Originally published in The Weekend Australian, May 10-11, 2014
A few weeks ago I went to the beach, and needed something to read on the sand. It would have made professional sense to take along this new book about Ivan Milat, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to let the man's spectre desecrate the dunes. 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 like Milat remind you, in a roundabout way, that there really is such a thing as common decency after all. We know, of course, that these days it is no longer cool to trust our gut feelings about the existence of evil. We know that certain murderers had abusive childhoods, while others have political or religious grievances that we need to attend to. But crimes like 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 understand this, in his primitive way. To this day he feebly protests that he was framed. Even he knows, at some level, that the things he did were unspeakable, and that nobody human would admit to doing them.
So the Milat story is not entirely sordid. In the end, justice was done. Milat was identified and captured because members of the public, including a number of civic-minded petty criminals, inundated the police force with tips. He had his day in court, where his lawyers had their chance to insult the victims’ families with a laughable defence. And now he's in prison, where he spends his time either hunger-striking or swallowing razor blades, as part of an ongoing campaign to draw attention to his imagined innocence.
Clive Small, the now-retired NSW police detective who headed the task force that brought Milat to justice, is these days a true-crime author. He has excellent qualifications to write about the Milat case, but whether the case needs to be written about again is another question. The Sins of the Brother, by Mark Whittaker and the late Les Kennedy, will surely never be surpassed as the definitive work about Milat. First 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, Clive Small came across as a diligent and decent but rather bureaucratic figure. Small’s own book doesn’t do a lot to alter this image, and indeed doesn’t seek to. Small usefully reminds us that catching a killer like Milat, and assembling a brief of evidence that will firmly put him 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, who possess near-psychic insight into the minds of their wicked nemeses. Small, less romantically, portrays himself as the leader of a hard-working team, an efficient delegator, a crack information manager. If Milat's crimes were a deranged exercise in passion run amok, the offender was found and taken down by the cool, patient, impassive work of collective reason.
Small was appointed to head the investigation in 1993, after the bodies of missing young backpackers started 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 publicly confirmed 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 the hotline 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 turnoff Bill had pulled over, reached under his seat, and produced a handgun and some rope. Wisely, Onions made an instant decision to flee. Dodging pistol-shots from his rear, he flagged down a passing car. Onions recalled that “Bill” had sported a Merv Hughes-style moustache – and poor Merv has been associated with the case ever since.
The Onions evidence would prove vital, in time; and he would ultimately identify his assailant as Ivan Milat. But the significance of the "Bill" encounter only became clear after other leads implicating Milat had surfaced from the pile. One of Ivan’s brothers had raised the suspicions of his co-workers by making weirdly well-informed comments about the backpacker murders at work. Another brother had supplied police with a decidedly iffy-sounding witness statement. Finally, and decisively, investigators learned that Ivan had stood trial for abduction and rape back in 1971. He had been acquitted, somehow; but the crime had been all too real, and in retrospect it looked eerily like a dry run for the backpacker murderers.
Small seemed to have his man, then. But really his job was only half done. Before arresting Milat, he had to ensure he would be convicted at trial – a trickier challenge than we now might 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 police recovered from Milat's home an immense trove of damning evidence, including clothes and cameras and sleeping bags that the killer had souvenired from his victims. As dangerous as it was to keep them, Milat couldn’t bear the thought of relinquishing his trophies.
The point is important, because it gives us the biggest hint we have about Milat's motives. His crimes were about control. He had a high opinion of his personal worth, and proved his potency by subduing his innocent victims with the aid of rope, knives, and firearms. When they were dead, he defiled them posthumously by keeping and using their personal belongings, and giving some of them away as gifts. All of Milat’s known murders, Small points out, occurred just after he'd been abandoned by a sexual partner, or had otherwise lost the upper hand in 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. Ivan 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 Paul Onions incident, the alleged 1971 rape, and a similar attempted abduction in 1977) he acted alone.
Small’s old job, which he was unimpeachably good at, obliged him to keep his personal feelings under wraps. In his new job, which is to write about his old job, it wouldn't hurt him to show a bit more emotion. How did it feel, exactly, to be on the trail of a monster? Did Small lose sleep? Did he feel sick? Small is good on the hard facts, but his book is far skimpier when it comes to the personal stuff – the stuff that only he could have told us.
He does, though, give us one scene that stands out for its vividness. Late in the book he describes a 2005 visit to the Goulburn Supermax prison, where he encounters the reduced figure of Milat. Grey-haired, stooped, scarred by the ravages of self-harm, Milat hails his old nemesis and utters a pro forma protestation of innocence. Small, with typical restraint, replies by giving Ivan a brief rundown of the evidence that makes a mockery of that claim.
Here we have a reminder of what good and evil look like in the real world. The people who embody them aren’t as spectacular or as charismatic as we might imagine. They’re just people. Even in his dark heyday, Milat didn’t look like a monster, and didn’t even always behave like one. But he certainly did sometimes, and that was more than enough.