Murder in the Outback – what’s the true story behind the Channel 4 documentary?

What really happened to Peter Falconio?

Murder in the Outback

New Channel 4 documentary Murder in the Outback is reopening the case of British backpacker Peter Falconio, who went missing in the Australian outback in 2001.

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Bradley John Murdoch was convicted of his murder in 2005, but Falconio’s body has never been found.

It was a story that dominated headlines around the world at the time and Channel 4’s four-part documentary is being billed as “one of the most detailed re-investigations ever mounted”.

So what actually happened on that fateful night?

Who is Peter Falconio?

Peter Falconio was a British backpacker from Hepworth in West Yorkshire, whose disappearance in the Australian outback made the news in 2001. He was aged 28 at the time.

He met his girlfriend, Joanne Lees, in 1996 and they lived together while he studied at Brighton University. In 2000, they packed their bags for an incredible trip around the world, taking in countries like Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia, before heading to Australia for their roadtrip through the outback.

What happened to Peter Falconio?

The story starts with Falconio’s girlfriend, Joanne Lees. On the 14th July 2001, the 27-year old flagged down a truck on a quiet part of the Stuart Highway in Central Australia. She was deeply distressed, explaining that she and Falconio had been attacked on the road. She believed Falconio had been shot, but she had been able to escape their attackers.

The couple had been on a road trip for eight months, and were travelling across the outback in their camper van together. Lees recounted the evening’s events to ITV interviewer Martin Bashir in 2002 and explained that they were driving in the pitch black, on deserted roads, when a car started following them. They wanted the car to overtake but it drove up alongside them and the driver gestured at the couple to pull over to the side of the road.

Lees recalls Falconio going to the back of the car with the other driver, where they were examining the exhaust pipe. Falconio asked her to rev the engine, as if trying to fix the car, but then there was a bang, which Lees later thought was the sound of Falconio being shot. Lees says the next thing she knew was the stranger at the car door pointing a gun at her.

The man threatened her, tied her hands behind her back, and tried to abduct her, but she managed to get away and hide in the grass until, hours later, she was able to flag down a passer-by in a truck, who drove her to nearby Barrow Creek.

Is Peter Falconio definitely dead?

No. Falconio’s body has never been found, although Bradley John Murdoch has been convicted of his murder. Eyewitness accounts brought to light in C4’s documentary do suggest that Falconio was spotted in New South Wales days after his disappearance, which is 2000km away from the spot he went missing. Australian authorities have dismissed these claims, but an unnamed friend of Falconio did come forward to suggest he may have faked his own death.

Who is Joanne Lees?

Before her boyfriend went missing, Lees was just an ordinary girl going travelling with her partner. After that fateful night she found herself in the glare of the media spotlight, dividing public opinion.

She filmed an interview with British journalist, Martin Bashir and also wrote a book about her life, No Turning Back, which was published in 2006. In the years that followed, Lees studied sociology at Sheffield University and worked as both a travel agent and a social worker.

Who is Bradley John Murdoch?

Bradley John Murdoch
Fairfax Media via Getty Images

It took a long time for anyone to be convicted of the attack – in fact, the huge police manhunt went on for 16 months. A tip-off finally led to the arrest of Bradley John Murdoch, described as a “small-time drug runner”. He denied the charges but was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, even though Falconio’s body was never found.

Murdoch appealed against his conviction several times,  but it was upheld and he is currently serving life imprisonment – he will be eligible for parole in 2032, when he will be aged 74.

Has any new evidence been uncovered?

Yes, Sunday night’s opening episode revealed startling new evidence about a red car. The truck driver who saved Lees from the side of the road, Vince Millar, revealed to Murdoch’s defence lawyer Andrew Fraser, that he had seen another car on that deserted stretch of road, shortly before finding Lees.

He said the little red car was circling its headlights, but sped off before he could find out what was going on. He also said he saw two men in the car, with another man who looked like jelly. He now thinks this could have been the body of Peter Falconio.

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Murder in the Outback: The Falconio and Lees Mystery continues tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm. To find out what else is on, check out our TV guide.