A Sad Walk Through Australia's Serial Killer Forest

Belanglo State Forest is two hours southwest of Sydney. Nine people have died there at the hands of three different killers.

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Jun 30 2016, 12:00am

Belanglo State Forest sits halfway between Canberra and Sydney. It's fairly dense highland scrub, with a swath of plantation pine down the middle. All photos by the author.

Between September 1992 and November 1993 the bodies of seven young men and women were found decomposing in Belanglo State Forest, around two hours southwest of Sydney.

In 1994, a road worker named Ivan Milat was arrested at his nearby home. The subsequent court case unveiled Milat's pattern of picking off hitchhikers and foreign backpackers in Sydney and murdering them at Belanglo. He received seven life sentences in 1996—one for each victim.

Belanglo's legacy became further twisted in November 2010 when Ivan Milat's nephew, teenager Matthew Milat, lured a school friend named David Auchterlonie to Belanglo with the promise of weed and drink for the kid's birthday. David went along, only to be murdered with an axe. Matthew was later sentenced to 43 years' jail.

That same year BMX riders found the skeleton of 20-year-old Karlie Jade Pearce-Stevenson, again in Belanglo. It took until 2015 for police to arrest 41-year-old Daniel Holdom over her death. No one from the Milat family was involved.

I don't think I'm alone when I say I find serial killers interesting. It's the mystery of psychopathy that does it. How does a human being with 99 percent of the same DNA as me kill another human being, just for kicks? I'll never understand, but then that's half the thrill.

So I wanted to go out to Belanglo as a sort of ultimate Wikipedia excursion. I thought I'd head out with a friend and have a big weird, spooky day. But no one wanted to come. And it wasn't weird, just incredibly sad.

This is the entrance to the park. The lower section of the sign warns visitors to "please be careful," which was originally meant in a more "don't leave valuables in your car/put your campfires out" kind of way. Since the Milat murders the message has taken on a new relevance, which is probably why the sign sometimes gets stolen. For some reason though the Forestry Corporation of NSW keeps putting up new ones, without ever just reworking the text.

When the bodies of two British travellers were found in September 1992, police went to some lengths to persuade the public their deaths weren't the work of a serial killer. But a year later the bodies of two 19-years-olds from Melbourne showed up. Then another three bodies, all German backpackers, were unearthed in November 1993. Police were forced to concede the obvious.

Amidst the roar of media attention the NSW Government erected a memorial at the back of the park, months before they'd located the killer. It stands at the end of a long 4WD track, and you couldn't find it unless you looked. It seemed a painfully inadequate tribute to seven lives.

The monument lists seven names, but presumably the parents of 21-year-old Simone Schmidl wanted her to have something personal. Simone was from a southern German town called Regensburg, and in the summer of 1991 she was traveling the east coast of Australia by herself.

She'd planned to hitchhike from Sydney to Melbourne, where she'd meet her mum at the airport. They were supposed to go camping, but Simone never showed. After a day her mum contacted the police before embarking on six weeks of frantic searching. Finally, Simone's mother flew home alone.

The inscription reads: You will live in our hearts forever. We love you.

Then there were these: Soft toys in the rain. Glow sticks. Personal items. I kept thinking about these kids who came from so far away, only to die in this shitty forest.

For Ivan Milat, his gradation from convicted felon to serial killer happened here. This is where, in December 1989, he murdered Melbourne teenagers Deborah Everist and James Gibson, who—like the five victims after them—had been hitchhiking from Sydney to Melbourne. Their skeletons were found here four years later, marred with innumerable stab wounds. For Milat, it seemed to have been a turning point that was almost inevitable.

Journalist Mark Whittaker co-wrote one of the most thorough books on Ivan Milat. Called Sins of the Brother , it details Milat's poverty stricken upbringing in a family of Croatian immigrants. He was born in 1944, the fifth of 14 children, who grew up in a dirt-floored shack in the outer Sydney suburb of Moorebank. Their mother was perpetually pregnant; their father 18 years her senior and typically violent.

According to reports from family members, Ivan showed signs of psychopathy from a young age. These came to a head in 1971 when was charged with raping two female backpackers. The prosecution's evidence was sloppy though and Milat was acquitted. As Whittaker summarises in his book's prologue, Milat learned two things: "Firstly, it's amazing what a good lawyer can do. Secondly, from now on, no victim survives."

In September 1992, Milat's last victims were found up this road. There, two orienteering enthusiasts stumbled upon a partially decayed body in a rocky alcove. They called the police, who found another body, and the two were identified as British traveling companions Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. The 22-year-olds had last been seen in April that year, hitchhiking outside Wollongong to pick fruit in Victoria.

Both bodies were found lying face down, covered in branches. Joanne had been stabbed so many times her spine had been severed. Caroline had been stabbed only once, but blindfolded and apparently marched into the trees where she was shot multiple times in the head. A series of campfires indicated Milat had camped in the area during their murders, as well as in the weeks after.

Between 1989 and 1992, he killed roughly every 12 months, targeting young travellers of both genders, always as they thumbed rides from Sydney to Melbourne. When his victims vanished there was often some lag before anyone noticed, and when they did there was nothing to differentiate their disappearances from the other 35,000 people who go missing every year.

Milat never taunted the police or the media like other killers, and he never admitted to a single crime—even after all the years he's been in jail. For this reason there's some debate over whether he operated alone, or even whether police found all his victims.

Yet for me, one of the weirder aspects of the Milat story is how Belanglo has been bundled into a dark corner of Australian folklore. It's not really known why he chose Belanglo in the first place, except it was isolated and within an hour of his house. It's also a fairly ugly spot, full of mangled plantation trees and bullet holes in signs. Presumably it looked the same in 1989, which might have appealed to Milat's particular sensibilities.

Then it seems other idiots have been drawn to Belanglo simply because of Milat. Indeed when his 17-year-old nephew, Matthew Milat, murdered his mate here, most papers put the act down to imitation. Allegedly he told friends he was just doing "what his family does." The day after he even bragged, "Do you know what my family is known for? I killed somebody last night."

Belanglo's notoriety draws sightseers, but also criminals who apparently want to attach themselves to the same grotesque brand.

And then there was this. In October 2010 a skeleton was found here on the Red Arm Creek Fire Trail, identified last year as 20-year-old Karlie Jade Pearce-Stevenson. Karlie was finally identified because in July 2015 a deceased baby was found in a suitcase by the side of a South Australian highway—1,100 kilometres from Belanglo. An anonymous call to Crime Stoppers linked the two, the baby was Karlie's two-year-old daughter, Khandalyce Kiara Pearce.

In December a guy named Daniel Holdom was arrested for their murders. The prosecution is alleging Heldom murdered Karlie in or near Belanglo in 2008, before driving the daughter to South Australia and killing her too.

The story is horrific, but perhaps shares more a profile of family violence than of serial homicide. And yet, Daniel Holdom was attracted to Belanglo too.

I watched the sun go down on an empty picnic table and wondered what I'd learned. I don't think I'd learned anything. I'd just found a small shrine to murdered kids and then I'd felt awful.

When I got home I called Mark Whittaker, the guy who wrote the book on Milat. I asked what he'd taken from years of research, and I think he summed it up:

"There are just some people who are dirty, rotten people," he said. "You can speculate about why, but I think it would be purely speculation. If you speak to five psychiatrists, you get five separate opinions. All I know is that I was often sitting there at the typewriter, crying. These days I try not to contemplate what could've gone on there. I try to have as little to do with Belanglo as possible really, for my own mental wellbeing. I just don't think there's a moral to the story."

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