A controversial television documentary has cast doubt on the identification of Peter Falconio’s convicted killer, raising fears the real murderer may still be on the loose.
Mr Falconio went missing in the dead of night on a lonely Northern Territory highway on July 14, 2001, while on holidays with his British girlfriend Joanne Lees.
The backpackers were attacked by a man with a gun who flagged them down and told them sparks were coming from the exhaust of their Kombi van.
Mr Falconio’s body has never been found.
The manacles, woven from cable ties, that Bradley John Murdoch used to tie Joanne Lees on the night he killed Peter Falconio. They were subject to a DNA contamination controversy
Joanne Lees, girlfriend of murdered British backpacker Peter Falconio, poses for photographs in Sydney, Monday, Oct. 9, 2006.
The only witness to the attack is the traumatised Ms Lees who – with her hands bound by cable ties and her feet taped – escaped the Outback attacker, hid in bushes and ran out in front of a road train in a desperate bid to be rescued.
As a distressed survivor of a violent night-time attack, Ms Lees memory was at times uncertain, and the controversial four-part documentary, Murder in the Outback: The Falconio and Lees Mystery, raised questions about her version of events.
On Sunday night’s episode, the series revealed Ms Lees had been smoking marijuana on the night of the attack.
Joanne and Peter had stopped and shared a sunset joint at Ti Tree, a one-horse town between Alice Springs and Barrow Creek, as they drove north on their way to the Devil’s Marbles.
Pictured: Peter Falconio with his girlfriend Joanne Lees. Bradley John Murdoch was convicted of murdering Mr Falconio, 28, and assaulting Ms Lees, then 27, on a remote stretch of highway in outback Northern Territory in 2001
The Aileron Roadhouse north of Alice Springs where owner Greg Dick said staff served Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio toasted sandwiches and coffee, and where he saw Joanne Lees talking to a rough-looking stranger outside for two minutes on July 14, 2000, the night of the attack
Joanne Lees pictured in 2005 during the trial of Bradley John Murdoch. Ms Lees told police in her fourth interview that she and Peter Falconio had smoked ‘strong’ pot at sunset, at Ti Tree, the night they were attacked
‘The dope we smoked at Ti Tree was quite strong,’ she said in her fourth police interview.
‘It made me calm and relaxed – this is the usual effect that I get.
‘I’d say one of the effects is that some things that occur while I’m stoned stand out as vibrant and clear in my memory whereas other things are more hazy.’
After the pair left Alice Springs on the afternoon of July 14, they headed north up the Stuart Highway past Aileron, the first roadhouse.
Ms Lees told police the pair had not stopped, but Aileron Roadhouse owner Greg Dick told documentary maker Andrew Fraser that he remembered them and their orange Kombi.
Mr Dick said his staff had made them toasted sandwiches and coffee as they took out their maps and talked about their trip.
Disturbingly, Mr Dick said a rough-looking man came in, and said he was living off the land at Policeman’s Waterhole in the Davenport Range National Park, east of Tennant Creek.
One of the first artist impressions of the attacker drawn from Joanne Lees’ description in 2001 when police were searching for Peter Falconio’s murderer. The controversial documentary says another man who also matched the description was not arrested – and may be the killer
The location of the murder, just north of Barrow Creek, 280km north of Alice Springs in the remote Northern Territory outback. Drug-running mechanic Bradley John Murdoch lived in Broome, WA. His drug partner dobbed him into police for making cable-tie handcuffs.
The Barrow Creek hotel where people gathered having been stopped at police roadblocks after the attack. Truck driver Phil Cook says he spoke to a suspicious man her, however he had been checked by police at roadblocks already and his DNA did not match that on Ms Lees’ shirt
The man mentioned he had a dog and when he walked outside, Ms Lees went outside and talked to him for a couple of minutes, he said.
Mr Dick has previously said he thinks this man is the real killer.
Greg Dick was put in a police line-up alongside Bradley John Murdoch and some other men, but the long-time owner of the roadhouse said the man he saw in the roadhouse wasn’t in the line-up.
Broome mechanic and drug runner Bradley John Murdoch was convicted of killing Peter Falconio in 2005. He was sentenced to 28 years’ jail and has exhausted all avenues of appeal.
Ms Lees had identified him, certain he was the man who had attacked her, but the documentary claimed that was only after she had seen Murdoch’s photograph in an online BBC story about the attack.
Initially, Ms Lees’ description of her attacker said he had long straggly hair and a Mexican-style handlebar moustache, a checked shirt, a baseball cap with a motif on the front and a looked about 40 to 45 years old.
She said he had a dog – and police searching the area found a brown cattle dog shot dead in a nearby creek bed.
Just four days after the terrifying attack, Joanne Lees showed police how she was bundled into the back of Bradley John Murdoch’s white ute, with police providing a similar vehicle for the re-enactment. Terrified in the ute’s tray, she screamed: ‘Are you going to rape me?’ at Murdoch
Joanne Lees ran out in front of this road train on July 14, 2001, hands tied behind her back, in a desperate bid for rescue
Bradley John Murdoch also had a dog – a Dalmatian, white with black spots.
Truck driver Phil Cook was stranded at the Barrow Creek hotel along with other people by police roadblocks after the attack.
Mr Cook told the documentary makers he had seen a man closely matching Ms Lees’ initial description: check shirt, baseball cap.
He didn’t have a moustache but he told Mr Cook that he had already shaved it off.
Mr Cook said the man told him he had camped close to where it happened and had buried a pound of dope at his campsite.
‘I mentioned to him he would be a “goner” if he had a dog,’ Mr Cook said.
‘And he said, “that’s easy, just shoot it and get another one down the road”. ‘
A police photo of the bloodstain on the highway. Bodily fluid expert Professor Barry Boettcher, who once exposed the botched evidence that convicted Lindy Chamberlain, said there was no actual blood found at the scene, and he thinks Murdoch should not be convicted
Pictured: Peter Falconio (left) and Joanne Lees (right) from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Joanne had thought she would marry Peter Falconio on their way home through Bora Bora. Mr Falconio’s body has never been found, leaving his family without closure
Mr Cook told police about the suspicious man with straggly hair, but the suspect had already been checked by police and released.
An NT Police media release from August 22, 2001 said the man had been stopped at a number of roadblocks and given his DNA – but it had not matched with that found on Ms Lees’ clothes.
Ms Lees had also seen him at the Barrow Creek Hotel and hadn’t identified him as the attacker.
The key evidence that put Murdoch in jail were the DNA traces found on Ms Lees’ T-shirt, the steering wheel and gear stick of the Kombi van, and the creepy cable-tie manacles that bound her hands.
Bradley John Murdoch being bundled into a police car by South Australian police after he was dramatically arrested on the steps of a South Australian courthouse moments after being found not guilty of rape. He ran for the exit but was tackled by police, the documentary said
Bradley John Murdoch arrives at Darwin Airport in November 2003 surrounded by police
Cuts and grazes on Joanne Lees’ elbow (left) and wrist (right). Ms Lees’ wrists were tied with cable ties but she managed to escape her attacker and hide in the bushes
DNA experts, however, have cast serious doubts about the reliability of this evidence.
Forensic scientist Brian McDonald said Murdoch’s DNA should have been everywhere after the attack: all over Joanne Lees’ clothing, the inside of the Kombi, on the tape around her feet and neck, and on the cable ties.
The DNA found on the steering wheel, the gear stick and the manacles however were ‘complex, low-level mixtures,’ he said.
That means only small amounts of DNA were present and from multiple individuals – leaving a small chance of identifying someone.
Police forensics contaminated the DNA on the cable tie restraints with DNA from laboratory director Peter Thatcher.
Then-South Australian police Superintendent Colleen Gwynne took the manacles to South Australia’s Yatala prison to see Murdoch in 2002 – leaving a possibility they could have been contaminated with Murdoch’s own DNA, the documentary revealed.
At Murdoch’s trial, the court heard the cuffs were kept in a closed paper bag and not shown to Murdoch.
Ms Lees (left) and Mr Falconio (right) in their van. Peter Falconio was killed on July 14, 2001. The documentary criticised Ms Lees for vagueness and inconsistencies in her testimony
Joanne Lees with Peter Falconio’s family at the trial of Bradley John Murdoch in 2005. Ms Lees had a prickly relationship with the media whom she distrusted and felt distressed by
The final, clearly identified DNA from Murdoch found on Ms Lees’ T-shirt – was one small spot on the back, raising questions about why there was not more.
Documentary maker Andrew Fraser, a defence lawyer barred from practising after being convicted over cocaine importation, said this raises doubts over Murdoch’s identification and has called for the investigation to be reopened.
University of NSW law professor Gary Edmond said the case against Murdoch was strong – it was not just the DNA evidence alone, but in conjunction with other evidence including Murdoch’s appearance in CCTV footage at a Shell truck stop, that he had a gun, that he had a car matching the description.
Murdoch was also dobbed in to police by drug supplier James Tahi Hepi, 37, who shared a house with Murdoch in Sedan, South Australia, and said he walked in on him making handcuffs out of cable ties similar to those that bound Ms Lees.
However blood specialist emeritus professor Barry Boettcher told the documentary makers he did not believe Murdoch should be convicted.
Murdoch has exhausted all avenues of appeal. The only possible way to clear his name is through a Petition of Mercy, or by the police reopening the investigation and finding fresh evidence.
In a post-documentary interview special, Channel Seven interviewed three experts who all agreed there was little chance of either option being explored.
Denise Hurley, who was the NT Police Media liason officer during the case, said there was no chance the case would ever be reopened.
‘There’s no substantial evidence in order to do that,’ she said.
Ms Hurley said because Ms Lees had tried to be strong in front of the media, and had not cried, that she had been unfairly judged like Lindy Chamberlain before her as being cold, distant and possibly guilty.
The orange Kombi van that had been driven up the highway by Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees, impounded for evidence at the NT Supreme Court
She said it was unfair of the documentary to use the unsympathetic snippet of footage of Joanne Lees’ last interview when she was tired, had been interviewed many times and was about to leave the country.
‘She’d had enough,’ she said.
Further, she said reopening the case would just hurt the victims.
‘I’m sure the Falconio family and Joanne Lees do not want the case opened again, but I’m sure that they have no doubt that Murdoch was the killer so they would see no purpose in opening the case.’
L-R: Mr Falconio’s father Luciano, his brother Paul Falconio and Ms Lees’ stepfather Vincent James at a press conference in 2001. Experts fear that reopening an investigation will only hurt the heartbroken family of Peter Falconio and traumatised survivor Joanne Lees
Joanne Lees leaving court after Bradley John Murdoch was found guilty of killing Peter Falconio in December 2005
For Ms Lees, now 46, the terrible outback attack marked a turning point in her life from which she never fully recovered.
She never married or had children and is living an isolated life as a council social worker in her hometown of Huddersfield, England, the Sun newspaper reported last month.
Mr Falconio’s body has never been found and Murdoch has never admitted to the killing.
The Northern Territory passed a specific ‘no body, no parole’ law in 2016 preventing him from being released on parole unless he reveals where Mr Falconio’s body is.
Murder in the Outback: The Falconio and Lees Mystery can be seen on 7plus.