Today’s big question

What happened to Peter Falconio?

Police in Australia still searching for body of British backpacker shot dead on remote highway

Police in Australia have appealed for help to finally track down the remains of a British backpacker murdered in the outback 20 years ago today.

Peter Falconio was 28 when he was shot while travelling with his girlfriend on the Stuart Highway north of Alice Springs. His killer was sentenced to life imprisonment, but Northern Territory police are still struggling “to resolve the notorious crime’s enduring mystery: the whereabouts of his body”, says Australian broadcaster ABC

What happened to Falconio?

Falconio and his girlfriend Joanne Lees, both from West Yorkshire, had been backpacking around Asia before flying to Australia with working holiday visas. After a few months in Sydney, the couple bought a Volkswagen camper van and embarked on a road trip around the country.

They were driving on a remote stretch of the Stuart Highway bound for the Devils Marbles conservation reserve on the evening on 14 July 2001 when another car gestured for them to pull over, claiming smoke was coming from the back of their van.

“I just thought, I am definitely going to die,” Lees would tell the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin four years later, at the trial of her boyfriend’s killer, Bradley Murdoch.

Joanne Lees

Joanne Lees flanked by Falconio’s brothers Nick (left) and Paul (right) during the murder trial in Darwin in 2005

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Lees described how she had heard a gunshot after Falconio got out of the van to investigate. Murdoch then appeared at her window and pointed a gun at her head, the jury heard.

He bound her wrists “in handcuffs made from cable ties before forcing her into the rear of his four-wheel drive”, The Sydney Morning Herald reported during the 2005 trial.

But Lees managed to escape and hid under a bush for a “very long time”, she said, while Murdoch tried to hunt her down with his dog. Hours later, after he gave up his search, she was able to flag down a passing truck.

Her boyfriend’s body was never discovered, but a pool of blood was found at the side of the road.

Who is Bradley Murdoch?

The jury took eight hours to unanimously convict Murdoch of murdering Falconio and abducting and assaulting Lees. Described by The Guardian during his trial as a “47-year-old mechanic and drug runner” from Broome in Western Australia, Murdoch had previously been in prison for shooting at a group of Aborigines.

Bradley John Murdoch

Bradley John Murdoch surrounded by police as he arrives at Darwin airport in 2003

David Hancock/AFP/Getty Images

Murdoch has always denied attacking the British couple, telling a Channel 4 documentary, Murder in the Outback: the Falconio and Lees Mystery, from a prison phone last year: “Yeah, I’m a ratbag. I’ve belted a lot of fuckin’ people. I’ve run a bit of pot. But I’m not a fuckin’ murderer.” 

What next?

The murder “remains one of Australia’s most high-profile criminal cases in recent decades”, says the BBC, but “despite extensive searches and political pressure” police have never found Falconio’s body.

Police today urged “anyone out there with any information” to come forward and “assist Peter’s family in gaining some sort of closure”. 

The Northern Territory government introduced a “no body, no parole” law in 2016 aimed at pressuring Murdoch to “reveal Mr Falconio’s whereabouts”, says the BBC. But while the legislation means that Murdoch will be unable to apply for parole until the end of his minimum 28-year sentence, he has offered no clues. 

Northern Territory chief minister Michael Gunner told reporters this week that “Murdoch has never shown remorse for his crime. It would be fitting for him to show some decency and reveal Mr Falconio’s whereabouts for the sake of those who loved him.”

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