There’s something about the vast Aussie outback that feels synonymous with scary stuff. It’s likely because there’s so much uninhabited land and the environment is hostile (high temps, low rainfall, etc). Add in the fact that you can drive for hours without a single town on the horizon, and you’ve got the perfect premise for a horror movie, right?
While statistically you’re more likely to die in the outback from being an idiot (read: going for a hike without water, not telling anyone where you are, not paying attention to warnings etc) or be the victim of a crime in the major cities most of us live in, we still continue to associate the outback with fear. We shouldn’t tbh – I love an outback adventure, and the folks in the rural towns I’ve travelled through have been phenomenally lovely and non-murdery – but like I said, there’s something about the outback that makes us think MURDER.
Because of this, it’s the outback murders and crimes that captivate our nation, time and again. We’ve just covered one of these – the infamous case of Azaria Chamberlain, a 2 month old baby who went missing at Uluru in the ’80s – on our new true crime and mysteries podcast, All Aussie Mystery Hour (you should listen, it’s very good).
It got us thinking about other outback crimes that have gripped the nation.
THE MURDER OF PETER FALCONIO
One of the most notorious crimes of the 21st century, the attack on Peter Falconio and his girlfriend Joanne Lees was the basis for Wolf Creek (along with the Ivan Milat backpacker murders). Basically, Peter and Joanne were driving along a stretch of highway toward the Devil’s Marbles, when they noticed a 4WD following them. The driver, Bradley John Murdoch, gestured for them to pull over, saying their exhaust was sparking. Peter got out to investigate, and the man attacked. Joanne miraculously survived by escaping while the Bradley was distracted, but Peter has never been seen again. Bradley is currently serving life imprisonment for the murder of Peter Falconio and the assault of Joanne Lees.
THE KIMBERLEY KILLER
In June 1987, a German tourist by the name of Joseph Schwab began a chilling murder spree, targeting holidaying groups in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. He first murdered Marcus and Lance Bullen, a father and son on a fishing trip along the Victoria River. Schwab shot them with a high-powered rifle on June 9, before burying them in shallow graves. He then murdered three other tourists on the banks of the Pentecost River five days later, before finally being caught after an outback helicopter pilot noticed a camouflaged man hiding in bushland and alerted police. Chillingly, he had no known motive for his murders.
THE SUNDOWN MURDERS
Another outback road murder case, the Sundown Murders refers to the killing of Sally Bowman, her daughter Wendy Bowman, and their family friend Thomas Whelan. The three were driving from Alice Springs to Adelaide, but when they never made it, a search went out and found their bodies on Sundown Station in South Australia. Raymond John Bailey was charged with the murder and executed in 1958. While the exact details were never confirmed, it’s been assumed he held up the Bowmans for petrol money, panicking when Whelan went for a gun and subsequently murdering the three travellers.
CHILDERS PALACE HOSTEL FIRE
It’s debatable as to whether Childers counts as Outback Australia, but the infamous hostel fire is definitely a crime that is frequently mentioned when it comes to backpacker-related murders and Australia. On 23 June 2000, The Palace Hostel in Childers, a town popular for fruit-picking work, was deliberately set alight by Robert Paul Long, with the fire killing 15 backpackers. Long was a fruit-picker who had expressed a hatred for backpackers, and had previously threatened to burn down the hotel. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. But the blaze reached such deadly levels due to inadequate fire safety measures, with smoke alarms disabled weeks prior due to system malfunctions, and in one case, an exit door being blocked by a bunk bed.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF PADDY MORIARTY
The Australian‘s podcast Lost In Larrimah (which is v. good and you should give a listen) brought the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty into the Aussie spotlight. He was one of just 11 people residing in the remote outback town of Larrimah, and his disappearance in December 2017 is incredibly mysterious – his dog Kellie also went missing, for example. The case is still open, with authorities treating it as a homicide.
Fascinated by true crime and unsolved mysteries? Listen to our podcast, All Aussie Mystery Hour. We cover Aussie true crime and mysterious events, like the disappearance of the Beaumont Kids, the Somerton Man and more. Hit us up on iTunes or Spotify.