August 11, 1994 started out as a calm and clear day for fisherman Mark Peterson, and as he guided his boat up Australia’s Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney, there was nothing particularly odd or ominous about the sunny day at all. Indeed, as he pulled his boat, the Lady Marion, up to an area off a place called Challenger Head things were actually seeming to look up for him as his net picked up something heavy in the water, which he at first took to be a nice haul of fish. However, as he cranked the net in it soon became quite clear that this was not fish, but rather what looked to be a large steel frame fashioned to look something like a crucifix, with myriad plastic bags hanging off of its sides. Bewildered by his bizarre catch, Peterson bent down to examine one of the bags to find a bone poking through the plastic, then another, and another still. Not knowing if they were animal or human, he notified authorities, thus launching one of the most macabre unsolved mysteries in Australian history.
When police arrived it was immediately confirmed that these were definitely human bones, and that the bags were wrapped around the body of a man. The corpse had been strung up on the makeshift crucifix with wires and rope and held down by a solid metal bar that had been bent around in an L-shape and welded to the rusted frame, and it was very obvious that this man had not ended up there by accident. He was dressed in a plain, nondescript polo shirt and track pants and had no personal belongings on him except a soggy pack of cigarettes and lighter stuffed into his pocket. Nothing to identify him at all.
The soggy remains were taken in for further analysis, where more details were gleaned from them. It was discovered that the victim had been a Caucasian man with dark hair between the ages of 21 and 46, who had likely died from severe blunt trauma to the head, although whether he had been placed on the frame before or after this could not be determined. The victim had been securely fastened to the frame with wire around the wrists and an orange rope about the neck and torso, and the whole macabre thing thrown into the water, where it had remained for approximately 6 to 12 months. In fact, the corpse had been in the water so long that the fingerprints had completely dissolved, and this made identification pretty much impossible as DNA testing was in its infancy at the time and even if it were not the waterlogged remains would likely not have provided any useful tissue anyway.
The enormous cross upon which the victim had been found was also examined and discovered to be far from a ramshackle thing cobbled together on a whim. Whoever had fashioned it had expertly welded and crafted it, perhaps a metalworker, and it seemed to be fitted specifically for the victim, meaning it had been meticulously and laboriously made just for the purpose of tying him to it to die. It was also immensely heavy, which led authorities to suspect that more than one perpetrator may have been involved, although who that could have been was a complete mystery.
Police did not have much at all to go on here, other than someone had been killed and rather sadistically disposed of on a custom made frame made specifically for that purpose, and the man’s identity remained an elusive specter. Databases of missing persons turned up no useful leads and heavy circulation of flyers bearing a reconstruction of the victim’s face, as well as appearances on the TV show Australia’s Most Wanted and a large reward also led to a dead end. Investigators tried everything, going as far as to ask around to the clothing manufacturers of the victim’s clothes and consulting with steel manufacturers about the frame, but answers were maddeningly elusive. No one had any clue as to who this man was, where he came from, or how he had ended up on that steel crucifix on the bottom of the river, and the victim was known simply as “The Rack Man” in the media. Theories abounded that this was everything from a gangland killing to a human sacrifice carried out by some Satanic cult, but no one knew and we still don’t.
For decades police looked into every lead possible and did whatever DNA tests could be done, yet the case remained completely cold and the identity of the Rack Man a total enigma. Several missing persons were looked at as possible identities of the Rack Man, but the body dimensions and dental records never matched up. It would not be until 2018 that the police would settle on their best guess for the victim’s identity, that of a missing man named Max Tancevski, known for being a heavy gambler. Tancevski had gone missing on January 11, 1993, shortly after which a large sum of money had been withdrawn from his bank account, leading investigators to think that he had been in debt that had cost him his life. Although the police now have their official victim, there is still no solid evidence to prove without a doubt that the body found was that of Tancevski, and many mysteries remain.
It is still not known why he was killed or why someone would do it in such a manner. This had obviously not been a crime carried out in the heat of the moment or a normal gang hit by any means. If someone wanted the victim dead, why not just kill him ad be done with it? Why would the perpetrators go about the trouble of making this massive crucifix right down to the victim’s body dimensions just to dispose of the body with? Was this some form of torture that was used for some reason? Is there some symbolic significance to it all, and if so what is it? Was it just to send a message to others who would cross them? These are all questions that remain to be answered, and the mystery of the Rack Man has gone on to become one of Australia’s most gruesome unsolved murders.