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The Disappearance of Peter Falconio and The Incredible Escape of Joanne Lees

Updated on May 18, 2016

In 2001, British couple Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees had been together for seven years. During this time they had worked hard and saved, even when friends were spending with frivolity, for an extended holiday in several countries. Such was the enormity of this trip that friends and family expected Peter would propose marriage to Joanne.

Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees
Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees | Source

By July 2001, Peter and Joanne had been vacationing in Western Australia for six months. After saying goodbye to their new friends, the couple left in their Volkswagon van for the next leg of their journey.

They would never make it.

On the night of July 14, 2001, Peter and Joanne were flagged down on the Stuart Highway which cuts through the Australian outback by a man in a Toyota utility truck who informed the couple he had witnessed problems with their exhaust.

According to Joanne, Peter exited the vehicle, cigarette in hand, to join the stranger at the rear of the vehicle to inspect the exhaust. It is then she says she heard a loud clang which sounded like a car backfiring or a gunshot.

The stranger then ordered Joanne from the car and he subsequently bound her hands behind her back. As he put her into his Ute, Joanne says she repeatedly asked about Peter and what his intentions were with her; all the while searching for an escape route.

Eventually Joanne was able to work herself through a small window into the rear portion of the vehicle and from there she was able to make an escape to freedom.

Joanne then stated she hid herself in some brush, curled up tightly, and pulled her clothing over her skin to keep it from being reflected in a flashlight beam. She was able stay hidden from the man and the red-heeler dog at his side, and remained in the brush for five hours when she finally felt he was gone and she could get help from the next passing vehicle.

A Barrow Creek, New South Wales couple stopped to help Joanne. Driving her to their home which also served as a hotel, they immediately contacted authorities.

Joanne would spend the next several days repeating her story of the stranger and her incredible escape.

Police, in the meantime, had returned to the scene where they found the couples’ van several kilometers down the road from where Joanne said the incident occurred and where the only evidence of Peter Falconio having ever been present soaked into the asphalt – a single bloodstain.

Peter was nowhere to be found. Police then called in Aboriginal trackers, known for their superb hunting centered on intense observation. After hours at the scene, the trackers saw no evidence that Peter had even exited a car, much less walked away from the area.

Additionally, according to the trackers, there was no signs of Joanne having hid in the brush for the length of time she claimed. This statement was based on the laying of grass and the mid-winter temperatures that would have resulted in hypothermia and/or frostbite for any human; especially taking into consideration the clothing worn by Joanne.

While it seemed odd that the would-be abductor, especially with a dog of such caliber at his side, was unable to find Joanne’s hiding place, police seemed to believe Joanne’s story and was intent on making an arrest.

Bradley John Murdoch

It was an open secret in Western Australia that Brad Murdoch was a drug-runner. His vehicle was designed for long travel, well stocked with survivalist items, he carried the latest in anti-detection equipment with him at all times, and he always had a loyal, well-trained dalmatian dog at his side. His job may have been criminal in nature, but he was very good at it.

Bradley John Murdoch
Bradley John Murdoch | Source

After hearing about the crime inflicted on the visiting couple, Brad knew he was going to become a prime suspect. First, he was a criminal. Secondly, the vehicle described by Joanne Lees was very similar to his.

According to Brad, in a panic, he requested a friend and auto body worker make some cosmetic changes to his ute. It wasn’t enough, however, and soon police were looking for Brad.

They seemed intent on blaming the attack on Brad Murdoch, despite Joanne’s descriptions pointing to the contrary. The more they talked with Joanne, and even presented pictures of Brad, her story began to mold into a perpetrator that described Brad to a tee. Even the red-heeler dog transformed into a dalmatian – a major point of contention among those who dispute Joanne’s story.

In 2003, Brad Murdoch was arrested and charged with the murder of Peter Falconio and deprivation of liberty and aggravated assault of Joanne Lees.

Secret Lovers and DNA

At a preliminary hearing, prosecutors claimed to have discovered DNA matching Murdoch on Joanne’s t-shirt and the van’s steering wheel. The samples were very small and the match percentages weren’t overwhelming, but prosecutors believed it was enough to prove Bradley Murdoch’s guilt.

Brad’s defense, in turn, exposed Joanne’s secret affair with a fellow Briton who had followed her to Sydney and continued the fling even on the couples’ holiday. Joanne, in email evidence presented to the Court, had even made plans to meet up with her lover in Berlin – the next portion of the couples’ travels.

Minimal DNA and a secret love affair which Joanne failed to tell police about and at first denied led many people to believe that Joanne played a role in Peter’s disappearance.

Could Peter Falconio Still Be Alive?

During the course of the investigation, police learned that, back in Britain, Peter Falconio had been fond of talking about numerous scenarios of someone faking their own death. While friends and co-workers found it strange, they never gave it much thought until his disappearance then they began to strongly consider that it just might be what actually occurred.

But what about the bloodstain on the highway? According to police, it was only about a pint of blood; not enough blood loss to be deadly.

Could Peter have decided to actually go through with a fake death plan? Had he learned of Joanne’s affair and decided no time like the present? The blood simply a first step in willfully disappearing?

No one knows for certain. And as of this writing, Peter Falconio has never been found.

No Body, No Crime?

Joanne’s multiple statements contained numerous, glaring inconsistencies. Her secret love affair had been thrust into the spotlight. The body of Peter Falconio had never been found. Only a small bloodstain matching his DNA had been found at the crime scene; so small that medical professionals declared it was not evidence of death or even serious injury.

But prosecutors had already accused Brad Murdoch and they intended to secure a conviction.

Presenting jurors with Brad’s criminal history (that did include some incidents of violence), the DNA results, and a blurry gas station video that placed Brad at location visited by the couple a few hours previously that same evening.

Apparently it was enough. The juror convicted Brad on all counts and sentenced to life imprisonment. As of 2007, all appeals have been exhausted. He must be serve a minimum of 28 years before being eligible for parole. At that time, he will be 74 years old.

Rumors and Innuendo

The disappearance of Peter Falconio and the conviction of Brad Murdoch is a source of much debate even today in Australia and Great Britain.

Is Peter Falconio still alive? Many believe so. Sightings have been reported from all over the globe; including Las Vegas, Mexico, and the Caribbean. There’s even a small group of people who’ve taken their opinions to Facebook.

On the other side of the aisle, it’s been rumored that Brad Murdoch has agreed to disclose the location of Peter’s body in exchange for a transfer from the harsh condition of the prison where he is currently housed to one of better reputation in Western Australia. Although these claims were made in 2007, as of this writing, nothing to such an effect has taken place.

Amid much criticism, Joanne Lees published a book of her own account in 2007 titled No Turning Back.

What Do You Think? Is Peter Falconio Alive?

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      Jez 3 months ago

      I can tell you now Mark, was his younger brother and my best friend from the age of about 7 to 11 before moving school separated us.

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      KEITH ALLAN NOBLE 16 months ago

      There is NO hard evidence that Peter Marco Falconio was killed in Australia in July 2001. The whole case involving his alleged killing was based on very weak circumstantial evidence. There is very suggestive evidence that his family (two parents and brothers Nicholas & Paul) in West Yorkshire know where he is. Why does the media in the UK refuse to ask the Falconios the following question and demand an answer from them in the form of an affidavit: "Have you or any member of your family had any direct of indirect contact with your son/brother Peter Marco Falconio since he disappeared in Australian in July 2001?" And who is Mark Falconio who the electoral role confirms has been living with the two parents Luciano and Joan? (Is Mark really Peter Marco?) For a free pdf copy of the book FIND! FALCONIO: Concealing Crimes in Northern Territory, Australia (2nd edition; 2012) email FINDFALCONIO@gmail.com