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A Mysterious Stranger and an Unsolved Death in the Australian Outback

In July of 2001 British tourists Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees were in a remote stretch of Outback near Barrow Creek in the Northern Territory of Australia on what was supposed to be a grand adventure for the couple. It was just another leg of a larger journey for the two, and they had already been backpacking through Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia. For this next leg of their adventure they planned to drive out under the lonely skies of the isolated badlands of the Stuart Highway on a trip straight through parched brush land from Alice Springs bound for a place called the Devil’s Marbles, a protected wildlife refuge area in the vicinity of Warumungu and a very sacred place for the native Aborigines. On July 14, this brave couple headed out in their orange Volkswagen Kombi along that bumpy road through the imposing, inhospitable Outback and into the annals of great unsolved mysteries.

At around 8PM, the couple noticed that another vehicle was behind them and had been since a stop at a roadhouse in the tiny Outback community of Barrow Creek, which was odd considering the sheer desolation of the region they were in, far from civilization, where other cars were a rarity and which was so remote it might as well have been the surface of the moon. They figured they would just let the vehicle pass, and at this point it was odd but not particularly alarming, and so they slowed down to allow the white 4-wheel drive utility vehicle overtake them. The truck then pulled up alongside the couple’s van and they could see that the interior light was eerily turned on and that within sat a man in a black baseball cap, long t-shirt, and with a distinctive mustache that drooped down to each side of his mouth, and there was a dog in the vehicle with him. As the mysterious stranger drove alongside them he excitedly waved them over to the side of the road with a look of concern on his face, and still not thinking it was anything dangerous they complied.

Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees

When both vehicles had come to a stop, Falconio got out to see what was going on, and the stranger told him that he had seen sparks flying out of their Kombi and that he was sure they had serious engine issues. The two were talking when suddenly the girlfriend, Lees, says she heard the loud clap of what sounded like a gunshot as she went to try revving the engine to see what was wrong. When she ran back out in a panic the stranger was there with a gun pointed straight at her, and he proceeded to tie her arms behind her back with black cables but was unsuccessful in tying the feet or taping the mouth of the struggling, terrified woman. The frustrated man merely dragged the still kicking Lees to the back of his own truck and unceremoniously threw her in. Although she couldn’t see her boyfriend anywhere, Lees was at this point sure that Falconio was either dead or severely wounded, and she was also certain that the man planned to rape her, so as soon as he was distracted she made a panicked run for freedom, vaulting out of the truck and managing to lodge herself into the surrounding brush.

Managing to stay as quiet as possible, she lay there in the bush as the man frantically searched for her with his dog and drove his vehicle past several times before giving up and leaving her out there alone in the forbidding Outback. Of what had become of Falconio she had no idea, and even after the stranger was gone she stayed there without moving a muscle for the next five hours as the sounds of the wilderness descended upon her. Upon deeming it safe to move, she then stumbled back to the highway, arms still tied behind her, and after a futile search for her boyfriend was lucky enough to flag down a trucker, who took the frightened Lees back into Barrow Creek.

Barrow Creek was not really prepared for this sort of situation. An outpost speck on the map with only 11 souls inhabiting it, they had no idea how to deal with the claims of Lees, and so police were called in from Alice Springs, with a search immediately launched for the missing Falconio and the alleged attacker. There was soon found to be no body remaining at the scene of the crime, although a good splattering of blood was found. This blood would later prove to be that of Falconio, with the odd detail that it had been mixed with animal blood, perhaps placed there on purpose in an effort by the killer to throw people off his trail. The orange Kombi the couple had been driving was also found, having been driven well off the road into the brush to hide it. Roadblocks that had been set up were not successful in apprehending the suspect, not surprising considering many hours had passed by that point, and Aboriginal trackers brought in were unable to find any tracks leading away from the scene except those of Lees, meaning that the killer had driven off with Falconio. However, there was no other clue or trace of either man to be found.

The Stuart Highway

This would launch a full blown investigation the likes of which the region had never seen before, and the case was picking up massive media attention. Police would doggedly pursue numerous leads and suspects with nothing to go on, made more difficult by Lees’ constantly shifting details of what had happened, before catching a break with assumed CCTV footage of the suspect in Alice Springs sometime after the attack, but this led nowhere. It was not until the authorities had exhaustively checked records for any and all vehicles matching that of the perpetrator that they were brought to a man by the name of Bradley John Murdoch, who after intensive questioning and a positive ID by Lees was fingered as the likely perpetrator. The problem was, there was still no body of Falconio found and Murdoch adamantly maintained that he didn’t do it.

Murdoch’s cries of innocence did not help the investigation one iota, and there had still been no trace of the body of the missing man found. Indeed, there had come in tips that seemed to show that Falconio might have actually even still been alive, when witnesses Melissa Kendall and Robbie Brown claimed to have seen the missing man a week after his vanishing in the company of an unidentified man and woman at their service station in the town of Bourke. Nevertheless, police threw everything they could at Murdoch, despite his pleas of innocence and his constant demands to show a body. When the trial began it was a media circus, with the actual courtroom physically renovated to accommodate all of the people, and through it all Murdoch maintained that he had had nothing to do with it. The only real evidence tying him to the crime was his DNA on the makeshift handcuffs used in the attack, but there were arguments from the defense that this could have been transferred to them by accident or through a willful attempt to frame him. In the end, despite questionable evidence, Murdoch was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bradley John Murdoch in custody

Murdoch continued to deny any wrongdoing even in the face of this conviction, and there would also be later evidence that Falconio himself had perhaps been no angel. There were numerous rumors that he had had financial difficulties and drug connections, as well as possible connections to nefarious underworld organizations, and there were still people claiming that he was still alive somewhere. In the meantime, Murdoch would appeal his conviction on several occasions, but none of these stuck, and the now cancer ridden man remained incarcerated. Through this all, Falconio’s body never has been found, and has been the focus of intense efforts to find it ever since. One idea that has been presented is that his body was thrown into a well or hidden out in the Outback where it could be picked apart by scavengers, but no one really knows for sure. There was also an anonymous letter sent to NT News in 2017 that claimed that Falconio’s body had been cut up into pieces and dissolved in acid, but the veracity of this claim has never been confirmed.

There are also plenty of conspiracy theories that Murdoch is innocent and has been framed, that maybe even Lees had something to do with it, and of course the missing man is still alive somewhere. Indeed, author Dr Keith Allan Noble has insisted in his book Find! Falconio that the whole trial was a miscarriage of justice and that Falconio is still alive, offering a reward of £25,000 to anyone who can prove it. To this day, the reward is unclaimed, Falconio’s body has never been found, there has been no hard evidence to pin it on Murdoch even as he languishes in prison, likely to die before long of cancer, and no other clues or leads of a case that has become mired in conspiracies and mystery. What happened to Peter Falconio out along that dusty stretch of road and where did he go? No one knows, and it has gone on to become one of Australia’s more compelling unsolved mysteries.