While few will fail to be impressed by the way Joanne Lees survived her ordeal in the middle of the Australian outback, her account of the attack does not address some of the key claims she made in the early days of the investigation.

More specifically she glosses over one of the crucial episodes — how she got from the cab of the gunman’s utility to the rear tray.

“He grabbed me and the next thing I knew I was in the back of his ute (utility truck),” she says in her book which provided a perfect opportunity to clear up any confusion.

It is one of many loose ends in Joanne’s evidence that continues to puzzle.

From the outset eyebrows had been raised about the standard of the police investigation and in particular the thoroughness of the search in the undergrowth at Barrow Creek where Joanne had hidden for several hours.

Superintendent Jeanette Kerr recounted how she stumbled across important evidence at the crime scene three months after the area was supposed to have been examined in detail immediately following the incident.

She told the committal hearing how she had been on an orientation visit to the spot when she decided to inspect the tree under which Joanne had concealed herself.

“I approached the tree and bent down to walk under the tree and as I bent down…I saw two pieces of black tape on the ground. I immediately believed they were the two pieces of black tape Ms Lees had described as biting off the manacles that she was restrained with,” she said.

Further discoveries were to follow. When crime scene examiner Ian Spilsbury, who was also nearby, looked under the tree he found a lip balm stick, corroborating Joanne’s earlier story that she used the balm to grease her wrists in an attempt to slide the handcuffs off.

This was an acutely embarrassing admission for the police. How could they have overlooked such crucial evidence when they combed the crime scene in July? What did it say about their search methods? And how did it reflect on the standard of the overall inquiry?

Other police forces in Australia were already joking about the investigative ability of their Northern Territory counterparts. Now it seemed the wisecracks might be well-founded.

Privately members of the Alice Springs task force assembled to investigate this most mysterious of murders had their own suspicions about Joanne’s account of what happened and were eager to grill her more closely.

Superintendent Kerr revealed how they were concerned about the number of apparent inconsistencies in Joanne’s story. She admitted there had been doubts about the gun and the vehicle allegedly involved in the attack, as well as Joanne¹s physical state and the lack of footprints at the scene of the crime.

The woman police officer admitted that no one could recall seeing a truck which allowed access to the rear tray from the front cab.

“Detectives made extensive enquiries with panel beaters and mechanics, but not a single vehicle matching that description would be located,” she said.

There was also concern about the description of the gun that Joanne had described as a revolver with scrolling on the side of the barrel and which had been strikingly similar to the pattern on the door of the couple’s campervan.

Then there was the apparent lack of injuries on Ms Lees’ body.

Had these concerns been raised with the doctor who attended her at the time, the defence lawyer wanted to know.

“Yes,” Superintendent Kerr replied.

Defence lawyer Grant Algie went on to ask about the electrical tape which was meant to have been around the victim’s ankles and which turned out to be only 70 cms long (about 27 inches), not enough to bind her lower legs.

And the length of time that Joanne had hidden in the bush.

“Did you tell her that police had obtained the opinion of Aboriginal trackers who said that nobody had stayed in that spot for anything like that length of time?” he enquired.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

There were similar concerns over the lack of a pursuer’s footprints and the absence of any marks on the roadside which might have indicated a body being dragged.

Then there were the doubts police had over Joanne’s ability to see and hear what was taking place outside while she sat in the Kombi van when Peter was attacked.

How could she have heard the conversation between her boyfriend and the gunman at the back of the campervan over the engine noise and how could she have seen anything from her position, as she had suggested in her original statement?

“And was it of concern that the dog she described in the attacker’s car was a dog of the same kind she’d seen at the Barrow Creek Hotel a few hours later?”

“Yes,” she again replied.

Superintendent Kerr also agreed the canvas bag which had reportedly been placed over the victim’s head had raised suspicions. The mail bag which hung inside the Barrow Creek roadhouse appeared to be similar.

In all there were as many as 12 perceived inconsistencies in Joanne Lees’ story.

While much of the pre-trial hearing concentrated on forensic evidence and statements from those close to the investigation, a different perspective was provided by David Stagg, the artist police used to transfer Joanne’s memory to paper.

Mr Stagg, who worked as an art teacher at the Charles Darwin secondary school in Alice Springs, had a diploma in fine art, painting and drawing, but little experience of working with the police.

He had been asked to help because the artist police normally used was on holiday.

Maybe because he was a novice and unfamilar with police routine, Mr Stagg immediately struck up a rapport with Joanne and tried to help her visualise the gunman and his vehicle.

The defence wondered whether the empathy might have got in the way of producing an accurate sketch.

“I tried to give alternatives,” the artist recounted.

Mr Stagg’s method was to ask Joanne questions and build up a series of sketches based on her answers. If something was not quite right he would remove it from the drawing. It was an exhaustive process.

First there was her description of the cab, which she originally claimed had an opening allowing her to crawl from the front to the rear tray but which was to disappear from later testimony.

Mr Stagg said she definitely told him she was forced into the back from the front.

“She made it quite clear from the outset there was an opening at the back which she was trying to access from the passenger seat,” he recalled.

Realising this was an area that might later be the subject of dispute, the defence pressed him further.

Grant Algie: “She told you how she was pushed from the cabin into the canopy area?”

Derek Stagg: “That’s correct.”

Then came another revelation that contradicted earlier claims.

After spending the previous three years insisting that she had brought her manacled hands from behind her back to the front of her body while hiding in the bush, it emerged that Joanne had told the police artist this manoeuvre had happened sometime earlier while she lay in the back of the gunman’s truck.

To ensure there was no confusion, Mr Algie queried: “And in the canopy she manoeuvred her hands from the back to the front?”

“Yes,” replied Mr Stagg.

“She was able to use her hands above and in front of her to try to feel the contour of the vehicle and that information allowed you to produce a drawing?” he pressed him further.

“Yes,” the artist said.

“She gave me the impression there were two parts of the canopy and she felt there was a circular area that could have been tied. That¹s what she was feeling for because she could not see anything,” he added.

David Stagg’s recall of that conversation was based on an interview that lasted from 10.20am to 6.40pm If there were areas of uncertainty during that period he would have been keen to clear them up in order to draw the best possible representation from Joanne’s memory of the experience.

So why did she give one impression to him and another to the police? The meeting with the artist came just five days after the attack, so it is reasonable to assume she still had a clear picture of the sequence of events in her mind’s eye.

How could she confuse the point at which she managed to get the handcuffs around to the front of her body? After all this was a crucial stage of her attempted abduction and it would be reasonable to assume she would remember exactly when it happened.

At the trial nearly 18 months later, Joanne again re-lived the nightmare, explaining in detail what happened after she was manacled by the gunman and pushed out of her campervan on to the ground.

Recalling the salty taste of blood in her mouth, she told how she lifted her head to protect her face from being scratched by the roadside grit.

With her hands tied behind her back, she also attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach out and grab her attacker’s testicles. He was so furious that he delivered a vicious punch to her right temple, momentarily stunning her, she said. (Significantly she had forgotten the blow when she was examined by a doctor in Alice Springs the following night).

Pulling her to her feet, he marched her towards his own vehicle, his hands guiding her shoulders and her eyes looking straight ahead. He reached into the canopy which covered the rear of his four-wheel-drive and produced the sack which he placed over her head.

Thankfully the hood fell off as she was pushed into the cab of the gunman’s four-wheel-drive, offering her a glimpse of the dog which she had seen earlier. It was “broad and chunky” with pointed ears and a “black or dark brown” coat with white patches.

Joanne’s recollection of what happened next produced even more questions.

She was about to recall the crucial stage of her transition from the front cab to the rear tray of the gunman’s vehicle, a process which had originally aroused such doubts about her story. None of Murdoch’s trucks had access points from the front to the rear, according to those who knew him or others who had worked on his vehicles, so there was intense interest in the detail of her account. As it transpired, those who had hoped the hearing would clear-up any lingering uncertainty about her earlier testimony, were to end up more confused than ever.

Joanne’s account of how she found herself in the back of the four-wheel-drive had varied since the attack happened. Earlier the police artist in Alice Springs, David Stagg, said she definitely told him she was pushed from the cabin into the canopy area and that there had been an opening behind the passenger seat. (Though curiously he changed his evidence during the trial).

This time she was less clear. Initially, she told Rex Wild that the man “somehow pushed me into the rear of his vehicle..maybe over some seats into the back.”

Meanwhile, Wild was keen to reinforce the point about her manacled hands.

He knew that David Stagg had told the committal proceedings that Joanne had said she was able to feel the curved contour of the canvas canopy, because she had already brought her hands round to the front of her body. The lawyer wanted to put the record straight in case the defence returned to the issue later. While the apparent contradiction might be viewed as relatively insignificant, why would Joanne confuse the timing of such an important stage of her abduction? Wouldn’t she have remembered precisely when it happened?

The puzzling manner in which Joanne gained access to the rear of the truck also continued to mystify.

For the benefit of the jury, David Stagg’s sketch of the gunman’s four-wheel-drive appeared on the courtroom screen. It showed what appeared to be a gap at the back of the cabin allowing entry to the rear tray.

Returning to the issue for the second time, Rex Wild was determined to settle the matter once and for all.

“How did you get from the front to the back?” he asked.

“I don’t know exactly because I didn¹t put myself in the back. I was put (there) by the man. He grabbed me and put me in the back. I am not sure whether from the front cabin into the back or around the side.”

If the prosecuting lawyer had hoped to resolve the ongoing uncertainty he was to be disappointed. Once again Joanne Lees appeared to have moved the goalposts. Not once over the previous four years had she alluded to the possibility that she might have accessed the back of the truck from the side. So what had happened to change her mind?

The Judge, mindful of the subtle change in testimony, endeavoured to get to the bottom of it.

“Did you tell the artist you had gone from the front to the rear (of the vehicle) inside?”

“Yes,” she confirmed.

“(But) now you are not sure whether you came around from the outside. Has anything happened to cause you to doubt the reliability of your initial recollection?”

While those in court might have thought she was cornered, Joanne had her explanation at the ready.

She told the Judge how she might have somehow got confused with the front-to-rear access in the Kombi van.

“I have had time to reflect on my initial statement and I remember landing in the rear of the vehicle on my stomach, it’s possible he may have pushed me through the side of the canvas,” she explained.

It was enough to satisfy Chief Justice Brian Martin who let the matter rest as the clock approached 4.30 p.m.

Ultimately it also satisfied the jury.

Peter Fray

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