On the trail of a madman
THE KIMBERLEY KILLER The memory of Josef Schwab’s killing spree lives on, writes Rourke Walsh
It was a killing spree that had people in WA’s north on edge.
Five West Australians were murdered while fishing and camping in the remote Top End in June 1987 — seemingly with no explanation.
The killer, a deranged German tourist with a military background, had flown into Brisbane two months earlier, hired a four-wheel-drive and loaded it with an arsenal of guns and ammunition.
Josef Schwab then made his way across the Top End, at first shooting buffalo and cutting out their horns before turning his high-powered guns on people.
Yesterday marked 30 years since the start of Schwab’s deadly rampage, at Timber Creek in the Northern Territory, about 200km from the WA border.
Schwab’s first victims, a father and son from WA, were checking out a fishing spot on the Victoria River while their wives waited at their camp.
Marcus Bullen, a 70-year-old retired councillor and one-time deputy mayor of Fremantle, and his 42-year-old son Lance were shot in the back.
The shocking murders led NT police to lock down the area to hunt for the killer. But five days later and 300km away over the border, at a popular fishing spot on the Pentecost River, Schwab struck again.
This time his victims were a young couple living in Kununurra and their friend from Derby.
Phillip Walkemeyer, 26, his fiancee Julie Warren, 25, and friend Terry Bolt, 36, were gunned down on June 14, 1987, after deciding to camp an extra night.
It was not until they failed to show up for work that the alarm was raised and their bodies found.
Speaking before the 30th anniversary of their son’s death, Maureen and Otto Walkemeyer said the grief left by a murder never faded completely.
“Grief from homicide is a never-ending story,” they said.
“It is like a scar that never heals.
“Some people think that after a few months, grief should have passed and things should be back to normal. Not so, there is a scar there that will never heal.”
Mr and Mrs Walkemeyer, of Lathlain, said family get-togethers had not been the same since they lost Phillip because it always felt like someone was missing.
“Even after 30 years, our Christmas is never the same as it was,” they said. “Phillip was a kind and caring young man and was ready to help anyone. He had a great sense of humour and one of the things we miss is hearing his laugh. It was magic.
“He was a gentle giant, a beautiful person. He loved people, camping and fishing.”
Mr and Mrs Walkemeyer said the family still got together on Phillip’s birthday and the anniversary of his death and were speaking publicly to ensure his memory was not forgotten.
“These are not morbid times but the opportunity to share and remember the 26 years of happiness that he gave us,” they said.
Long-time Kimberley resident Norma Wainwright remembers the shock waves the murders sent through the tight-knit community.
Mrs Wainwright, then a celebrant, was supposed to marry Mr Walkemeyer and Miss Warren just a few weeks later.
“I was living in Wyndham and had seen an identikit picture on the TV the evening before,” Mrs Wainwright said.
“I needed to drive across to Kununurra and left with my big Rhodesian ridgeback on the back seat just in case.
“Just down the highway, at the turn-off to the Gibb River Road, there was a police roadblock. I was told not to stop for anyone.
“This brought home to me
that it was an unknown of just where the killer could be hiding.”
Mrs Wainwright said the disturbing memory of the murders lived on in the town for years.
Bob Brown was a member of the newly formed WA Police tactical response group and was sent to the Kimberley as part of the team that hunted Schwab.
Based at Home Valley Station near the Pentecost River, the team quickly established a connection between the murders, finding a boot print in the mud which matched one from the scene in the NT.
For the next five days the TRG team swept station homesteads, many of which had been abandoned by the terrified occupants.
They also set up ambushes for vehicles on remote dirt roads.
“The roads were virtually empty because word had got out that there was a murderer on the loose,” Mr Brown said.
“We had very little sleep for the next five days.”
Schwab was eventually spotted on June 19 at a bush camp about 10km outside Fitzroy Crossing by a helicopter pilot mustering horses for the rodeo that weekend.
Peter Leutenegger remembers vividly the moment he saw the vehicle hidden under trees and a camouflage net about 3km off Great Northern Highway.
“Everyone was on edge,” he said.
“No one really knew where this bloke was and where he was going to turn up next.
“I hadn’t been up that long and I had another bloke in the helicopter with me and we spotted what looked like a vehicle in an area where
tourists wouldn’t normally be camping.”
Mr Leutenegger landed his small helicopter outside the Fitzroy Crossing police station and told them of his discovery. He then went back to get his ground mustering team out of harm’s way.
The TRG raced to Fitzroy Crossing and within a couple hours were in position along the highway. They made their way towards Schwab’s camp on foot. As they got about 2km from his car they heard gunfire. He had begun firing at the police plane.
The dramatic shootout that followed ended when Schwab was fatally shot between the shoulder blades.
The round passed straight through him and out of his chest.
It was rumoured that Schwab had been planning to target the Fitzroy rodeo that weekend but Mr Brown said no one would ever know if that was true.
“The passenger legwell in his car was stacked with ammunition,” Mr Brown said.
“He was going to kill more people. That is what he was going to do. I have no doubt.
“Whether he was going to go to the Fitzroy rodeo and shoot people we will never know.
“He was mad and you can’t predict what a madman is going to do, apart from the fact that he will kill again.”
Killer on the loose: Josef Schwab, top left, and three of his victims, Phillip Walkemeyer and his partner Julie Warren and Marcus Bullen.
How The Kimberley Echo followed the story in 1987.
Former TRG officer Bob Brown on the assignment to track multiple murderer Josef Schwab.