When good runs into evil
Milat: Inside Australia’s Biggest Manhunt By Clive Small and Tom Gilling Allen & Unwin, 328pp, $29.99
AFEW weeks ago I needed something to read on the beach. It would have made professional sense to take this new book about Ivan Milat, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to let his spectre desecrate the sand. There are certain thoughts you don’t want to have while surrounded by sunlight, clean air and happy young people. Milat is the man who, after murdering his victims, liked to reposition their bodies so as to put extra bullets into their skulls from different angles. Why would you want to read about that on a beach?
Why indeed would you want to read about it anywhere? No doubt there is an element of voyeurism in our taste for true-crime books. But the genre can be reassuringly moral, too. The foul transgressions of a man such as Milat remind you that there is such a thing as common decency after all.
We have been taught to mistrust our gut feelings about evil. Confronted with an atrocious misdeed, we know we’re meant to pause and consider the perpetrator’s abusive childhood or political grievances. But crimes such as Milat’s go so far beyond the pale that nobody sane can fail to call them monstrous. These days we can’t agree about much, but we can agree about that. Even Milat himself seems to get this, in his way. To this day he feebly protests that he was framed. Even he knows the things he did were profoundly inhuman.
So the Milat story is not entirely sordid: it ends with a successful assertion of civilised values. The public, including several civic-minded petty criminals, banded together and inundated the police with tips, and the police got their man. The court delivered the right verdict after giving the culprit his due chance to insult the victims’ families with a laughable defence. Prison has been doing its job, as it generally does when the system has grasped the point that some people should never be let out. Clive Small, the retired NSW police detective who headed the taskforce that brought Milat to justice, is these days a true-crime author. He has excellent qualifications to write about the case, but whether it needs to be written about again is another question. The Sins of the Brother, by Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy, will surely never be surpassed as the definitive work about Milat. Published in 1998, the book was an impeccably researched and all-too-chilling evocation of the Milat milieu, and still ranks as one of the finest true crime works ever written.
In Whittaker and Kennedy’s book, Small came across as a diligent and decent but rather bureaucratic figure. Small’s own book, written with regular collaborator Tom Gilling, doesn’t do a lot to alter this image, and indeed doesn’t seek to. Small usefully reminds us that catching a killer such as Milat, and compiling a brief of evidence that will put him firmly away, is nothing if not a bureaucratic operation. Fiction makes us want detectives who are intriguing as well as effective — we expect dark and brooding obsessives, possibly from Scandinavia, with near-psychic insight into the murderer’s mind. Small, less romantically, portrays himself as the leader of a hardworking team, an efficient delegator, a crack information manager. If the crimes were a deranged exercise in passion run amok, the criminal was taken down by the cool, patient, impassive work of collective reason.
Small was appointed to head the investigation in 1993, after the bodies of young backpackers had begun turning up in the Belanglo State Forest, which lies just off the Hume Highway between Sydney and Canberra. When an organised search of the forest recovered further remains, bringing the total of victims to seven, Small was obliged to confirm that he was looking for a serial killer.
At that point the investigation entered a phase of laborious data-sifting. A public hotline generated thousands of leads, all of which had to be evaluated. Buried in that pile of information was the tip that would eventually give Small his breakthrough. A young Englishman named Paul Onions had phoned to report a terrifying encounter he’d had while hitching along the Hume Highway in 1990. Onions had been picked up by a man who called himself Bill. Near the Belanglo turn-off Bill had pulled over, reached under his seat, and produced a handgun and some rope. Wisely, Onions had sprinted away and flagged down a passing car, with Bill loosing shots behind him. Onions, who would later positively identify his assailant as Milat, recalled that “Bill” had sported a Merv Hughes-style moustache.
The Onions evidence would prove vital in time. But its significance became clear only when other leads implicating Milat had surfaced from the pile. One of Ivan’s brothers had been saying weirdly well-informed things about the backpacker murders at work. Another brother had supplied police with a decidedly fake-sounding witness statement. Finally, and decisively, investigators learned that Ivan had stood trial for abduction and rape back in 1971. He had been acquitted, scandalously, but the incident looked eerily like a dry run for the backpacker crimes.
Small seemed to have his man, then. But really the job was only half done. Before arresting Milat, he had to ensure he would be convicted at trial — a trickier challenge than we now may think. At the Belanglo crime scenes, most of the biological evidence had long since degraded. Shell casings and bullets were recovered, but they would be useless as evidence unless police found the weapons that fired them. Small’s fear was that Milat, if tipped off to his imminent arrest, might ditch his guns and any other items that linked him to the crimes. In the end he didn’t and the prosecution was able to confront him with a mountain-range of damning evidence, including clothes, cameras and sleeping bags souvenired from his victims. As dangerous as it was to keep them, he couldn’t stand to part with his trophies.
The point is crucial because it gives us the biggest hint about his motives. His crimes were about control. He had a high opinion of his personal powers and proved his worth by subduing the innocent with rope, knives and firearms. When his victims were dead, he prolonged his defilement of them by keeping and using their belongings. All of Milat’s known murders, Small notes, occurred after he had been abandoned by a sexual partner or had otherwise lost control over his private life.
Stressing Milat’s lust for power, Small rejects the hypothesis, first advanced by criminal profilers, that the murders were committed with the aid of a younger accomplice, possibly a family member. Milat, Small says, trusted nobody, certainly not to that extent. Small’s training compels him to avoid speculation and look to the evidence: and the fact remains that in every case where Milat left behind a living witness (the Onions incident, the alleged 1971 rape and a