When good runs into evil

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Free

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

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