Burning questions in Peter Falconio’s murder

 

 

It's been nearly 20 years since Peter Falconio disappeared in the Northern Territory while on the trip of a lifetime with his girlfriend of six years Joanne Lees.

The British tourists were driving their orange VW Kombi in a remote section of the Stuart Highway near Barrow Creek on the night of July 14, 2001, when Ms Lees, then 27, was allegedly tied up by a man in a white Toyota 4WD with a dog who shot Mr Falconio, 28.

Drug smuggler Bradley John Murdoch, a mechanic from WA, was convicted of Falconio's murder in 2005, but has never revealed the location of his body.

Murdoch, now 62, pleaded not guilty and has maintained his innocence despite a court sentencing him to life in jail after a DNA match found on Ms Lees' T-shirt.

The mystery has been dogged by questions over the years, fuelling doubt around Murdoch's guilty verdict.

These are the key questions:

 

WHO WAS 'JELLY MAN'?

Truck driver Vince Millar, who rescued Lees on the night of the attack, this month sensationally revealed minutes earlier he saw a red car beside the highway with two men holding a third man wobbling "like jelly".

Mr Millar told Channel Seven's Murder in the Outback program he pulled up to offer help but the pair pushed the man into the car and sped off.

But why would he hold on to such a critical detail until now? He claims it's because police never asked him about events leading up to his encounter with Ms Lees.

If it was you, what would you have done?

 

Vince Millar at Darwin Supreme Court. Picture: Brad Fleet
Vince Millar at Darwin Supreme Court. Picture: Brad Fleet

 

 

HOW DID THE DNA GET ON LEES SHIRT?

Lack of DNA in the case has dogged sceptics for years.

Questions surround how only one tiny fleck of Murdoch's blood got on Ms Lees shirt.

Scientists said the DNA samples from the VW van which the jury accepted were Murdoch's were in fact weak "mixtures" that might not have come from him at all.

Mystery also surrounds why there wasn't more DNA evidence if the attacker didn't wear gloves - Ms Lees never said the attacker did.

During the trial Dr Katrin Both, a part-time scientist with the forensic science centre in Adelaide, said she had concerns about the DNA evidence presented by the prosecution.

She said she had heard evidence about a "low copy number" DNA technique during the trial, and was worried about its reliability.

 

Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio in the VW van in Alice Springs. Picture: Northern Territory Police via AP
Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio in the VW van in Alice Springs. Picture: Northern Territory Police via AP

 

WHO IS THE CCTV SUSPECT?

CCTV footage shows a man roughly matching Murdoch's description at a Shell service station in Alice Springs a few hours after the murder.

Prosecutors used the footage to argue Murdoch was at the truck stop on his way back to Broome following the killing.

During his trial, Murdoch admitted he looked similar to the man in the footage but denied it was him.

"It looks like a lot of people," he said when pressed by the prosecutor.

But a body structure expert told the court the man in the CCTV had a different build to Murdoch.

Prof Henneberg, head of the department of anatomical science at the University of Adelaide, said: "What I could tell was that the person of interest in the CCTV image and Mr Murdoch differed in their body build and probably in their overall size and stature," he said.

 

A man baring the resemblance to Bradley John Murdoch. Picture: AP
A man baring the resemblance to Bradley John Murdoch. Picture: AP

 

Bradley John Murdoch after his arrest.
Bradley John Murdoch after his arrest.

 

 

WHO WAS THE 'WEIRDO'?

Truck driver Phil Cook said he had a conversation with a "real weirdo" at Barrow Creek the morning after the shooting.

Mr Cook in 2001 told Britain's The Sun newspaper the man told him he had camped 45m from the crime scene on the night of the killing.

He also hinted he shot his dog to avoid police attention.

The man matched the description given by Ms Lees, except for the moustache, which he told Mr Cook he'd shaved off.

Police found a shot dog near the highway soon afterwards.

Exactly how or why they eliminated that man (his name was withheld) from their inquiries was never revealed.

 

 

A sign for Barrow Creek on the Stuart Highway.
A sign for Barrow Creek on the Stuart Highway.

 

 

WHY WASN'T THERE MORE BLOOD AT THE SCENE?

Ms Lees has always maintained her boyfriend was shot dead and probably dragged away.

But police found very little blood to support the claim.

Police only found three areas on the road with blood, but there was no sign of a body being dragged.

"If a body had been shot and then dragged somewhere you would expect a blood trail. There was no blood trail in this case. Further than this, there was no blood splatter found at the scene," blood expert Professor Barry Boetcher told the Murder in the Outback program.

Mr Boetcher went as far as to say it was not enough to secure a guilty verdict.

Forensic biologist, Joy Kuhl, at work on the Kombi van belonging to Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees. Picture: Chris Tangey
Forensic biologist, Joy Kuhl, at work on the Kombi van belonging to Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees. Picture: Chris Tangey

 

A police photograph of an injury to the leg of Joanne Lees following the assault.
A police photograph of an injury to the leg of Joanne Lees following the assault.

 

Homemade handcuffs used on Joanne Lees allegedly by Murdoch after hailing her and her boyfriend down on the Stuart Highway.
Homemade handcuffs used on Joanne Lees allegedly by Murdoch after hailing her and her boyfriend down on the Stuart Highway.

 

 

WHY WERE THERE ONLY JOANNE'S FOOTPRINTS?

Another aspect that has baffled experts is that only Ms Lees footprints were found at the murder scene.

How about Mr Falconio's footprints and those of the attacker and his dog?

In 2005, shoe impression examiner Paul Sheldon told the Northern Territory Supreme Court that he identified four footprints but only one could be analysed.

He examined a pair of sandals worn by Ms Lees on the night and shoes belonging to Murdoch including ugg boots, moccasin slippers and working boots.

Mr Sheldon concluded none of the soles matched the footprint.

 

The Stuart Highway at Barrow Creek is surrounded by desert sand.
The Stuart Highway at Barrow Creek is surrounded by desert sand.

 

Joanne Lees leaves the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin in 2005. Picture: AAP
Joanne Lees leaves the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin in 2005. Picture: AAP

 

 

WHY DID MS LEES HIDE HER AFFAIR FROM POLICE?

In 2004, during cross examination, Ms Lees admitted to having an affair with a British tourist called Nick Riley in Sydney for a month.

The affair ended in late June 2001 when Ms Lees continued the trip around Australia with Mr Falconio and Mr Riley flew to the US to join a Contiki tour before returning to the UK.

But Ms Lees conceded that she had been in communication with Mr Riley after Mr Falconio's death via a secret email.

In one email, sent to Mr Riley under the pseudonym 'Steph' in the days after Mr Falconio's murder, Ms Lees even suggested they meet in Berlin.

Ms Lees said that she didn't initially tell police about her affair and about the 'secret emails' because she didn't feel it was "relevant" to the case.

It's unclear if Mr Riley was ever questioned by police. If not, why not?

 

British backpacker Nick Riley at a pub in Sydney.
British backpacker Nick Riley at a pub in Sydney.

 

 

WHAT ABOUT OTHER WITNESS ACCOUNTS?

According to police documents there were 34 gaps in Ms Lees' story.

One issue that raises questions is she said she never stopped at the Aileron Roadhouse on the Stuart Hwy, 200km north of Alice Springs, the day of the murder.

Yet owner Greg Dick swears Mr Falconio and Ms Lees pulled into Aileron on the afternoon of July 14. He and two other staff testified so in court.

Mr Dick told The Daily Telegraph he remembered Ms Lees because of her good looks.

"They were here for over an hour, I was perving on her," he told the newspaper in 2010.

Mr Dick claimed a sunken-faced bush man, about 35, turned up and bought a Coke for himself and a pie for his dog.

When Mr Falconio went to use the toilet, according to Mr Dick, Ms Lees ran outside and spoke to this man for a number of minutes.

Mr Dick does not believe this man was Murdoch.

So who was the man and was Ms Lees there?

 

Greg Dick, manager of the Aileron Roadhouse (on the Stuart Highway).
Greg Dick, manager of the Aileron Roadhouse (on the Stuart Highway).

 

IS MR FALCONIO STILL ALIVE?

Witnesses claim to have seen Mr Falconio alive after he was reported to be dead.

Robert Brown and Melissa Kendall have always maintained that Mr Falconio walked into their shop in the town of Bourke in NSW.

"I seen a bloke that looked exactly like it was in the paper with a little scab on his lip, and yeah it was just him," Mr Brown told the court in 2004.

"Who served him?", the prosecutor Anthony Elliott asked.

"I served Peter Falconio myself," he said.

"Did you speak to him at all?", he was asked.

"Oh very briefly". He replied. "I was too much in shock to do too much."

Mr Brown was then shown a photo of Falconio, and he said, "That's old mate there, that's him".

 

Melissa Kendall and Robert Brown leaving the Supreme Court.
Melissa Kendall and Robert Brown leaving the Supreme Court.

 

 

WAS MR FALCONIO 'DODGY'?

Mr Falconio, it turns out, is known by his English mates as "Dodgy Pete".

That's spurred other conspiracy theories including that he may have been killed in a deal running drugs to Darwin without Ms Lees' knowledge.

Murder in the Outback also aired controversial claims from an anonymous source that Mr Falconio had faked his own death for an insurance payout.

Police in Australia dismissed the claim.

 

Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees in undated photo.
Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees in undated photo.

 

 

Originally published as Burning questions in Peter Falconio's murder



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