Numerous Australian tourists arrive at Korčula Island each year, and often they find themselves in utter shock when they find out that one of the most common surnames on the island is – Milat. They know of that surname, as Ivan Milat was the worst serial killer in Australian history.
His killing spree happened in the late eighties and early nineties, way before the internet, and during the most difficult period in the recent Croatian history, the Homeland War, so probably not many people in Croatia followed the story of the so-called “Backpacker Murders” in Australia. Seven young backpackers who were hitchhiking in New South Wales, near the highway between Sydney and Melbourne, disappeared between 1989 and 1992. Their bodies were subsequently found in the Belanglo State Forest. The victims were Deborah Everist (19) and James Gibson (19), an Australian couple, Simone Schmidl (21), Gabor Neugebauer (21), and Anja Habschied (20) from Germany and British backpackers Caroline Clarke (21) and Joanne Walters (22). The search for their killer, as it was soon determined it was probably the same killer, was the most extensive criminal investigation in Australian history.
Ivan Milat has, as his first and last names clearly suggest, Croatian heritage. His father, Stjepan Marko Milat (who went by “Stephen” in Australia), was born in Croatia, and while there are no official records of where he was originally from, some conclusions can be drawn. The name is still commonplace in and around Korčula, especially in the village of Žrnovo, and some of the people with the same last name from Žrnovo told me that Stjepan was a distant relative, who moved to Australia in the twenties of the previous century. That was the era of extensive emigration for the people from the Croatian islands, and many young people left never to return because of many economic factors.
Ivan was one of 14 children Stjepan had with his wife Margaret Elizabeth Piddleston and was the fifth-born child. Many of his siblings had numerous run-ins with the police for various delinquencies and crimes, and Ivan wasn’t different, being in multiple facilities aimed at helping him fix his behavior since he was 13. None of that helped, as he was arrested in ’71 with charges of kidnapping of two hitchhikers, but never convicted of it.
The investigation into the Belanglo Park murder rather quickly zeroed-in on Milat, and even during the earliest stages, some people suspected that there was more than one person involved, based on some evidence and criminal profiles made. FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (the well-known “profilers“) who helped the Australian authorities during inquest didn’t believe so, as they concluded that there was only one perpetrator.
Ivan Milat was arrested at his home on May 22nd, 1994, after he was identified by a young man who managed to escape abduction in 1990, which was quite similar to the circumstances in which the other backpackers disappeared.
Ivan Milat never confessed to anything. He kept maintaining his innocence even after some of the personal belongings of the killed backpackers were found in his house, and at some other properties belonging to the Milat family members. At his trial, Milat’s defense was that one of his brothers was the culprit and that they (Richard or Walter) tried to frame their brother for the killings*. Richard and Walter adamantly denied those claims but maintained their certainty that their brother was not the cold-blooded murderer.
In the end, the jury found Ivan Milat guilty of all seven murders and the attempt of abduction mentioned before. He was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Some members of his family have maintained in staunch support of their brother, including the matriarch Margaret (the Croatian father Stjepan passed away in 1983), while the others have accepted that their brother is a murderer. His brothers Richard and Walter were prosecuted for illegal weapons; however, none of them was ever officially linked to the murders.
After more than 25 years behind bars, Ivan Milat died in prison of esophageal cancer on October 27th, 2019, aged 74. He never admitted his guilt to any of the murders and claimed he knew nothing about similar crimes that happened around the same time in areas where he was known to have been.
If you want to find out more about the case, I recommend the Casefile podcast series about it. Just note that, while the host is pronouncing the killer’s name the same way most Australians do, that’s not how we’d say it in Croatia. Ivan would be pronounced just like the world has learned to pronounce Ivan Lendl, and Milat would be quite similar to this: https://forvo.com/word/milat/
* – a factoid that people familiar with Korčula will find fascinating: the prosecutor in Milat’s trial was Mike Tedeschi, which is also a very prominent last name on Korčula (no confirmation of any links to the island, and is more probably an Italian Tedeschi)