How a traf­fic light saved me from Mi­lat’s ham­mer

A Bri­tish man has for the first time re­vealed how he came within sec­onds of be­ing mur­dered by se­rial killer Ivan Mi­lat on a Blue Moun­tains road, writes Amelia Saw

The Sunday Times - - News -

BACK­PACKER Colin Powis says the dif­fer­ence be­tween es­cap­ing no­to­ri­ous se­rial killer Ivan Mi­lat and dy­ing a sav­age death all came down to the chang­ing of a traf­fic light. Powis has never spo­ken about his ter­ri­fy­ing es­cape from Mi­lat, who was con­victed of the mur­ders of seven young trav­ellers be­tween 1989 and 1993, their bod­ies found buried in the Be­lan­glo State For­est.

But last year, the 57-year-old con­struc­tion worker was sit­ting in his liv­ing room in Durham, Eng­land, when a doc­u­men­tary on the back­packer mur­ders screened on tele­vi­sion.

In­stantly recog­nis­ing Mi­lat’s pho­to­graph as the man he es­caped while hitch­hik­ing around Aus­tralia, Powis was fur­ther dis­turbed when he saw a re-en­act­ment of Bri­tish back­packer Paul Onions’ en­counter. It was al­most iden­ti­cal to his own ex­pe­ri­ence.

Powis is now “100 per cent sure” the man he es­caped was Mi­lat.

The year was 1982 and a strap­ping 21-year-old Powis was stand­ing on the A32 high­way near Ka­toomba in the NSW Blue Moun­tains, wait­ing for a lift.

Dressed in shorts and a sin­glet on a hot Jan­uary day, Powis was mak­ing his way to Co­bar in the State’s cen­tral west, where he was told he could pick up work at a mine.

Powis had been wait­ing for about 30 min­utes when he saw a “small pick-up truck” hurtling through the moun­tain mist.

“I think it was white, but I can’t be sure,” Powis says, speak­ing to The Sun­day Times from his Durham home.

The truck pulled up in front of him and a re­lieved Powis went to throw his bag in the back.

But the driver took of­fence. “No, mate,” said the man. “Put it in here, be­hind the seat, it’s safer.”

Powis thought it strange to wedge the bag into the tiny area be­hind the front seat when there was am­ple room in the back, but he wanted a lift and wasn’t go­ing to ar­gue.

The man locked the doors; the truck took off. He no­ticed the driver’s “deep tan” and “nar­row eyes”.

“Put your seat­belt on, mate,” the driver said to Powis. “We don’t want you to fall out. How long have you been in Aus­tralia? Who knows you’re here?”

Powis thought it an odd ques­tion. He had hitch­hiked his way across the US and Canada — peo­ple didn’t usu­ally ask who knew of his where­abouts — but he was happy to ap­pease the man with small talk.

“I’ve been in Aus­tralia just a cou­ple of days. I don’t know any­body here, but I’m go­ing out to Co­bar to see about get­ting a job,” he said.

He looked around the small pick-up truck. It was spot­less and all but empty, bar a swag in the back and a big ham­mer near the tail­gate.

Powis asked the man where he was head­ing.

“Just up the road,” the man said. Then he fell into a long, stony si­lence.

“He was weird right from the start,” says Powis.

“I thought he was on drugs ’cos he went into such a mood, such a dark mood, and was so deep in thought.

“I was try­ing to talk to him and he was just deep in thought about some­thing else.

“And he was watch­ing me, lean­ing against the driver’s door — so he could scan me and the road at the same time. And I could feel the weight in his stare so I was just try­ing to make con­ver­sa­tion.”

Powis tried mak­ing small talk about Aus­tralia, but the man would only grunt in re­sponse.

He tried another tack.

“What do you do for a liv­ing?” he asked.

“I’m a road worker,” the man said. The man kept watch­ing him. Lean­ing against the driver’s door, he con­tin­ued to stare at Powis.

“I was just try­ing to make con­ver­sa­tion. He was creep­ing me out.

“He had a for­eign look about him, you know, with his eyes and the dark tan and I said to him, ‘How long has your fam­ily been in Aus­tralia?’”

“My fa­ther came from Yu­goslavia af­ter the war,” the man replied. Then . . . si­lence.

Just be­fore Bathurst, the high­way was in­ter­sected by a ma­jor dirt road

I thought he was on drugs ’cos he went into such a mood, such a dark mood, and was so deep in thought.

with a set of traf­fic lights. The man looked at Powis.

“I’m go­ing to go south now. I’m go­ing to take this turn-off.”

“OK, you can just drop me off here, up at the lights,” Powis told him. But the man ig­nored his re­quest. He took the turn-off and sped down the dirt road.

And then his mood shifted. Sud­denly, he was per­son­able.

“Look mate, I’m go­ing to go about 60 miles south down into the bush. If you want a ride along I can give you a long ride,” the man said.

Powis po­litely de­clined.

“I’m go­ing to go out and check my traps,” the man pushed, pre­sum­ably re­fer­ring to hunt­ing traps.

“If you ride along, you can see some real Aussie wildlife.”

When Powis turned him down for a sec­ond time the man slammed on the brakes.

He jumped out of his seat and raced to the pas­sen­ger seat door, block­ing Powis’ path.

“When I got out he was right there, vir­tu­ally breath­ing down my neck.

“I thought he was go­ing to punch me and then he was go­ing to drive away with my back­pack and my pass­port and every­thing be­hind his seat, that’s what I thought he was go­ing to do. I could see by his body lan­guage.”

But Powis was a strong young bloke and phys­i­cally dom­i­nant to the man he sized up as be­ing about 1.7m tall.

He tried to grab his back­pack, and steeled him­self for a fight.

It’s only in ret­ro­spect he re­alised the man had likely picked up the ham­mer from the back seat and was plan­ning to at­tack him with it.

This could have been Powis’s last mo­ment alive.

Then, the traf­fic lights changed. A stream of cars flowed down the dirt road from the top of the hill.

“I re­mem­ber Mi­lat, he was look­ing over his shoul­der at this traf­fic and look­ing at me, and look­ing over his shoul­der, and look­ing at me, and I re­mem­ber the traf­fic go­ing past.

“It was that traf­fic that stopped him wal­lop­ing me with a ham­mer, I’m cer­tain of it,” says Powis.

Powis pushed past the man and pow­ered up the road.

When he looked over his shoul­der, the man was loung­ing on his truck.

“Have a safe trip, mate,” he yelled af­ter the young back­packer.

But Powis didn’t stop.

It wasn’t un­til decades later that he un­der­stood just how close he’d come.

Although Mi­lat was con­victed of seven mur­ders, de­tec­tives have iden­ti­fied 16 un­solved homi­cides as the killer’s po­ten­tial work. Peter Letcher is one such vic­tim. Letcher was a young man who in­tended to hitch­hike west, to­wards Bathurst, in 1987.

The 18-year-old was last seen leav­ing Busby in south-west­ern Syd­ney. His body was later found cov­ered in branches in the Jenolan State For­est.

The for­est sits 160km west of Syd­ney and sur­rounds the city of Ka­toomba — the same place Powis ac­cepted his lift.

Letcher had been stabbed, then shot ex­e­cu­tion style.

It was a method of homi­cide and dis­posal of the body that matched Mi­lat’s calling card, and it’s th­ese de­tails that sup­port former as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner of po­lice Clive Small’s con­vic­tion Letcher was al­most cer­tainly a vic­tim of Mi­lat.

At the time of Letcher’s dis­ap­pear­ance and Powis’s near-fate­ful hitch­hike, Mi­lat was work­ing for the De­part­ment of Main Roads.

The job saw him posted to the Jenolan State For­est for a pe­riod of time. How­ever, the road records that could pin­point ex­actly when and where Mi­lat was sta­tioned have since been de­stroyed.

The chill­ing en­counter al­ways stuck with Powis, but he lived in the US dur­ing the 1994 Mi­lat trial, which wasn’t given much news cov­er­age in that coun­try.

It was only see­ing Mi­lat’s pho­to­graph that made him join the dots.

“I looked at the photo and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. I’ve seen that creep.’ And it all just came back, it all just came to­gether.”

Fur­ther con­sol­i­dat­ing Powis’s pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Mi­lat were de­tails about the killer’s pro­fes­sion and his Yu­gosla­vian her­itage, fit­ting ex­actly with the man he met.

“This hill­billy who picked me up didn’t just look like Ivan Mi­lat, he had all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Ivan Mi­lat, and fur­ther­more he def­i­nitely, ab­so­lutely told me he was a road worker and def­i­nitely told me that his fa­ther came from Yu­goslavia dur­ing the war, def­i­nitely.

“It slowly dawned on me that, yes, it was Ivan Mi­lat and yes, he did try to mur­der me and yes, it was only the mun­dane chang­ing of the traf­fic light that saved my life. He’d taken a good look at me and he was bold and op­por­tunis­tic and con­fi­dent.

“He thought he could do it and he would have done it, as well, ’cos he had that ham­mer in the rear of that truck — that wasn’t there by ac­ci­dent.

“I am not mis­taken, nor I am para­noid — but it was def­i­nitely Ivan Mi­lat.”

Put your seat­belt on, mate,’ the driver said to Powis. ‘We don’t want you to fall out. How long have you been in Aus­tralia? Who knows you’re here?

Main pic­ture: Nigel Roddis

Close call: Colin Powis at home in the UK. In­set: a post­card sent by Powis to fam­ily from the Blue Moun­tains, and the map he used on his trav­els. Left: Ivan Mi­lat.

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