Ivan Milat’s nephew claims his uncle was framed for the Backpacker Murders

The dark green canopy and dusty trails of Belanglo State Forest will forever be associated with one man, and the seven decomposing bodies discovered there in 1992 and 1993 – each one bound by the wrists, mutilated and murdered, either by blade or bullet.

Sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences plus 18 years without parole for the slaughter of British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters in 1992; German backpackers Gabor Neugebauer, Anja Habschied, and separately Simone Schmidl, in 1991; Deborah Everist and James Gibson, two Australians on their way to a musical festival, in 1989; as well as the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of British backpacker Paul Onions in 1990, Ivan Milat has entered the collective nightmare as Australia’s most infamous serial killer.

He has inspired two horror movies, endless newspaper articles and countless documentaries since his conviction in 1996 and his macabre reputation still looms large. As recently as 2015 he was linked to cold cases in the press, while a two-part TV mini-series named Catching Milat inspired both ratings and controversy.

For Alastair Shipsey, Ivan’s eldest nephew, this attention hurts.

“Last night, at 11 o’clock, they had a major [TV show] on him,” says Shipsey over the phone from his home in New South Wales, “and they kept saying a dozen times how he took seven backpackers into the Belanglo State Forest and tortured them and slayed them – and he didn’t, there’s no proof that he killed anybody. It breaks my heart because what they’re saying is so bad and none of it’s true. It’s like a movie. They’ve made a movie.”

Ivan Milat's letters are collected in the book compiled by his nephew, Alistair Shipsey, available from TheMilatLetters.com
Ivan Milat’s letters are collected in the book compiled by his nephew, Alistair Shipsey, available from TheMilatLetters.com

Is the evidence against Ivan Milat flawed?

That Ivan’s guilt may be in doubt might come as a surprise to many, but as Shipsey points out, even the trial judge admitted that there’s no evidence at the scene of the murders that directly testifies to Ivan’s presence, nor any conclusion as to whether the stomach-churning crimes were committed by just one person or several.

Shipsey, who released a collection of his correspondence from Ivan as a single self-published volume, The Milat Letters: The Inside Story From The Backpacker Murderer – in November 2014, is dedicated to digging up every possible nugget of information, every possible lead and every possible inconsistency and sharing it on his Facebook page.

This evidence ranges from inconclusive ballistics and unreliable witness testimony to claims that the .22 Ruger parts found at the scene were planted by police in a rush to wrap the case up before bad publicity derailed the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. More sensationally, there are the accounts of the alternative suspects, who may or may not be connected to the case.

There’s more information about the case than can be comfortably detailed in one article, but it’s all up there on Shipsey’s page – and will perhaps also be in the pages of his second book, which at the time of writing has been submitted to the publishers for their consideration.

The son of Ivan’s older sister, Olga Milat, Shipsey has always been close to the man he describes as his “favourite uncle”, and visited his home on Cinnabar Avenue in the weeks leading up to his arrest by Task Force Air.

“I was there two weeks before they raided him,” recalls Shipsey. “He said, ‘See the house over there? They stopped the building work and they’ve been hiding there for the last month.’ He thought it was bullshit, he couldn’t believe it.”

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The family were no strangers to the police. Ivan’s brother Alex had first come to the attention of Task Force Air when he reported seeing two young women in a car being taken into the forest by a group of men, but his alibi was watertight. They sniffed around Richard Milat, another of Ivan’s brothers, too, but nothing would stick.

Only Ivan remained a suspect, thanks to the eyewitness testimony from survivor Paul Onions and police raids that uncovered weapons and camping equipment linked to the murders not just in Ivan’s home, but in properties belonging to the whole Milat family.

“A co-worker told him they were asking about him. He said it was something to do with the backpackers’ Task Force Air, so they told him and if they told him he knew about it for six weeks, you wanna be asking, ‘Why would he have all this shit in his house?’ He wouldn’t.”

Shipsey maintains that far fewer things than those reported were directly connected to the victims, while photo albums and diaries that could prove Ivan’s innocence were taken and never returned.

“They told the people, ‘Oh, the backpacks they found belonged to the backpackers.’ Did you know not one thing belonged to the backpackers? They gave them all back to the [Milat] family, the camping gear and backpacks.

“Someone who wrote books about my uncle reckons that they have photos of the property when Paul Onions [was attacked],” Shipsey adds.

“Ivan was on the property, he was going through bog hole and got caught on the stump, and Billy said he took a picture of it, and Billy had to drag him back out with his four-wheel drive. They took all that: the photo albums and the diaries, never to be seen again. So anything that could help Ivan has been destroyed or hidden.”

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Shipsey himself was questioned, potentially as an accomplice and to potentially link the cigarette butts and beer bottles found at the scene to Ivan.

“They said to me, ‘Did you ever tell anyone you were going shooting with your uncle? Hunting in the forest?’ – I said, ‘No.’ – ‘Well, did you ever have any smoke with him or drink with him?’ – I said, ‘He doesn’t drink or smoke, you know that’ – then they said, ‘What about jewellery?’ – I said, ‘What about it?’ – they said, ‘Well, we didn’t find any of the backpackers’ jewellery.’

“Well that’s a lie because I’ve read articles on it and they found jewellery outside. They were asking me that, right, because I had gold rings on all my fingers.”

The real Milat family

When Clive Small, the head of Task Force Air, sneered into the camera for Nine Network TV show Australian Families Of Crime that the Milats “aren’t a normal Australian family, I like to say they’re the sort of family you see in the Southern States of America,” his crude innuendo was designed to replace real people with images of Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes.

The Milats lived on the undeveloped, rural outskirts of Sydney before later decades saw the bush swallowed up by suburbia. Ivan grew up as one of 14 children born to Stjepan ‘Steve’ Milat, a Croatian immigrant, and his wife Margaret. Most accounts agree that Steve was the hard-working head of the house, that Margaret was unflinchingly loyal to her boys, and that the kids were a handful.

“The boys would run amok over the years. In the old days most people did, you know? In the old days people didn’t have TVs, they had big families,” laughs Shipsey.

“You know the boys had a bit of a troubled past, but nothing violent. I remember [Ivan’s brother] Boris telling me he found Ivan shooting animals, but then [brother] Billy said, ‘No, it was Boris, it wasn’t Ivan, it was Boris – he was the first one to buy a gun. The first thing he did was shot the neighbour’s dog.’ So everything that Boris said [about Ivan], that’s him.”

 

The whole family shared a love of guns and the great outdoors. “They had 500 acres down at Wombeyan Caves and they used to go camping all the time, and shooting,” says Shipsey. “And in those days you were allowed guns, you didn’t have gun licenses. Most people had guns in the old days and you would if you had a few brothers. He had ten brothers, you’d have a few guns between ya. They used to get the black powder ones in kits and even make rifles and pistols.

“We’d go down hunting on the property and shooting targets. It was fun. Okay, we used to shoot the odd goat, there was lots of wild goats there. We had targets, we used to have barbecues and camp there on the river, and think about how much fun it was having a big family, camping, drinking, cooking barbecues and everybody being down there. That’s what people did in the old days.”

While Ivan’s workmates described him as quiet man who kept himself to himself, happiest with his gun mags, he was a different person around his sprawling family.

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“Ivan was a very outgoing person,” said Shipsey. “He just didn’t trust people, he kept to himself a bit, but with the family he was out there, he was alive, he was cool, he was always laughing. He was a ball of light.”

Shipsey also disputes the accounts given by Ivan’s brothers George and Boris, and repeated in Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy’s book Sins Of The Brother that the Milat home was an abusive one and that Steve often beat the children, once hitting one of the boys hard enough to break his arm.

“My mum said he never used to beat the kids,” Shipsey asserts. “The things they said was a lie.”

Instead he describes Steve as a proud and hardworking man who was heartbroken when he was unable to find employment in his 70s – an age when most men would have comfortably settled into retirement. His parents were people of means in their native Yugoslavia, and only when the communists took control toward the end of World War II did the young Stjepan Milat join the thousands of post-War Yugoslavian immigrants to Australia.

The grandmother he remembers though is the same devoted mother that Ivan’s brothers have described.

“She was always good,” he agrees of Margaret Milat. “You know, you’d go and she’d have cups of tea, food, on the big wooden table in the house, a mansion house with all the kids in there, you know. I remember one room had mattresses on the floor because people would stay over and there were so many kids. It was a family and a half.”

Bad Apples: Boris and Matthew Milat

The one crack in the family portrait is Boris (and to a lesser extent, George). Following Ivan’s arrest – and with it the discovery that one of the children he’d raised as his own was actually his brother’s – Boris broke with the family. He dropped his notorious surname and now pops up frequently in the media to denounce his kin, most recently claiming on Australian Channel 7’s Sunday Night that the teenage Ivan’s “first victim” was taxi driver Neville Knight, who was shot in the spine and paralysed in March 1962.

Demonstrating the familial loyalty that Boris has since discarded, Alan Dillon claimed responsibility for the attack – later admitting he only did so to spare his brother who he believed was responsible.

“You know why Boris is causing trouble?” asks Shipsey. “Because [Ivan’s] been having an affair with Boris’s missus for years and Boris only found out it’s [Ivan’s] child when he got locked up. And what, Boris comes in after 20 years and says that about the taxi driver, and the guy who shot the taxi driver did five years for it because he thought his brother did it? [If I were Alan Dillon] I would’ve been visibly upset and protested. Don’t you think it’s all a bit fishy?”

Matthew Milat
Matthew Milat

Another Milat to contribute more than his fair share of unwelcome headlines is Matthew, who at the age of 19 (acting alongside 19-year-old Cohen Klein) lured 17-year-old David Auchterlonie into Belanglo State Forest and killed him. He later boasted, “You know me, you know my family, you know the last name Milat. I did what they do.” According to Shipsey, the media distorted the murder to amplify the Milat angle and airbrushed the real reason – crystal meth (known in Australia as ‘ice’) – from their reports.

“His name isn’t really Milat,” he explains. “He changed his name to Milat. It was Matthew Benham. I’ll tell you something about him: what they failed to tell the public was the kid he killed was an ice dealer. [Matthew] was on ice. When they picked him up he was flying. I’ve seen people doing ice on the streets. You can’t even talk to them, they talk babble and can’t even think straight. They do stupid shit without even thinking and regret it later, and that’s what he did. So they’re making out he’s done it because he’s like his uncle and he kills innocent people. The kid was on ice and he was the ice dealer. They leave all this out.”

Shipsey now knows this first hand. In an April 2015 article carried by the Australian Daily Telegraph he was quoted saying “[Ivan] may have done a couple [of killings] but I don’t think he did them all” – a statement obviously at odds with his dogged campaigning.

“Look, I didn’t say that,” he insisted. “She wrote that in the paper – whatever her name is. She wrote that and I ring her up and said, ‘Why did you say that? I didn’t say those words!’ People do this to sell their papers, to get publicity. I said, ‘Look, if they think he did a couple he may have done a couple, but I don’t think he did.’ So she’s reworded it and manipulated it.”

Whether you agree with Shipsey’s case or not, one thing is clear: the press are not impartial when it comes to his family.

When the badly decomposed bodies of Karlie Pearce-Stevenson and Khandalyce Pearce were found in Belanglo in 2010 and 2015, the papers fell over themselves to cry “Milat”, leaving them red in the face when 41-year-old Daniel James Holdom was arrested for murder on 28 October 2015. All of this has hardened Shipsey’s resolve.

“It’s cost me out of my pocket to do all the books now,” he says. “I’m not doing it for the money, I’m doing it simply because I want this story out there. Truly, because I’m sick of them vilifying him, talking about him they way they are. They don’t even know him.”

The Milat Letters: The Inside Story From The Backpacker Murderer is available now from TheMilatLetters.comFor more fresh perspectives on classic crime cases, pick up the latest issue of Real Crime or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.