vague and police moved on.

By the end of November 1993, homicide detectives from New South Wales and Victoria officially launched a task force of 40 detectives to investigate all seven murders.

They told the public they believed the same person or people were responsible for the brutal slayings and more than likely they were dealing with one or two sadistic serial killers operating together.

They released the profile forensic psychiatrist Rod Milton had worked up months earlier and emphasized that the main killer was likely a man who was local and owned a bayonet style knife and had multiple firearms, including a Ruger rifle.

The lead detective for the task force said the fact that James Gibson’s rucksack and camera had been purposefully planted at Galston Gorge, so far away from where he and Deborah’s bodies were buried, indicated the killer or killers were trying to manipulate the police’s investigation and had intended to draw detectives away from the state forest.

He said the killer was smart, very knowledgeable with survival skills and more than likely owned a four-wheel drive pickup truck in order to be able to get to the burial sites he’d placed the bodies in.

The task force set up a public hot-line and asked people to help them be on the lookout for any individuals who looked suspicious and were driving near the entrance of the park on Hume Highway during the times the victim’s vanished.

After that call for help went out…a report from 1990 surfaced that changed EVERYTHING.

As it turned out…the suspected Belanglo State Forest killer might have had a surviving victim…

In January 1990—right after Deborah Everist and James Gibson vanished– a 23-year-old English backpacker named Paul Onions had reported to police in Bowral that a man who’d picked him up as a hitch hiker on Hume Highway near Belanglo State Forest had tried to kill him.

According to articles by Strange Outdoors and Crime Library, Paul’s story was that he’d been trying to get from New South Wales to Victoria and while at a café off the highway a man driving a four-wheel drive pickup truck offered to give him a ride.

A few minutes after getting into the truck, Paul said the guy introduced himself as Bill and started up friendly conversation. He was asking him questions like ‘are you traveling alone?’… ‘when are you due back in England?’…’Who is waiting for you in Victoria?’

Paul said the questions seemed repetitive but he just brushed it off as someone wanting to know more about the backpacking lifestyle.

When the men got close to the turn off for Belanglo State Forest, Paul said Bill pulled over, stopped the truck, got out and said he needed to look for some cassette tapes underneath his driver’s seat.

After searching for a minute or two, Paul said Bill got quiet and then pulled out a revolver and a bag of rope and threatened to kill him if he didn’t cooperate.

At the sight of the weapon and rope Paul said he’d sprang into action and tried to run towards the open highway for help but along the way, Bill had caught up to him and dragged him on the ground. Somehow though Paul said he’d continue to fight against his attacker and made it into traffic.

Paul told the police that he’d jumped into the path of an oncoming minivan and told the driver he was being chased. He begged the woman behind the wheel to get him out of there and despite having a van full of kids with her, the woman allowed Paul to get in the back seat.

Together the good Samaritan and Paul sped over to the Bowral police station to report what had happened.

Paul gave a detailed description to officers of what Bill looked like and his vehicle. He said the truck was a four-wheel drive and Bill had a distinct thick mustache.

Unfortunately, investigators looking into the seven forest murders in 1993 didn’t know ANYTHING about Paul Onions survival story from 1990. Apparently, Bowral police never followed up with his initial report and for years it sat in a filing cabinet at their station and Paul flew home to England within days of his horrific ordeal.

In November 1993 when news broke about the seven victims being found in the state forest, Paul took it upon himself to call New South Wales investigators to remind them about his assault and near-death experience, but his call went unreturned for FIVE MONTHS.

It wasn’t until April of 1994 that a detective name David Gordon on the task force unearthed Paul’s initial assault report from 1990 and contacted him for more details. After getting Paul’s full story, Detective Gordon also uncovered another report from 1971 that detailed how two young women who were hitchhiking away from Sydney headed south on Hume Highway had been abducted and raped…but survived.

The man both women accused of the crime was named Ivan Milat who drove a small four-wheel drive pickup truck and had a distinct mustache.

Ivan was 49 years old and had a criminal history in New South Wales and had even served time in prison.

According to multiple news reports, even after fleeing Australia and pretending to fake his own death to avoid prosecution for the rape charges, he was acquitted of the 1971 of that crime after prosecutors failed to prove their case.

By the time Detective David Gordon got a chance to speak with Ivan in early 1994…he was working at a concrete plant in Bowral with his brother, Richard. Timecards for Ivan’s shifts showed that he’d been absent from work when each of the seven state forest murders had taken place…which was SUPER suspicious.

From January 1994 until May…detective Gordon and other members of the task force surveilled Ivan and his family members…which included several of his brothers and his sister, Shirley.

According to Strange Outdoors piece on this case, authorities learned that Ivan and his brothers were employed for several years as road construction workers on a new extension of Hume Highway near Belanglo State Forest. They each had expert survival skills and were known to hunt in the pine forest on a regular basis.

On top of that, Ivan had sold a Nissan four-wheel drive pickup truck he owned right after police discovered the seven bodies. If that didn’t look bad enough…Ivan also owned several firearms and his friends said he had an extensive knife collection.

On May 5th, 1994, task force investigators flew Paul Onions to Australia to have him look at Ivan and sure enough Paul positively identified him as the man who called himself ‘Bill’ who’d tried to kill him back in 1990.

Three weeks later, detective Gordon and the task force had what they needed to execute search warrants at Ivan’s house AND two homes and properties that belonged to his family members.

Nick Papadopoulos reported for The Sydney Morning Herald that at several of locations investigators found backpacks, camping gear, canteens and personal belongings with some of the murder victim’s initials scratched out on them.

Disassembled and hidden in various locations around Ivan’s house were pieces of a .22 Ruger semi-automatic rifle that had a shortened barrel and rope that matched sections of rope found at some of the burial sites.

In addition to that incriminating evidence, authorities found dozens of boxes of firearms, ammunition and young people’s clothing stashed in an underground workshop built onto the back of Ivan’s house.

It took hours and several days for nearly 200 task force members to gather and seize all the evidence, but once they got it all together in one place…everything police needed came together.

Investigators arrested Ivan for firearms offenses and the armed robbery and assault of Paul Onions from 1990. They didn’t have a solid enough case yet to charge him with the multiple backpacker murders…but they did have enough to keep him in jail for at the time being.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Ivan’s brother’s Richard and Walter, were arrested as well for firearms and drug charges.

A few days after nabbing Ivan for Paul’s assault, police were able to obtain indictments and officially charge him with the seven backpacker murders. Throughout his first few court hearings a judge repeatedly denied him bail despite him fully denying the accusations.

Ivan fired his defense attorney in June of 1994 and opted to represent himself. During many of his pre-trial hearings he argued with the judge and lashed out at the media for hyping up what he claimed were false charges against him.

Ivan didn’t make it long on his own though and by July he’d hired a new defense attorney to represent him.

Unfortunately, it took another year and a half for Ivan to finally go to trial in March of 1996. The proceedings lasted 15 weeks and the crown introduced more than 450 witness statements and nearly 1,000 documents and exhibits all pointing to Ivan Milat as the serial killer police had been after for years.

Ivan’s brother Alex, who’d initially reported to police that he’d seen a suspicious truck and sedan in the state park a year before Joanne Walters and Caroline Clarke’s bodies had been discovered was supposed to testify as a witness but at the last minute, prosecutors decided to ax him from the witness list. The crown told The Sydney Morning Herald he was an ‘unreliable’ witness.

I guess the prosecution did this because Alex’s testimony was so vague and since several of Ivan’s other brothers were suspected of being involved with the crimes to some degree…the government felt it was best NOT to introduce any family member as a witness in the event they turned out to be an accomplice or something. I’m not really sure…the source material isn’t super clear about why Alex didn’t testify.

Someone who did testify though and really packed a punch was Paul Onions. He detailed the circumstances around his terrifying ride with Ivan and jurors responded in awe. All of the backpacking victim’s parents took the stand as well to testify about how much Ivan had taken from them when he brutally killed their children.

When it was time for the defense to make its arguments, Ivan and his lawyer denied everything. Ivan’s strategy was blaming Richard and Walter, his brothers for the crimes and said they planted all the incriminating evidence inside his house. The prosecution’s rebuttal to this was that it was Ivan who’d kept trophies of all his victims and in a sick twisted way had even gifted some of the belongings to his siblings after the crimes which is why some of those articles had been found in their homes.

Thankfully, the jury didn’t buy Ivan’s defense argument and on July 27th, 1996, the panel convicted him for seven counts of first-degree murder and the assault on Paul Onions.

The judge sentenced him to life in prison on each count as well as six years in prison for Paul’s case.

After he was incarcerated Ivan tried multiple times to escape prison but failed. His brothers Richard and Walter were never charged with any crimes related to the seven backpackers murders…though many members of law enforcement believed they were involved in some way.

According to Crime Library and 60 Minutes, authorities believed Ivan’s sister Shirley also might have been present during some of the murders and helped conceal evidence, but she too was never charged.

The reason police thought she was at some of the crime scenes was because of those piles of cigarette butts they found near several of the remains. The butts were all the same brand, and she was the only person in the Milat family who smoked that brand of cigarettes.

The only Milat who never came under suspicion was one of Ivan’s younger brother’s Boris Milat. Boris moved far away from his family at a young age and when reporters tracked him down after Ivan’s conviction. He said he’d gone into hiding because he was fearful of his family members.

He told news reporters quote—”All of my brothers are capable of extreme violence, given the right time and place individually. The things I can tell you are much worse that what Ivans meant to have done. Everywhere he’s worked, people have disappeared…If Ivan has done these murders, I reckon he’s done a hell of a lot more.” – end quote.

Boris later told 60 Minutes that while he and his brother’s had been growing up, Ivan had never expressed empathy or love for anyone. He had a fetish for violence that Boris said made him prime to be a killer.

News Australia reported that Ivan petitioned for parole several times but every time the courts denied his request. Authorities attempted to question him about dozens of other murders or mysterious disappearances of backpackers in Australia near Belanglo State Forest from the 70’s and 80’s but Ivan refused to cooperate.

He also never confessed or took responsibility for the seven murders she was convicted of.

In October of 2019 Ivan died of esophageal and stomach cancer at the age of 74. He was alone in a prison hospital room and within days of his death prison officials cremated his body and paid for the process with the balance from his inmate account.

To this day police in Australia believe Ivan could have been responsible for upwards of 20 murders along Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne.

Police have never been able to definitively prove his connection to any deaths beyond the seven backpacker murders…but perhaps there are still more bodies and secrets waiting to be uncovered in Belanglo State Forest that could help bring answers to several families STILL waiting for justice.

Park Predators is an audiochuck original.

So, what do you think chuck, do you approve? *howl*