In July 2001 Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio were aged 28 and 27 years respectively. They met in 1996 and had lived together since August 1997. Following Falconio's graduation from university in 2000, he and Lees embarked on a world trip together. In the course of the trip they came to Australia on a working holiday, arriving in Sydney in January 2001. They remained in that city for several months and, whilst there, purchased an orange Kombi van.
On 25 June 2001 they left Sydney in the van, with the intention of travelling through Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Alice Springs and then to Darwin. They intended then to go to Cairns, Brisbane and New Zealand, although, at some point, Falconio planned to go to New Guinea on an adventure trip, whilst Ms Lees remained in Sydney. The couple arrived in Alice Springs on 11 July 2001. On 14 July 2001 after attending the Camel Cup, they left Alice Springs in the van. They went north on the Stuart Highway towards Barrow Creek. They stopped at Ti Tree to watch the sunset.
Ms Lees said that at some point shortly after passing through Barrow Creek about 8pm when it was dark, they became aware that another vehicle was following the van. That vehicle (a white 4-wheel drive utility fitted with a bull bar) pulled alongside the van. Its interior light was switched on. It was driven by a man wearing a black baseball cap with a motif on it and a long sleeve shirt with what appeared to be a T-shirt under it. He appeared to have a Mexican moustache that drooped down past the sides of his mouth. A dog was also seen to be sitting on the passenger seat of the utility.
The driver of the other vehicle gestured to them to pull over and pointed to the back of the van. Falconio stopped the van with its nearside wheels on the gravel verge and its offside wheels on the bitumen. The utility pulled up somewhere behind it. Falconio got out and went to the rear, whilst Lees slid over into the driver's seat to get a better view of what was going on. The other driver had got out of his vehicle and was speaking with Falconio near the rear of the van. Because the driver's door had not been fully closed when Falconio left the vehicle, its interior light had come on and stayed on.
Lees heard some discussion between the 2 men concerning sparks coming from the exhaust, following which Falconio came back to the driver's door of the van, collected his cigarettes and asked Lees to rev up the engine, which was still running. She did so a number of times following Falconio’s return to the rear of the vehicle. As she did so, she heard a sound like a vehicle backfiring. A man she later identified as the accused and the driver of the 4-wheel drive utility then came to the driver's door of the van holding a silver revolver in his right hand.
He told her to turn off the engine. She tried to do so, but was shaking too much. He partly entered the vehicle as she backed away from him and he turned off the ignition. He told her twice to put her head down and her hands behind her back, pointing a gun at her right temple. She eventually complied and the man tied her wrists together. He placed some sort of cuff quite tightly on each wrist with the two cuffs joined about 3 or 4 inches apart. It transpired that she had been manacled with handcuffs made of tape and cable ties.
Although she could not remember precisely how, Lees said that she was somehow taken out of the van through the passenger side door and forced to the ground onto her knees. The man straddled her, facing her legs. He then lifted her legs and attempted to tie them together. Her head was facing the bush and her feet were towards the van. Lees struggled and the man was unable to tie her legs, although there was some tape around them. He punched her on the right temple, partly stunning her. He lifted her up, standing behind her and holding her at the base of the neck. She screamed out to Falconio to help her, but there was no response.
The man forced Lees over to the utility and tried to put tape across her mouth. She resisted, continuing to call for help. He was unsuccessful in taping her mouth. He lifted up the corner of the canvas canopy to his vehicle behind the passenger's door and pulled out a sack, which he put over her head for a short time. She was pushed backwards into the passenger seat area of the utility and saw the dog then sitting on the driver's seat. She described the animal as being of medium build, chunky and a patchy black or dark brown and white colouring. At that point, the bag had been removed from her head, the interior light was on in the vehicle and she saw the man's face from a distance of only about 18 inches.
Lees said that she eventually found herself in the rear of the utility. Initially she thought that this might have been by means of moving through a gap between the front 2 seats. Later, she said that it was possible that her assailant had pushed her through the side canvas canopy. She was clear that she did not walk around to the rear of the vehicle and get in from there. She was initially on her stomach, but turned over. She asked the man why he was doing this. "Did he want money?" "Did he want to rape her?" He told her to shut up or he would shoot her. The man went away for a short time and Lees heard a noise like gravel scraping, as if something was being moved. She sat up with her hands still tied behind her back. She eased her body towards the rear of the vehicle, hung her legs over the back of the tray, got to the ground and then ran into the bush.
She said that she ran slightly to the right from the near side of the vehicle and the bush got thicker as she went. It was rough going and she tended to stumble. It was pitch black. She could hear the man somewhere behind her. She hid in the scrub, crouching under some bushes. She heard the man moving about and, at one stage, saw some torchlight. After a time, Lees heard vehicle doors opening and closing and an engine start up. She saw vehicle headlights turned on. She then heard a vehicle move off, she thought, in a southerly direction. She remained where she was and, after a time, once more heard a crunching noise of a person moving about.
Lees became aware of a noise of vehicle doors and then of something being dragged. There was a noise of a vehicle door closing and an engine being started. A vehicle then drove off to the south. She remained in the bush for what she thought was some hours. At the point when the second vehicle was being driven off, Ms Lees managed to pass her legs through between her hands and bring her still manacled hands to the front of her body. She tried to rid herself of the manacles by attempting to bite through the bonds joining them, but was unsuccessful in doing so. She managed to get some lip balm out of a pocket of her board shorts. She bit the top off and spat it out and then rubbed the balm on the wrist bands. However, she was still unable to remove them. The lip balm tube fell to the ground.
Lees eventually moved back to the road. It was still pitch black. She crossed to the far side of the road and collapsed in some long grass. She decided to wait for a road train and first allowed a car to pass without moving. She feared that her assailant might return in such a vehicle. When she saw a road train approaching, she ran out on to the road in front of it with her hands in front and then off the road again when it looked as if the vehicle might not stop. It did, however, stop after it had passed her and she ran after it and made contact with the driver, showing him her manacled hands. The driver proved to be the witness Mr Millar, who had another person, Mr Adams, with him.
Lees briefly told Millar what had happened and asked for assistance in removing her manacles and finding her boyfriend. The men in the road train cut off her cable ties and placed them in a toolbox. Tape was also removed from her legs and from her hair. Millar and Adams disconnected the trailers from the prime mover and then used it, with its headlights on, to search the area. The van, the utility and Falconio were not found. The trailers were again attached to the prime mover. Lees was driven to Barrow Creek, arriving around 2 am.
There was a party at the Barrow Creek Hotel and Millar went inside to notify the police. Adams stayed in the cab with Lees, attending to her injuries with a first-aid kit. She was then taken into the hotel and looked after, while the police were contacted. She eventually lay down on a bed in a bedroom. Millar's report of the incident was received by Alice Springs police at 2am. Police arrived at Barrow Creek at about 4:20 am and were taken by Millar to where he had picked up Lees. She was taken to Alice Springs and received medical treatment.
Lees described her assailant to the police as being a tall man “45 +” years of age. She said that he had a “long and ovalish face with deep set eyes, sunken cheeks and scraggly hair coming out from under a black baseball cap. There was a lot of grey in his collar length hair and he had grey flecks in his eyebrows and moustache which was Mexican style, drooped at the ends. His eyes were drooping and his face was very lined. He wore a check pattern shirt with a dark T-shirt under it, and heavy duty trousers, possibly jeans. She remained in Alice Springs for some weeks to assist the police.