The Sunday Telegraph – October 01, 2006
- Ginny Dougary

FIVE years after her harrowing Outback ordeal, Joanne Lees speaks to UK journalist Ginny Dougary in a worldwide exclusive about her boyfriend’s murder, her trial by the media and the intriguing events that followed.

Joanne Lees
Photo: Mark Harrison

Does the name Joanne Lees ring a bell?

And, if so, what does it toll for you? Do you need prodding to be reminded that she was the backpacker whose boyfriend, Peter Falconio, was murdered in the summer of 2001 when the young English couple were on “the trip of a lifetime” in the Australian Outback?

First, you may recall, she was treated as a victim who had been through a terrible ordeal, which she was fortunate enough to have survived.

Then, the very fact that she had survived, coupled with something else – and it is this “something” that continues to fascinate – tilted the axis, so that she came to experience the double horror of being viewed as a potential murderess.

“Murderess”… the taffeta-rustling, almost seductive sibilance of that word draws you in. Hasn’t Hollywood always played with the frisson of a woman whose glacial beauty masks her deadly instincts?

And in this story, which was all too real for those who were involved, it was an additional misfortune for Lees to be blessed with unusually good looks – would she have been quite so newsworthy if she had been plain? – and an equally rare quality of self-containment.

In December 2005, Bradley John Murdoch – a 47-year-old drug dealer – was found guilty by the Northern Territory Supreme Court of murdering 28-year-old Peter Falconio, and of attacking Ms Lees.

Case closed and, thereby, presumably Lees is vindicated and cleared of all doubt. Well, yes and no. Murdoch has always professed his innocence and was given permission to appeal against the murder conviction earlier this year.

After the verdict, an Australian journalist who had been covering the trial was approached by a British newspaper who wanted her to write a piece saying that an innocent man had been jailed.

(She declined.) Then came a slew of books – among the chiller-thriller titles: Bloodstain, Dead Centre, And Then the Darkness and Where’s Peter? – of which I have only read the last one (by Roger Maynard). And soon there will be a film, To Catch a Killer, an Anglo-Aussie TV co-production with a “reconstruction of the couple’s night-time abduction”.

Well, of course; what else in the era of “real CSI”? So perhaps it’s not all that surprising that Lees has finally decided to deliver her own account of her boyfriend’s murder – what she always refers to me as “the crime” – and her feelings about how she was treated by the police and the media in its protracted five-year aftermath.

Her book, for which she was reportedly paid £250,000 ($AU630,000), is called No Turning Back, and as she writes in the preface, it’s her way of reclaiming her life from all the other storytellers.

Those others, Lees believes, have sought to transform what was a horrible case of random bad luck into a sensational mystery – in which she continues to be cast as an enigmatic, if not slightly dubious, heroine.

Lees is by no means a media aficionado. This is the first print interview she has knowingly given (only a day or two after her trauma – for which, incidentally, she was offered no counselling – she felt she was trapped into talking to an Alice Springs journalist, who was a friend of the woman who had been entrusted by the police to look after her) and only the second time that she has been questioned in depth by a member of the press.

Her first experience was early on with Martin Bashir, the TV reporter, who famously interviewed Princess Diana and went on to skewer Michael Jackson.

While Lees was still in Australia, Bashir had been visiting and “befriending” her mother, Jennifer, who was too ill to travel; it was Lees’ stepfather, Vincent James, who flew out to support her. Mrs James died at the age of 54 from lupus, an autoimmune disease, a year after her daughter’s boyfriend was murdered.

Bashir got the interview he was after, for the price of £50,000 ($AU126,000), but the way it was handled made Lees even more suspicious of the media. She recognises that this suspicion is mutual; her reticence only served to agitate the curiosity of the press and, therefore, the public.

Well, I would have to say that her anxiety about this meeting may have been almost matched by mine. How often do you get to meet someone of whom you might even vaguely entertain the question: could you be capable of murder?

How strange is it to interview someone not only because of the intimacy of their connection with a murder victim but also because of their own subsequent demonisation? And there is also the rather unrealistic expectation that someone who has undergone such a large ordeal will somehow be elevated into a larger person – with all manner of instructive insights and wisdom.

She arrives on time, accompanied by her publisher’s publicist. While Lees disappears to the loo, the PR is anxious to know what I think of the book, and makes a point of mentioning that it is not ghost-written – which is, frankly, no surprise. This is the book’s strength (it reads like the absolutely authentic voice of a very ordinary young woman propelled into an extraordinary nightmarish scenario), but also its weakness in that there is nothing writerly or even profound about it.

The first thing you register about Lees are her dazzling looks. She is even prettier, in the flesh, than in all those snatched photographs. She gleams with lustrous good health: great teeth, a shiny swing of fashionably jagged long black hair and a radiant bright-blue gaze. She has a lovely figure and is wearing a wraparound dress that shows off all her curves and a hint of dècolletage.

Then there is her manner – immediately likable, with not a trace of the tricksy defensiveness or remoteness I had feared. Despite her head-turning appearance, there’s something appealingly modest about the way she carries herself.

She also has a slightly unworldly quality about her, which makes you feel that she’s younger than her years – she turned 33 on September 25.

Reading her book, there were times when I felt a surge of maternal empathy for her; despite or maybe because of her great wealth of supportive friends, both new and old (this in itself speaks well of her), there was a feeling of her being terribly alone and unprotected like a motherless child. And in our interview, this particular empathy – as a mother myself – occasionally resurfaced. But other thoughts also emerged, which made me understand why it had been so easy for Lees to be misunderstood.

At this point, perhaps, it is worth recapping what we know about the night of the murder. Falconio and Lees had been together for five years (although Lees did have a brief fling in Sydney, months before the murder, which was inevitably magnified in the trial) and were touring around the Northern Territory, on that carefree holiday of a lifetime, in their orange kombivan.

After their awestruck visit to Uluru, then the daftness of the Camel Cup race on the outskirts of Alice Springs, they stopped by the roadside to enjoy another spectacular sunset with their evening cocktail of preference, a toke or two on a joint, and, most awfully (you can’t read about this case without uselessly imploring them to stay put) made the decision to press on into the night, along one of those great tracts of empty highway that crosses Australia’s red-earthed heart.

Murdoch, a drug dealer who regularly used amphetamines to fuel his long-distance travels, was also driving along the same stretch of highway. He pulled up alongside the English couple, alerted them to a problem with their van’s exhaust – he said he had seen sparks flying.

Falconio thanked him for stopping, “Cheers, mate,” and asked Lees to stay in the van to rev the engine while the two men investigated the problem. That was the last time Lees saw her boyfriend. There was a loud explosion, and then Murdoch appeared at the window, pointed a silver gun at Lees’ face, and the nightmare began.

She was handcuffed and taped – Murdoch attempted but failed to seal her mouth – bundled into the back of his four-wheel-drive then left while he attended to the business of what we must presume was dealing with her boyfriend’s body, which has never been found.

She managed to escape through the back of the vehicle, ran into the bush and hid under a tree.

Murdoch, accompanied by his dog and a torch, went looking for Lees, but was unable to find her.

Around four hours later, she dared to emerge from her hiding place, having worked out, with admirable survivalist aplomb, that her safest bet was to flag down the traceable driver of a commercial road train, rather than a car, which might have exposed her to more danger.

Here is not the place to go into all the subsequent whys and wherefores that followed – and there’s a whole industry, as I mentioned, devoted to the various conspiracy theories that linger despite the guilty verdict. Reading both Roger Maynard’s book and Joanne Lees’, along with numerous cuttings of the case, questions remain unanswered – perhaps because they are unanswerable.

Without a doubt, what Lees had to endure – that is, if you can bring yourself to imagine the terror of the actual event – even immediately following her rescue was pretty unimaginable.

Scratched and shaken and terrified, Lees was driven by well-meaning truckies to a pub in the middle of nowhere, filled with an inebriated clientele celebrating New Year’s Eve, an eccentric local custom. The local police weren’t answering their phone, the less local police thought it was a prank call, and so the nightmare continued.

For three days, she was reduced to shuffling around in borrowed clothes and oversize shoes after the police had seized her belongings. The friends who had flown in to support her were advised to go home. The one police officer who tried to help her was reassigned for “getting too attached”.

Then came the slow dawning that while the police seemed unable to do their job efficiently, she had, horribly, become a suspect herself (it took three weeks, for instance, before they released the CCTV footage of Murdoch at a service station; vital evidence was not found for months and not stored following normal procedures).

Then the final heartbreak of losing her mother – only a year after Falconio’s death, at a time when she must have needed her most, before the murder had even been solved. As Lees says of that time, “I didn’t cope very well, I didn’t like my own company. I was juggling two jobs and going out all the time because I didn’t want to acknowledge what had happened and that I was alone… You never expect to lose your mum, do you?”

In her book, Lees describes her upbringing in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, thus: “For the first 11 years of my life, it was just me and my mum – we were a team. We didn’t have much money, but she worked hard to make sure I had a happy childhood. There were times when I would catch my mum sitting at the kitchen table crying, a pile of bills in front of her. I was only a child, but I would always try to make her feel better. Maybe that made me older than my years. I had always been very independent.”

Since I have never seen any mention anywhere of her birth father, I wonder if he is still alive. “I don’t need to talk about my father. I’m here to talk about my book. My mum brought me up. I never discuss it,” Lees says, quite evenly. I’m left feeling that it was a bit of a shitty question when, actually, I had not even considered it might be a no-go area. “No, that’s OK. That’s fine,” she says sweetly. “I’ve been honest and open in my book, but I didn’t go that far back.”

As for her independent nature, she says, “Since we didn’t have a lot of money, if I wanted something, I would go out and earn money to do that. I just think I’ve got a lot of get up and go, and if I want something done, I do it myself.” Was your mother a strong personality? “Um, yeah,” she says uncertainly.

When there’s been that tight bond for so long between an only child and a single parent, the child can have difficulty accepting a new adult in the equation. But Lees says she was happy when her mother married James: “I was pleased for my mum, and I got a little brother. And I had a dog and it completed our family. I think there was an image put forward by some people in the media that my life wasn’t good in my early years. But, yeah, it was all good. My life was fantastic and untouched by tragedy until I hit 27.”

Some time later, I tell her that even though she seems natural and warm, she still has a very particular air of self-possession and control, which also comes across in her book. “Oh, I’m not – I’m completely being myself,” she says. “I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m really emotional.” But that’s not really what we see, I say. “Well, I do in the company of my mates.” (There is one moment in the book when her guard comes down, and she displays a lightning flash of anger – which is as liberating for the reader as it must have been for the writer. This is when she sees Murdoch for the first time in court, and she writes: “The piece of s**t didn’t look at me.”)

I point out the number of times Lees mentions her reluctance to lean on other people. “Asking for help is something I rarely do,” she writes. “In the past, I found it difficult to ask for help… Perhaps it’s because I gained independence at an early age.” She says, “I can’t explain why. I just tend to do things by myself. Maybe it’s because I’ve been used to being a support worker and supporting others.”

It is clear to me that she is referring here to her work in Brighton, helping vulnerable adults with physical or mental disabilities. She returned to her old job at Thomas Cook after Falconio’s murder but left, partly because of the constant press attention. She had hoped to get a degree in social work, but had to keep deferring her university place because of the committal and then the trial in Australia.

But I also have a sense that her role as a carer goes way back, and those few words in her preface: “I was only a child but I always tried to make her (Joanne’s mother) feel better,” suggest as much. I ask her whether she was a support to her mother from a young age. “Yes,” she says, “and throughout her illness as well.” Her mother became stricken with lupus when Joanne was a teenager, and also had to endure rheumatoid arthritis.

This whole area of family struggles is not one Lees feels comfortable discussing, and you have to respect her wishes to preserve some privacy, particularly when she has had so much of it exposed and analysed. I think there may be a slightly old-fashioned thing going on here, too – to do with pride, grit, a resistance to showy emotion, keeping up a respectable front and so on. The people close to Lees all commented on how important it was for her not to break down in public.

But these were the very qualities – which some of us would consider admirable – that prompted the press to think she had something to hide, fuelling further speculation.

In Maynard’s book, for instance, he found it odd that Lees was not on the phone to her mother within hours of her escape. It’s possibly less odd if that daughter has grown up trying to protect her mother and knows that any kind of stress is likely to have calamitous consequences for a lupus sufferer.

In her statement, which was circulated at the end of the trial, Lees specifically drew attention to this (“My mother was very distressed with all the media coverage and the impact it had on her”). She did not need to mention the condition that led to her mother’s death, and only told me about it because I had mistakenly assumed it was cancer.

I was working on a newspaper at the time of the Lindy Chamberlain trial, the Seventh-Day Adventist whose baby, Azaria, vanished while the family were camping near Uluru. (The body was not discovered but Azaria’s matinee jacket was, five years later, and Chamberlain was released from prison.) This case has a bearing on Lees’ story in several respects. Firstly, it reminds you Australia is a vast continent in which bodies can simply disappear.

It is also worth recalling that Chamberlain, like Lees, was cool and reserved in her public appearances – in both cases, their demeanour was somehow interpreted as proof of their guilt. It should be stressed that Lees, unlike Chamberlain, was never officially considered to be a suspect – although she was certainly treated as one, both by the police and by certain sections of the press.

I wonder, knowing what she knows now, whether Lees would have handled things any differently. We go at this in various different ways, and she always arrives at the same conclusion – that however she had behaved, she would still have been condemned. At first, “I was in an isolated bubble, not really in the real world. My focus was on finding Peter and helping the investigation.

I wasn’t reading newspapers – I was trying to come to terms with what was happening in my life.”

And, then, more confidently: “Hindsight’s a great thing, isn’t it? If I’d known what I now know… But I didn’t have a media adviser and I wasn’t given any practical advice or support by the police. I was completely on my own, without friends or family. The friends that did come to support me were encouraged to leave by the police. There is no manual that comes with this – ‘Oh, you’re a victim of a violent crime? These are the rules of behaviour.’ You don’t get a rule book, do you? I was just a normal girl on the holiday of a lifetime with my boyfriend thrown into this nightmare – I’d been almost raped and murdered myself, and all I could focus on was finding Pete. And I’m a private and quite a shy person; I’m not an actress, I’m a support worker. Plus, you can never please everybody, can you? So all I can say is I was just being me and that’s the only thing you can ask anybody to be.”

We move on to the “Cheeky Monkey” top she wore at the press conference; the conference, itself, sparked more resentment from the press because of Lees only allowing three questions and fewer journalists.

I must confess to another maternal twinge at the complete lack of savviness wearing such a garment displayed; it illustrates, to me, what a naive young woman, despite being in her late 20s, she still was in many ways. She doesn’t see it like that: “I was backpacking. I had a rucksack full of sarongs and boardshorts. Everything I had was confiscated by the police; they gave me a few items. Could I go shopping in Alice Springs? I don’t think so.

“I didn’t have a white shirt then or a navy-blue skirt. (This was the anonymous uniform she wore for her court appearances years later.) I was just a traveller and I wore what I had on hand. And don’t you think I’d have been judged even more harshly if I was like, ‘OK, I’m doing a press conference and I want a white shirt and I want this and I want that?’ I feel I would have been damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I was in a no-win situation.”

It crosses my mind here that Lees may have a cussed refusal to be led where she doesn’t want to go, or pressured into conforming to other people’s expectations. Never mind being damned by others, she’s damned if she’ll be bullied into playing the game, even if she doesn’t know the precise rules of that game.

But in the book, she does suggest that she did learn how to handle herself a bit better in public. “It is a journey… I learnt not to give the press anything they could ‘interpret’. But they still did,” she laughs. “When they talked about my clothes now ‘lacking personality’ – but I was just, like… Well, that’s just what I wanted.”

So why did she agree to the Martin Bashir interview? “Out of desperation, really. I saw it as an appeal and I wanted to regenerate public interest; the police weren’t giving me updates and I heard they were reducing the taskforce. I felt I needed to do something. But then I was sat in the chair and Martin said (adopting a deep TV drama voice), ‘The question the nation wants to know…’ and it was ‘Did you kill Peter Falconio?’ And I was just, like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re going down this line of questioning.’”

Lees is determined to blank out the horrors of that night and, as an interviewer, it almost feels like an act of violence – it is certainly among the most uncomfortable experiences I have had as an interviewer – to coax her to revisit that territory.

However you frame your questions, it feels like a cross-examination – and, no, it absolutely does not help to tell yourself: “Well, she’s written a book about it, so what can she expect?” I can sense, I say a bit helplessly, that you don’t want to talk about the actual murder. “It’s just that it was a very difficult chapter to write and I’ve written it in my book and I don’t really want to revisit it, you know.” Does it feel like I’m cross-examining you? “No, not at all. But I have relived it in my book and the trial is over and I just don’t think it’s necessary.”

This exchange came on the back of my asking some questions about Murdoch’s motives. I can’t help wondering what provoked the drug dealer to kill Falconio. What was Murdoch doing making handcuffs and carrying them in his vehicle, if he didn’t plan a killing spree?

If he had got away with Lees’ murder, would he have gone on to become a serial killer? Or was he too out of his head to conform to the cold-blooded sociopath who has the resolve to follow through with his grand designs?

I didn’t put all these questions to Lees as there was no point. Her unwavering position is that she doesn’t know what made Murdoch kill her boyfriend and she doesn’t want to speculate. “I don’t want to think about what-ifs. There’s only one person who can answer that and that’s

‘Bradleyjohnmurdoch’.” She always refers to Murdoch in a great rush like this, as though she can hardly wait to distance herself even from his name. And if Murdoch was able to admit his guilt and explain why he did what he did, Lees still has absolutely no desire to confront him.

“I don’t give him a thought. I don’t want to.” Are you really able to expunge all trace of him from your head? “He consumed a lot of my life before he was arrested and then the committal and the trial and once that unanimous verdict was read and he was sentenced to 28 years… I don’t give him a thought.” I can’t quite believe you. “I’m moving forwards now. I’m not letting him ruin the rest of my life.”

Lees is clearly a remarkable person. How else can one explain the courage – which she says was “sheer terror” – that enabled her to escape from a situation in which, frankly, all the odds were stacked against her. It is this determination that she is now drawing on for her long-term survival.

And for this, she clearly needs to employ the same distancing techniques that kick in with a killer when he descends on his prey; Murdoch, to her, has become an “it”, “a s**t”, a “non-person” who deserves to be banished into oblivion.

Does she think Pete’s body will ever be found? She clears her throat, which Lees always does when she’s nervous, “Um, I don’t know. I’d love to be able to bring Pete home, to bring him back to England. But the sheer size of Australia makes it…

“During the trial, it was upsetting to hear the ballistics experts talking about where Pete may have been shot in the head. It was upsetting, because I don’t want to have that image in my mind of what he did to him. I’d just like to take Pete home. Do you understand? Having that image in your head… I’d rather not have that. I find different ways to remember Pete and celebrate his life and writing the book was one of those – having celebrations on a beach with my friends on his birthday and on July 14 (the date of the murder), we have a barbecue.”

In the aftermath of these tragedies, it seems woefully easy to forget that a living person has not only been robbed of their future but also of their past. The murdered person, too, is reduced to a non-person, a statistic. We may not know what makes Joanne Lees tick, but most of us have no idea at all what Peter Falconio was like.

So what was special about him? “It’s difficult to talk about Pete, especially to somebody I don’t know, but he was a great person and everybody liked him. He was very chilled about everything and I always felt safe and untouchable when I was with him. He also worked very hard and loved the construction industry. (The couple met at a disco in Huddersfield and Lees had moved down to Brighton where Falconio was doing a degree in building and construction management.)

We went on holiday a lot and, afterwards, we’d get our photographs and it would be a palace and a beautiful beach and then construction site, construction site… But that was his passion, you see.”

He was also a bit of a mummy’s boy – he was the youngest of three brothers – “and he loved his mum and was always phoning her up. The point is, you know, Pete was a person who had a life – and he always encouraged me to be the strongest person I could be and to fulfil my ambitions.”

The knives are still out for Lees. It’s all too easy for someone like her to become a victim, once again, of the competitive newsprint war, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her further condemned by other newspapers who may have lost out on the bid to buy her book. (As some Australian commentators highlighted at the time, Lees was (slammed) for accepting a fee for the Bashir interview by the very newspapers, in the UK, who routinely engage in the practice of cheque-book journalism.)

So let’s set the record straight, from Lees’ vantage point anyway: the Falconio family have always supported her and fully support this book. “They’re lovely and have given me photographs and kept ringing me up saying, ‘Do you want to put this in the book or that in the book?’ They’re pleased and they support me 100 per cent.”

The fact that she has been paid quite a lot (“It’s not about the money,” she says. “I’ve been offered more for a half-day interview, but I didn’t want a journalistic take on this book”) has never been an issue with the Falconio family. “They’re proud of me and they know that I’ve worked hard on it, so it’s not something that’s ever been raised.”

As for the fling – she had sex with a friend on two occasions; a close friendship that went further than perhaps it should have – really, who are we to pass judgment? The Falconio family forgave her when they had more reason than most to condemn her. What she says is: “I did love Pete with all my heart and when that happened I did overstep the boundaries of friendship but it made me, like, love Pete even more and value what we did have.”

Lees doesn’t know whether she would ever have told Pete about it: “That was one thing I struggled with. I don’t know the answer, and the thing is, all I can say is that was taken away from me, too, wasn’t it? All I wish was that Pete was still here and I could… Well, I wish he was still here more than anything.”

I use every trick in my ken to get Lees to tell me her plans for the bright new future and get nowhere. More writing, perhaps? A university degree? There’s no significant other, but she would love to have children at some point.

I’m a bit disappointed that she’s chosen to withdraw her complaint against the way she was handled by the Northern Territory police, since so many aspects seem unsatisfactory – but perhaps everything in her life to that point had taught her to appear more resilient than it was possible for anyone to be in those circumstances.

When we say goodbye, I can’t help but give her a hug and when we part there are tears in both our eyes. I say that it’s been a difficult interview and she says, in the natural way she has: “It’s because it’s such a personal story, and private and painful.” But her last words to me are these: “You know what? I’m a positive person, and when you look at what has happened to other people, I feel really blessed. Really, that’s what I think – ‘God, I’m lucky.’” And, in one major respect, you would have to agree.

* * *

Joanne Lees’ book No Turning Back: My Story (Hachette, $35) is in store October 5.

Bradley John Murdoch is due to appeal his sentence and conviction in court on December 12.

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