In 2001 Peter Falconio and his girlfriend Joanne Lees were backpacking across the Australian outback. Eight months into a round the world trip they had been crossing Australia from Sydney to Darwin when they encountered an individual who would rip their excitement and dreams from them in one harrowing night.
UPDATE: In June 2020, Channel 4 on British Television released a 4-part documentary on the Peter Falconio case ‘Murder in the Outback: The Falconio and Lees Mystery’. The documentary reviews and analyses all the evidence in the case and reveals some reports that had not previously been released. The documentary has raised some new questions and debates over this case including one disturbing claim that Peter Falconio may have faked his own death.
While traveling late in the evening in their camper van across the Stuart Highway near Barrow Creek on 14 July 2001, they were flagged down by 43-year-old Bradley Murdoch who told them there was a problem with their van. A drifter who had worked as a truck driver and a mechanic, Murdoch had a number of criminal convictions behind him for violence. When Peter followed Murdoch behind the van to see what the problem was, Murdoch pulled out a gun and shot him at point-blank range.
Joanne Lees, who was still inside the van, heard the shots and thought it was the van backfiring. As she started to realize that something was very wrong, she was confronted by Murdoch who then tied her up with a gun to her head. She did not see what had happened to Peter but she knew she was unlikely to ever see him alive again.
“I just kept thinking this was not happening to me. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I felt alone. I kept shouting for Pete and thought I was going to die,”
– Joanne Lees
He put her on the floor of the van and while he returned to Peter’s body, Joanne Lees managed to escape. She ran into the bushes and hid, terrified to breathe for five hours listening to Murdoch searching for her. When she finally gained the courage to come out of the bushes confident Murdoch had left, she flagged down a passing truck who took her to the nearest town and police station.
Although Bradley Murdoch was eventually found and convicted for the brutal attack and the murder of Peter Falconio, Peter’s body has never been found.
In April 2017 Australian news outlet NT News received an anonymous letter claiming to have information about where Peter Falconio’s body is buried.
The writer of the letter is thought to be an Australian ex-pat now living in London who claims to have had no involvement in the murder themselves but have named an individual who helped Bradley Murdoch move and dispose of the body. They say this person came to them for advice and now they feel they must pass this information on for the family of Peter Falconio who has never been able to put their son to rest.
NT News has not named this second individual referring to him only as the ‘associate’, but it is a lead that police are reported to be taking seriously and are now following up.
The typed letter sent via Airmail claims that the associate was a person recruited by Bradley Murdoch after the murder to help get rid of Peter Falconio’s body. Murdoch told the associate that he had killed a man in self-defense and ordered them to fly to Darwin and meet him in the outback. Terrified of Bradley Murdoch and what he was capable of the associate duly complied, although was not aware at the time, the letter says, that the murder being referred to was that of Peter Falconio.
The letter states that Peter Falconio’s body was dismembered and put into two large bags and the associate was told by Murdoch to drive with the bags to Adelaide and then fly to Perth and dissolve the body parts in acid before dumping the remains in West Australia’s Swan River, the Huffington Post reports. The associate, worried about being caught on a plane with the bags, decided to take the train to Perth instead where he then buried the bags in Geraldton, Western Australia around 400 kilometers north of Perth.
Three years later this letter, it appears, has not led to any significant new developments in the case and the remains of Peter Falconio have still not been found.
The attack on Joanne Lees and the murder of Peter Falconio is a case which generated a great deal of press interest and as the years passed with no developments in identifying the man Joanne Lee’s had described as their attacker, many began to question her story suggesting she might be behind the attack herself while others even questioned whether Peter Falconio had faked his own death. Suggestions that must have been torturous for a young woman, and Peter Falconio’s family, who had been through a terrifying ordeal that resulted in the murder of her boyfriend.
The breakthrough in finding Bradley Murdoch came after a DNA profile was found in evidence from Joanne Lee’s t-shirt that she was wearing on the night of the attack and from the gearstick of the camper van the couple were driving that night.
Bradley Murdoch was a man known to police and fitted the description Joanne had given. Known to be in the area at the time of the attack, police knew they needed to check his DNA profile against the evidence they had.
Knowing if they approached Murdoch directly for a DNA sample he would refuse, the investigation team under the guidance of Superintendent Colleen Gwynne, obtained a sample from his brother Gary Murdoch and found their match.
“Bradley Murdoch knew we were on to him and he panicked. He started to escape and this man knows the bush like no other. We had a window of opportunity to find him and we knew that it was now a hunt.”
– Colleen Gwynne
They still did not have the body of Peter Falconio. Joanne Lees made a positive identification of Bradley Murdoch and police had evidence that put him in that area on the day of the attack. A hair tie that had been taken from Joanne during the attack was also found in his belongings.
A manhunt ensued for Bradley Murdoch with his face in every newspaper across Australia. He was arrested on 28 August 2002 in Port Augusta for a suspected abduction and rape.
Murdoch was convicted of the murder of Peter Falconio and the assault and abduction of Joanne Lees on 13 December 2005 and given a life sentence. Bradley Murdoch has always claimed he did not attack the couple or kill Peter Falconio and there are some who believe that Murdoch is innocent of this murder.
While the man who took the life of Peter Falconio and put Joanne Lees through such a horrific ordeal has been caught and brought to justice, family and friends have been unable to say a proper goodbye to Peter Falconio. They still live in hope that one day his remains will be found.