A terrifying night in the desert
One of the most bizarre crimes in the history of Australia occurred along a remote and lonely stretch of the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory, between Alice Springs and Darwin.
At night, on 14 July 2001, English backpackers Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio were heading north on this road in a Kombi van, when they were flagged down by a stranger who had been following them in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
They pulled off the road and were told that sparks had been coming out their Kombi exhaust but soon after Peter had gone to the back of the vehicle to investigate, a loud bang was heard. Joanne was then confronted by the stranger who appeared out of the darkness, armed with a pistol and then barged in beside her in the Kombi. Her hands were restrained with cable ties, and she was dragged into his vehicle that had been parked nearby. However she managed to escape soon after when the stranger was distracted. There was no sign of Peter following this confrontation.
Running into the pitch black of the desert night Joanne Lees, nearly immobilised with shock, dropped and hid behind a bush while the stranger searched for her with a torch. He then drove away after failing to find her.
She hid in terror, in total darkness, for the next 5 hours before flagging down a passing truck, and was finally rescued.
A manhunt is launched
A huge manhunt was launched, firstly to try and locate the missing Peter Falconio, and secondly to identify and arrest the kidnapper. The Kombi van was located parked off the road a little further up the highway and a forensic search located DNA samples on the Kombi gearstick, and these matched similar samples on Joanne’s t-shirt and on the cable tie manacles the kidnapper placed on her. There was no sign of Peter Falconio, but blood at the scene led police to make a chilling decision. As well as an attempted kidnapping the case had escalated into suspected murder.
As news spread, massive media interest was generated, including a flood of queries from international news agencies, and Joanne Lees’ reluctance to grant media interviews led to rampant and highly inaccurate speculation. It was even unfairly hinted that she may not have been telling the entire truth during her description of the incident.
Bradley Murdoch is identified
However service station CCTV footage had emerged of a 4WD vehicle matching Joanne Lees’ description fuelling up at an Alice Springs service station. This vehicle was later tracked to South Australia and then tied in with a man charged with rape in 2003. This man was Bradley John Murdoch, a large, menacing and intimidating man with an extensive criminal record. He was extradited to the Northern Territory and this led to the first real breakthrough in the case. It was found that Murdoch’s DNA matched the samples recovered from the Stuart Highway crime scene
Found guilty of murder
He was charged with murder, assault and attempted kidnapping and went to trial on 17 October 2005, constantly denying any knowledge of the murder. After a nine-week court sitting he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 28 years. He was then incarcerated at Darwin’s Berrimah Prison but later transferred to the newly constructed Darwin Correctional Centre in 2014. Peter Falconio’s body has never been found.