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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 11:42 GMT
Outback killer trapped by DNA link
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Darwin

Bradley Murdoch
Murdoch refuses to say where he left Mr Falconio's body

One of Australia's most baffling mysteries has finally been solved.

A jury in Darwin has decided that Bradley Murdoch, an outback drug-runner, was the lone gunman who murdered Peter Falconio in July 2001.

DNA evidence was at the heart of the case against him.

The court heard that a genetic sample found on homemade handcuffs used in the attack was 100 million times more likely to have come from Murdoch than anyone else.

It's taken the police four-and-a-half years to finally get their man.

"Unfortunately in the (Northern) Territory we have a history of these strange crimes in remote areas and there's often unfair criticism of the police," said former Northern Territory assistant police Commissioner Dr Bill Wilson.

"They are looking for clues in remote areas that are very difficult to search and some evidence could be destroyed in those crucial few hours.

"To get something like a bit of DNA is absolutely essential to pin the offender to the crime scene," he explained to the BBC.

'Truly remarkable'

Testimony from the missing backpacker's girlfriend was also crucial. Joanne Lees, 32, was the prosecution's star witness.

She miraculously survived the attack on a lonely highway north of Alice Springs.

Had she not managed to escape and hide for hours in the scrub, the truth might have been lost forever in the red desert dust.

Joanne Lees
Joanne Lees spent four days giving evidence in the trial

The ambush sparked one of the biggest manhunts Australia's ever seen. The investigation has created a massive amount of public interest.

Robin Bowles is one of half-a-dozen authors writing about the Falconio case.

"The Outback is a mystical and quite a dangerous place," she told the BBC.

"People go missing there regularly so Peter Falconio's disappearance is in itself is not unusual.

"It's the circumstances under which he went missing and the fact that Joanne Lees survived that makes this story truly remarkable," she said.

Closure

The jury's decision is a vindication of Joanne Lees. She's had to put up with years of innuendo and gossip.

In the days after Peter Falconio's disappearance, she bristled at suggestions that she might not be telling the truth.

"Anyone that has spoken to me or has been in contact with me - no-one doubts me," she told a press conference in Alice Springs.

"It's only (the) media that have questioned my story. I've got a problem with all press that distort the truth and doubt my story (and) misquote me," she added.

Her incredibly strong strength of character came through and... held her together
Les Pilton

Her uncomfortable relationship with journalists is likely to continue.

Many of those who saw the former travel agent in the hours after the ambush in July 2001 were convinced her story was genuine.

At the time, Les Pilton, who runs the Barrow Creek roadhouse, praised her courage.

"Her incredibly strong strength of character came through and... held her together," he said. "She is such a wonderful, wonderful young lady."

The Supreme Court jury believed her account of that dreadful Saturday night all those years ago.

Treena Monroe, who works with victims of crime in Darwin, says people in Joanne Lees' position will be happy with the jury's decision.

"They may feel relief that the trauma of the trial is not all in vain," she told the BBC News website.

"Trials can be very traumatic. It's almost like repeated victimisation for some people.

"There could be closure at some level however whatever the verdict is it won't bring back their loved one."

Taste for violence

Bradley Murdoch has become one of Australia's most notorious killers.

He already had a taste for violence before the outback murder.

Joan and Luciano Falconio
Peter Falconio's parents, Joan and Luciano, arrive at court

In 1996 he was released after serving 15 months in jail for shooting at aborigines who were celebrating at a football match in the remote Kimberley region.

Even behind bars this burly drug trafficker still has the power to punish Peter Falconio's parents, Joan and Luciano.

The body of the tourist from Huddersfield has never been found. It almost certainly lies in the harsh, rugged terrain of central Australia.

If Murdoch refuses to say where the missing Briton is buried, he will deny the Falconios the relief they truly deserve.

As they head back to northern England, they at least know that their son's killer may never walk free.


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