Who was Ivan Milat? Chilling story of 'backpacker killer' who murdered 20 people including pregnant woman

Channel 7 true crime series 'Ivan Milat: Buried Secrets' presents 'compelling evidence' that Milat, one of the most notorious serial killers in Australia's history, took many secret murders to his grave

                            Who was Ivan Milat? Chilling story of 'backpacker killer' who murdered 20 people including pregnant woman
Ivan Milat laughs as he leaves the Supreme Court after representing himself in his appeal against conviction in the murders of seven backpackers, 4 November 1997 (Getty Images)

Seven lives may not have been enough. In a chilling new claim by crime experts, the backpacker murders that took place in New South Wales, Australia, between 1989 and 1993, could have claimed many more lives apart from the original list of seven.

Notorious serial killer Ivan Milat, who was serving seven life sentences for murdering seven people and dumping their bodies in the Belanglo State Forest, may have killed 20 more victims. The list includes a 20-year-old pregnant woman whose body was dumped in a field, experts claimed in a recent report. In a new Channel 7 true crime series, 'Ivan Milat: Buried Secrets', criminologist Dr Xanthe Mallett and criminal psychologist Tim Watson-Munro present “compelling evidence” that Milat, one of the most notorious serial killers in Australia's history, took this, and other secret murders to his grave.


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Convicted murderer Ivan Milat is led by police to East Maitland Court, on April 16, 1998. (Getty Images)

Who was Ivan Milat?

Ivan Robert Marko Milat, born in October 1944, son of a Croatian emigrant and labourer father and Australian mother, was the fifth of 14 siblings and one of 10 brothers. From the outside, the early years of his life were unremarkable in postwar Australia. His father, a strict disciplinarian, worked on the wharves in Sydney and eventually started a tomato plantation at the family property in Moorebank, western Sydney, where his sons were put to work. Seven of the 10 brothers had had run-ins with the law, and the Milat family were well known to police. Milat's former wife Karen, who left him on domestic abuse charges in 1987 after four years of marriage, described him as 'gun crazy', recalling him killing kangaroos on a visit to Belanglo State Forest.

Milat had robbery and kidnap cases against him, which failed at trial with the help of the Milats' high-profile family lawyer, John Marsden, who was a former President of the Law Society of New South Wales. He took on a job as a truck driver in 1975, and by the time of the murders, Milat had worked on and off for 20 years for the Roads & Traffic Authority all over the state.

Australian crimes, murders and cases. Bowral Backpacker murders in the Belanglo State Forest, NSW. Police officers and detectives search the forest after the discovery of skeletal remains, the bodies of two murder victims. Taken on 21 September 1992. (Getty Images)

Pregnant woman's body found

Though the murderous rampage seemed to have started from 1989, Watson-Munro and Mallett believe they have identified a woman who was actually Milat's first victim. 20-year-old Keren Rowland is believed to have been five months pregnant when her body was found in the Fairbairn Pine Plantation, at the Air Disaster Memorial almost three months after her disappearance near Canberra in May 1971. 

Dr Mallett said “the victimology, the type of victim, the circumstances under which she was taken and perhaps most importantly, the circumstances in which she was found,” led her to believe Milat was responsible for her death. "It was so similar to Belanglo. It really spoke to us, to have all of the same hallmarks as the Ivan Milat victims that we know are attributed to him," Mallet said.

Ivan Milat's car, with a crime stoppers sticker. (Getty Images).

How to turn a person into 'a head on a stick'

Journalists Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy wrote in their book about the case, 'Sins of the Brother', that Milat leaned into his brothers' lifestyle and was involved in petty theft and break-ins, and had affairs with two of his brothers’ girlfriends in the same period. In the 1970s he was tried but acquitted of raping 18-year-old Margaret Patterson, who had been hitchhiking to Melbourne with a friend.

In an instance recounted in the book, Milat described to an acquaintance how to turn a person into “a head on a stick” by stabbing them in the spine. He was an avid shooter and often hunted in the forest where the bodies of his victims were found. All of the bodies had been buried, then covered by a pyramid made of sticks and ferns, and they had almost all been sexually assaulted.

(L to R) Joanne Walters, James Gibson, and Caroline Clarke. (AAP/Police)

Body unearthed in a fetal position

On the day before New Year’s Eve in 1989, a Victorian couple from Frankston, Deborah Everist and James Gibson, both 19, set off from Sydney towards Albury for an alternative lifestyle festival and never arrived. Their bones were found four years later by a local searching for firewood in a particularly remote section of the forest. The discovery of Gibson's body, unearthed in a fetal position in Belanglo, puzzled investigators as his camera and backpack had previously been discovered at Galston Gorge, over 75 miles to the north.

Gibson had been stabbed eight times with a large knife- one slice had cut through his spine, causing paralysis. He had also been stabbed multiple times in the back, chest, and had punctures to his heart and lungs. Everist had been beaten severely, her skull fractured in two places. Her jaw was broken, she had knife marks on her forehead, and had been stabbed in the back.

Sign at entrance to the Belanglo State Forest, off the Hume Highway in New South Wales, Australia (Wikimedia Commons)

A decapitated woman in a shallow grave

Simone Schmidl, 21, from Germany, was due to backpack her way from Sydney to meet her mother at Melbourne airport in January 1991. She had been stabbed eight times and her spine had been severed twice. Her skeleton was found in a clearing along a fire trail in the forest during a police sweep in November 1993. Clothing found at the scene was not Schmidl's, but matched that of another missing backpacker, Habschied.

Anja Habschied, 20, and Gabor Neugebauer, 21, left Sydney on Boxing Day in 1991, to make the 4,000km trek to Darwin before returning to Munich a month later. They disappeared after leaving a Kings Cross hostel for Mildura. On 4 November 1993, their bodies were found on a nearby fire trail in shallow graves 50 metres apart, indicating that they might have been killed at different times. Habschied had been decapitated. Her skull has never been found. Neugebauer had been shot in the head six times.

(L to R) Deborah Everist, Anja Habschied, Gabor Neugebauer, Simone Schmidl;. (AAP/Police)

Target practice

British backpackers Caroline Clarke (21) and Joanne Walters (22), were also last seen in Kings Cross on 18 April 1992. They met at a backpackers’ hostel in Sydney’s Kings Cross, and had hitchhiked together a number of times in Australia. Their bodies were the first to be found, discovered by two runners in September 1992. Walters had been stabbed, once in the neck, four times in the chest, and nine in her back, which had paralyzed her. Her spine had been severed by one vicious blow. Lying in scrub 10 metres away, Clarke appeared to have been used target practice with a gun. She had been blindfolded and shot in the head ten times.

Around each burial site, a campsite was located nearby, leading investigators to believe that the killer had stayed there with his victims. 

Paul Thomas Onions leaves the Supreme Court after giving evidence in the trial of Ivan Milat, who is charged with the backpacker murders, 27 March 1996. (Getty Images)


In Novemver 1993, Paul Onions from the UK was hitchhiking from Liverpool station towards Mildura, had accepted a ride south out of Casula from a man known only as "Bill". Bill stopped and pulled out a revolver and some ropes stating it was a robbery, at which point Onions managed to flee with the help of a nearby passing motorist, Joanne Berry of Canberra, who reported and described Milat to the police. Eventually, a call from a woman whose boyfriend worked with Ivan Milat, told the police that they needed to look into Milat as the Backpack Serial Killer.

Police set up surveillance on Milat on February 26, 1994. Onions identified him in May. After arresting him, police searched his property and found weapons, including a rifle and rifle parts and a .22-caliber Ruger 10/22 that matched the type used in the murders. They also found clothing, tent, sleeping bags, cameras, and various items that belonged to the dead victims. A search of the homes of Milat’s families revealed more weapons and more items belonging to the backpackers that were killed.

Ivan Milat's house (Getty Images)

Runs in the family: A partner in crime?

On July 18, 2005, Milat’s defense lawyer John Marsden, who was the Milat family's attorney, was dying of cancer and wanted to clear his conscious. He gave a statement that not only had Milat confessed to him that he killed all of the victims, but that he had a partner, his sister Shirley Soire.

During Milat’s trial, Justice David Hunt said he believed that Milat had not worked alone. He presented evidence that more than one killer was working together to kill several of the victims, also suggesting that one of Milat’s siblings was involved. In 2012, Milat’s great-nephew, Matthew Milat, killed a friend in the Belanglo forest. Joking about the murder in court, he said, “That’s what the Milats do.” He was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

Dressed in his orange overalls and handcuffed and with his left hand bandaged after cutting off his own finger and attempting to post it to the High Court, Ivan Milat was escorted out of Goulburn Hospital last night, and taken back to prison. (Getty Images)

How did Ivan Milat die?

Milat cut off his little finger with a plastic knife, with the intention of mailing it to the High Court of Australia to force an appeal. He had previously self-harmed in 2001, swallowing razor blades, staples and other metal objects. Milat went on a nine-day hunger strike in May 2011, losing 25 kilograms in an unsuccessful attempt to be given a PlayStation.

Milat was diagnosed with terminal oesophageal cancer in 2019. He died from oesophagus and stomach cancer at within the hospital wing at Long Bay Correctional Centre at the ripe age of 74.

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