“Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened”.

Thomas Hardy – Poet and Novelist 1840 -1928

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. Despite this some believe Murdoch is innocent and he certainly continues to insist he is. Bradley Murdoch was no ordinary regular character, he was a violent breed. Crushed by the weight of investigation law and order, this lawless outback criminal was finally caught in the net. In the past he had got away with attempted murder and there were other disappearances that the Australian Police Authorities considered he was possibly linked to.

The mystery surrounding the disappearance and presumed death in Australia on 14th July 2001 of 28 year old British citizen Peter Falconio persists. His body has never been found. 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 had 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. They had bought an old iconic VW T2 Combi campervan for this part of their adventure. They named it Taz. The distance to Darwin was 4,635 km, (2780 miles), and most of the trip would be on Route 87, the Stuart Highway.

A 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. I mention Mr Fraser because his interest in this case and his relationship with Bradley Murdoch is a good example of how strong and detailed conspiracy theories can be created and allowed to flourish. Conspiracy theories have nothing to do with facts, they are centred around thoughts, feelings and money

Andrew Fraser, actually 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. Peter Falconio had some repairs completed on the VW. What they were not prepared for was the encounter they would suffer on the Stuart Highway. Joanne Lees, who managed to survive the attack would be the only witness.

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 on drug runs. 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 and commuter traffic. He sometimes towed a trailer so he would look, (as he presumed), like a ‘Tommy Tourist’. At his trial Murdoch maintained that on this particular trip he was indeed towing his camping trailer. Witnesses did indeed state that he set out and arrived on this particular trip with his trailer. It frankly made no difference to the evidence that eventually convicted him. Joanne Lees never mentioned a trailer. Why would she, how would she have been expected to see it in the dark.

The Falconio and Lees had arrived In Alice Springs on the 12th July and departed on the 14th July but not before they had enjoyed the crazy spectacle of the annual Camel Trophy event held in town. They finally left Alice at around 4:00 pm and the last place they visited was The Red Rooster fast food outlet which is towards the north of the town but actually on the start of route 87.

Bradley Murdoch knew Joanne Lees stated this at the committal and then claimed that he had also stopped here earlier on the same afternoon. This is where his defence claimed Joanne Lees possibly picked up Murdoch’s DNA, a convenient transfer took place with perhaps Lees leaning back on a chair that he had touched with an open wound on his hand. The jury at Murdoch’s trial were visibly unimpressed by this theory. Murdoch might not have been inside The Red Rooster but he admitted visiting The Repco Auto Parts centre which is directly opposite and using the jet wash facilities at the Peter Kittle Toyota Dealership just up the road. There was no doubting he was there.

Murdoch denied being at the Camel Trophy event but he was visiting routine locations known to him. Falconio and Lees were by chance frequenting an outlet in the very district that Murdoch admitted to being in that afternoon. If it wasn’t at the Camel Trophy event or elsewhere in Alice Springs was it perhaps here that Murdoch spotted the attractive and vulnerable looking Joanne Lees. Did he now formulate a plan for a sexual and violent side show alongside this drug run. 

By early evening 200 km north of Alice Springs the couple stopped at the Ti Tree rest stop. They smoked a joint and watched the sunset before refuelling the VW with 37 litres of leaded gas at 6:50 pm. 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 for the night whenever they felt like it. 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. They felt safe together in their vehicle.

Total darkness in such a vast and unpopulated region at night is a condition rarely experienced in Europe. With no ambient light and particularly if the conditions are 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 defenceless pair. I have total empathy with this young couple having travelled extensively in near identical circumstances in many parts of the world. You have to experience it to understand.

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 and similar in some respects to parts of the Stuart Highway.

Joanne Lees claimed that Peter became aware of headlights behind them and eventually a strong intimidating pool of light filled the cabin of their Kombi. This following vehicle could clearly and easily overtake their modest VW but it had remained behind them. The vehicle driver eventually came up alongside with his interior light on gesturing and pointing to the rear of their vehicle. He was in a white Toyota 4×4 Ute. Peter Falconio, concerned, pulled over on the dirt shoulder and the following driver pulled over behind them and got out of his vehicle. He walked up to the VW drivers side 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. Joanne Lees slid over into the drivers seat and with the drivers door slightly open listened to both men at the rear of the vehicle. She had her concerns about this stranger and was not totally comfortable. After a short discussion Peter Falconio came back to the driver’s side, grabbed his cigarettes and asked Joanne to be prepared to rev the engine if they asked her to. He appeared completely calm. Peter Falconio re-joined the stranger behind the vehicle. Joanne Lees then heard a bang and assumed that as the engine was running and she had her foot on the accelerator it was an engine backfire.

People unaccustomed to gunfire will naturally substitute the noise a firearm emits with something more familiar. Fireworks/firecrackers or a vehicle backfiring are generally the first thoughts. Interestingly, Joanne Lees never stated that she thought it was a gunshot she heard.

Next, the stranger appeared at the driver’s door and threatened Joanne with a small silver handgun. In her statement she maintained that she was forced back into the passenger seat and her hands were tied together at the wrists with cable ties She was then pushed out of the passenger door and stumbled face down on the dirt shoulder lacerating her knees and elbows. She felt a blow to the right side of her head and it stunned her. The attacker attempted to tie 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 scrub. 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 which she had seen sitting on the passenger seat of the attackers vehicle was totally calm and 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 some 400 metres further up the highway where it was later found 80 metres off the road. A lower grade of his DNA was later found on the VW steering wheel and gear lever and on the elaborate cable tie and tape hand restraints he had used to bound Joanne Lees. 

She remained traumatised and cold in the darkness for over five hours. A car started to appear, the headlights getting larger as it approached at high speed. She was desperate but feared it could be the attacker returning and it sped past. Eventually the lights and sound of a road train became apparent, it was coming from the north. She decided this was a safer option and mustered the courage to get onto the road to attempt to stop it. The driver stopped actually fearing he had hit her. He and his crewmate removed her bindings with bolt croppers and took her back to Barrow Creek and the police were notified. It was some hours before the police arrived and at first they had thought the call was a hoax. 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 and that was their priority, to try and find him. The police searched the immediate area for him and naturally left evidence of their presence in the form of boot prints.

By the time Aborigine trackers reached the site to assist the police it had been inadvertently contaminated. This provoked a lot of confused speculation. 

Joanne Lees described Murdoch’s handgun as “silver”. This finish is correctly described in firearm terms as “nickel-plated”. She also described it as having a decorative scrolling pattern on the barrel.

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 before seen any type of real gun up close. She was surprised to be introduced to a very nervous looking middle aged art teacher called David Stagg who sketched impressions of her descriptions of the gun she was threatened with and the 4×4 Ute.

The image directly below is a highly decorative version of a Colt revolver; you can plainly see the scrolling patterns. Murdoch was an American Western fan and such revolver models would be of natural interest to him. He even had a nickname, “Brad Eastwood”.

From her description to the police it was plain that the weapon was a nickel-plated revolver. A woman met Murdoch in a roadhouse in Western Australia in June 2001 and they had travelled in convoy for a while together north towards Broome. She had told him that she had always wanted a ‘silver ladies gun’, with a pearl handle which would look like the .22 example image below. Murdoch apparently showed her a nickel plated handgun but it had a wooden handle so she wasn’t interested. He loaded a chamber and invited her to try it. She declined so Murdoch fired the round into the dirt. This she remarked was the only time she felt uncomfortable with him. It is very likely to have been a .22 he showed her, ideal as a ‘ladies gun’. Be under no illusion however, a .22 handgun despite having little recoil and limited stopping power, is still a deadly weapon, especially at short range.

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 region of a vital organ. 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. Bradley Murdoch naturally denied ever owning such a weapon.

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 sound but in the colourful and intoxicating existence they  were experiencing in Australia Lees had stumbled into a brief sexual affair with another man whilst they were in Sydney. She was unfairly judged on this issue, and it was completely and utterly irrelevant. Peter Falconio’s disappearance must have made that dark secret in their relationship all the worse because she correctly 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 she had a strained relationship with the investigating police. She was totally traumatised by the events. The conspiracy theories and wild speculation took off.

If Peter Falconio had planned to fake his own disappearance why didn’t he start this process in Sydney where it would have been much easier. The location on the Stuart Highway is ludicrous. For people unaccustomed to this type of environment it is difficult to imagine what it is like. If you really want to know what they faced, get up and go there, or somewhere similar and see for yourself.

Bradley Murdoch describes himself as a bit rough around the edges but essentially a good all round bloke. Described by friends and work colleagues as a dependable gentle giant the fact was he was prone to violence and he was a career criminal. That didn’t automatically 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 initially arrested but he became agitated by the police interest in him. People who knew Murdoch had stated that they thought they recognised him and his vehicle from the Shell Truck Stop CCTV footage just north of Alice Springs. The police were able to retrieve this by chance. He started to change his appearance and that of his vehicle, he shaved his moustache off. 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. Bullets passed through vehicle windows and interior fixings, It was alleged that he narrowly missed a woman’s head with one shot. He was only identified as the shooter because his Nissan 4×4 was found abandoned where he had got it stuck as he fled the scene. He claimed in court that the only reason nobody was killed or injured was down to his expert marksmanship.  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 on his arm of an Aborigine being hanged.

In January 1997 a 21 year old Aborigine, Sara-Lee Davey went missing in Broome after a violent confrontation with a visiting sailor. During the evening of the 28th April 1999 another 21 year old Aborigine girl, Petronella Albert also went missing after she left her address in Broome. Since the murder of Peter Falconio, Police have suspected that Bradley Murdoch might be involved. 

Murdoch’s transport at the time of Peter Falconio’s murder and disappearance was a 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 favourable 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 seemingly 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 after giving them a thousand dollars and threatening the woman that he would kill them if they went to the police.

The mother was convinced he was going to kill them both throughout the ordeal. She had remarked that Murdoch was obsessed with the Falconio murder, claiming he was being set up by the authorities by his old drug running partner, James Hepi who was simply after the reward money.

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. She and her daughter had washed themselves and she had got rid of all their clothes. Murdoch claimed that his involvement in the rape and abduction had never taken place and the story was masterminded by James Hepi. If no attack had taken place that meant that this 12 year old was instructed and briefed to give false evidence in a closed court. These are remarkable accusations from Murdoch’s perspective, fitted up for two separate abductions, rape and murder. 

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. At some point in Alice Springs Murdoch had noticed the couple and particularly the attractive and curvaceous Joanne Lees. Travelling in their distinctive burnt orange VW Murdoch might have set out to take advantage of their vulnerability.

Between Alice Springs and Ti Tree Joanne Lees was driving and Peter Falconio was asleep in the back. Although Murdoch would have been unconcerned about the threat Peter Falconio might pose, noticing Lees at the wheel and seemingly alone might have sealed the temptation to attack her. An attractive young woman, seemingly alone, driving the old cumbersome vehicle. They, and possibly now just she were mere visitors in his vast homeland territory, a continent in which he had enjoyed operating with total impunity.

Perhaps not unlike Raymond Bailey who also committed a shooting murder on the Stuart Highway in 1957 in similar circumstances, (The Sundown Murders). Both Murdoch and Bailey harboured a sense of wild freedom in the vastness of the Australian outback.

Murdoch remarked that he had no interest in ‘Miss Lees’ and if he was, ‘that way inclined’, he could visit every whorehouse on route. One would expect him to scoff at the idea, that’s perfectly reasonable but in their dark secret world, sexual predators don’t operate that way. He had undoubtedly seen Joanne Lees at some point and possibly energised by drugs he felt an urge to force his way upon her. The couple were easy to spot and their route itinerary was simple to anticipate. Noticing Joanne Lees driving the vehicle alone might have been the tipping point.

He might have concluded the pair had parted company in Alice Springs. Catching up with the Combi in the dark, Murdoch was perhaps intensely angered at his mistake when he realised that Peter Falconio was still in the Combi with Joanne Lees.

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 kilometres 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). The southern route was the longest via The Nullarbor towards Perth, then options north up through Western Australia to Broome, 4,800 km, (2,880 miles). He could visit his parents on this route. Some routes were significantly longer but it gave him choices and it didn’t set up noticeable patterns.

Perhaps the northern route 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 numerous options we have in Europe. The burnt orange VW camper was easy to spot.

The CCTV footage of what was deemed as Murdoch at the big Shell 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. The timings fitted. He filled his vehicle with fuel, bought ice, bottled water and iced coffee. Bradley Murdoch favoured iced coffee. He must have tried to anticipate where the police would emerge from if Joanne Lees had managed to get help. He took the precaution of unhitching his trailer and parking it up before he entered the Shell station; he would have been aware of CCTV. He wore the baseball cap, uncharacteristic of him; perhaps that’s why he did it.

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 by some to be 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. His escape route whilst hastily decided upon worked perfectly. 

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 Northern Territory 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 and, despite not initially being of immediate interest to the police authorities. The pair had an interest in firearms and the violent sexual pursuit of women. Both men had been married for short periods and had difficulties securing meaningful relationships. Both were convicted on circumstantial and direct evidence, FDR and DNA. Barry 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.

Joanne Lees had a book published in 2006. No Turning Back – My Journey.