FOR the first time, Joanne Lees breaks her silence on the murder of her boyfriend, her mistakes and her future.
The Times, London, 2006
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 ofbeing viewed as a potential murderess. Murderess ... the taffeta-rustling, almost seductive sibilance of that word draws you in. Hasnt 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 JohnMurdoch, a 47-year-old drug dealer, was found guilty by the Northern TerritorySupreme Court of murdering 28-year-old Peter Falconio, and of attacking Ms Lees. Case closed and, thereby, presumably Joanne 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 which 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 Wheres 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 couples night-time abduction. Well, of course, what else in the era of real CSI? So perhaps its not all that surprising that Joanne Lees has finally decided to deliver her own account of her boyfriends 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 ($630,000), is called No Turning Back, and as she writes in the preface, it is her way of reclaiming her life from all the other storytellers. For 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 Joannes 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 daughters boyfriend was murdered. Bashir got the interview he was after for the price of 50,000 ($126,000) 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 publishers publicity person. 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 books 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 things 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 which shows off all her curves and a hint of decolletage. Then there is her manner immediately likeable, with not a trace of the tricksy defensiveness or remoteness I had feared. Despite her head-turning appearance, there is something appealingly modest about the way she carries herself. She also has a slightly unworldly quality about her which makes you feel shes younger than her years she turned 33 on Monday. 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 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 Kombi van.
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 cannot 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 which cross Australias red-earthed heart. Bradley John 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 vans 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 her face, and the nightmare began. She was handcuffed and taped Murdoch attempted but failed to seal her mouth bundled her into the back of his four-wheel-drive and left her while he attended to the business of what we must presume is dealing with her boyfriends 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 finally 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 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 which followed and theres a whole industry, as I mentioned, devoted to the various conspiracy theories which linger despite the guilty verdict. (Murdoch is a man, it must be said, who even by the most low-life depths had violent form but thats another story.)
Reading both Roger Maynards book and Joanne Leess, along with numerous cuttings of the case, there are questions that remain unanswered; perhaps because they are unanswerable. But, 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 her well-meaning truckies to a pub in the middle of nowhere, filled with an inebriated clientele celebrating New Years Eve, an eccentric local custom, in the height of summer. The local police werent 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 oversized 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; 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); and the final heartbreak of losing her mother only a year after Peters 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 didnt cope very well, I didnt like my own company. I was juggling two jobs and going out all the time because I didnt 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. My mum was everything to me and we were a team. We didnt 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 spread out 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, but it was just how things were. Because for so many years it had been my mum and me, and she was working to keep us both, I had always been very independent. Since I had never seen any mention anywhere of her birth father, I wondered if he were still alive. I dont need to talk about my father, Lees says, quite evenly. Im here to talk about my book. My mum brought me up. I never discuss it. Im 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. Ive been honest and open in my book, but I didnt go that far back.
As for her independent nature, she says: Since we didnt have a lot of money, if I wanted something I would go out and earn money to do that. I just think Ive 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 theres 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 Vincent: I was pleased for my mum and I got a little brother, quite soon. And I had a dog and it kind of completed our family. I think there was an image put forward by some people in the media that my life wasnt 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, Im not Im completely being myself, she says. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Im really emotional. But thats 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 shit didnt 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, and not many pages later: In the past, I found it difficult to ask for help perhaps its simply because I gained independence at an early age and got used to doing things for myself. She says: I cant explain why. I just tend to do things by myself. Maybe its because Ive been used to being a support worker and supporting others. It was clear to me she was 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 Falconios 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 had a sense her role as a carer went way back, and those few words in her preface: I was only a child but I always tried to make her (Joannes mother) feel better suggested as much.
I ask her whether she was a supporter 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 the daily pain of living with 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 in her life, particularly when she has had so much of it exposed and analysed. I think there may be a slightly old-fashioned, northern England 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 who were 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 Maynards book, for instance, he found it odd that Lees was not on the phone to her mother within hours of her escape. Its 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 mothers death, and only told me about it because I had mistakenly assumed it was cancer. I was working on a newspaper in Australia at the time of the Lindy Chamberlain trial. This case has a bearing on Joanne Leess story in several respects. Firstly, it reminds you that Australia is a vast continent in which bodies can just simply disappear. (Before meeting Lees, I tried but couldnt bear to watch the Australian horror film Wolf Creek, apparently inspired by a true story about murdered English backpackers in the bush, but did note the opening credit which stated there are a significant number of unsolved disappearances in Australia, where the bodies have never been found.)
It is also worth recalling Chamberlain, like Lees, was cool and reserved in her public appearances and, in both cases, theirdemeanour 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 treated as one, both by the police on oneoccasion 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 notreally in the real world ... my focus was on finding Peter and helping the investigation, she says. I wasnt reading newspapers I was just trying to come to terms with what was happening in my life. And, anyway, I dont really read newspapers, to be honest. And, then, more confidently: Hindsights a great thing, isnt it? If Id known what I now know ... but I didnt have a media adviser and I wasnt 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 (reading this in the book also made my blood boil). There is no manual that comes with this Oh, youre a victim of a violent crime? These are the rules of behaviour. You dont 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 Id been almost raped and murdered myself, and all I could focus on was finding Pete. And Im a private and quite a shy person; Im not an actress, Im a support worker. Plus, you can never please everybody, can you? So all I can say is I was just being me and thats the only thing you can ask anybody to be. We move on to the Cheeky Monkey vest 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 twenties, she still was in many ways. She doesnt see it like that: I was backpacking. I had a rucksack full of sarongs and boardshorts and vests. Everything I had was confiscated by the police; they only gave me a few items. Could I go shopping down Alice Springs high street? I dont think so. (Very teenage this; along with her likes and upward-tilting okay-eeees and drawn-out righ-iggggts.) I didnt have a white shirt then or a navy-blue skirt. (The anonymous uniform she wore for her court appearances, five years later.) I was just a traveller and I wore what I had to hand. And dont you think Id have been judged even more harshly if I was, like, OK, Im 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 didnt. I was in a no-win situation. It crosses my mind here that Lees may have another northern trait, which is a sort of cussed refusal to be led where she doesnt want to go, or pressured into conforming to other peoples expectations of how she should behave. Never mind being damned by others, shes damned if shell be bullied into playing the game, even if she doesnt know the preciserules of that game. But in the book, she does suggest she did learn how to handle herself a bit better in public. And thats the good thing about my book, she says. It is a journey and on that journey I became wiser with the media and thats just a process from being in the media.At the time, I hadnt given it any thought. I believed what I read in the newspapers when I was 27.
You 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, thats just what I wanted. It was also her refusal to give interviews which she was consistently offered huge sums of money to do which did for her. Somebody showed me an article where an editor (the news editor of an English newspaper) had said (to his correspondent), Oh, so she wont give us an interview? Right, lets get the bitch.
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 werent giving me updates and I heard they were reducing the taskforce and I felt I needed to do something, and it seemed like the best option at the time. As I said in my book, he (Bashir) had visited my mother and completely charmed her, and she encouraged me to do it, and thats all I thought it was going to be an appeal. Then I was sat in the chair and Martin Bashir said (adopting a deep TV drama voice): The question the nation all wants to know and it was Did you kill Peter Falconio? And I was just, like, Oh my God, I cant believe youre going down this line of questioning. Lees can be a slightly frustrating interviewee perhaps because of her desire to make something of a blank canvas of herself; that habit of not delivering any detail, however seemingly innocuous, that may allow us to read something into it. She is unable, for instance, to mention a single film that she has enjoyed, although she has never liked to watch horror movies. In No Turning Back, she explains how much she has always loved reading and this is one of the reasons she chose to work in a bookshop in Sydney. (In the trial, a great deal was made of the fact she had read a Maggie OFarrell novel in which the main character had lost her partner.) Since literature can be a great comfort in bad times, I wonder whether she had drawn solace from any particular books. She says that while she has been putting my heart and soul into writing my book, she hasnt really wanted to read anyone else, and after the crime happened she was particularly selective. Self-protective? Yes, and so were my friends, she says. They bought me Harry Potter and things like that, and a colleague gave me a book of quotes which I found helpful.
At a deeper level, Lees is determined to blank out the horrors of that night and, as an interviewer, it almost feels like an actof violence 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, shes written a book about it, so what can she expect? I can sense, I say a bit helplessly, that you dont want to talk about the actual murder. Its just that it was a very difficult chapter to write and Ive written it in my book and I dont really want to revisit it, you know. Does it feel like Im cross-examining you? No, not at all. But I have relived it in my book and the trial is over and I just dont think its necessary. This exchange came on the back of me asking some questions about Murdochs motives. I cannot help wondering what actually provoked the drug dealer to kill Falconio. What was Murdoch doing making handcuffs and carrying them in his vehicle, if he didnt plan a killing spree? If he had got away with Joanne Leess murder, would he have gone on to become a serial killer?
Was he too out of his head on speed and dope to conform to the cold-blooded stereotypical sociopath who has the resolve to follow through with his grand designs? I couldnt find anywhere in the summing up, any hypothesisof what was the likely turn of events which ended so tragically. I didnt put all these questions to Lees as there was no point. Her unwavering position is that she doesnt know what madeMurdoch kill her boyfriend and she doesnt want to speculate. I dont want to think about the what-ifs, she says. Theres only one person whocan answer that and thats Bradley JohnMurdoch. She always refers to Murdoch in a great rush, 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 dont give him a thought. I dont 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 he was sentenced to 28 years, she says. I dont give him a thought. I cant quite believe you. Im moving forwards now. Im not letting him ruin the rest of my life. Lees is clearly a determined and 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 cussed quality which 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 shit, a non-person who deserves to be banished into oblivion. Does she think Petes body will ever be found? She clears her throat, which she does when shes nervous. Um. I dont know, she says. Id 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 dont want to have that image in my mind of what he did to him. Id just like to take Pete home. Do you understand? I dont know if youre married or whatever, but if someone you loved with all your heart ... having that image in your head of them being shot, Id rather not have that.
I find different ways to remember Pete and celebrate his life, and writing the book was one of those and having celebrations on a beach with my friends on his birthday and on July 14 (the date of the murder) we have a barbecue and things like that. In the aftermath of these tragedies, it seems woefully easy to forget that, however much the loved ones of the deceased are left to struggle in the wake, 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, a body that has not been found. We may not know what makes Joanne Lees tick despite her book but most of us have no idea at all what Peter Falconio was like. So what was special about him? Its difficult to talk about Pete, especially to somebody I dont 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, very hard and he loved the construction industry. (The couple had met in a disco in Huddersfield and Lees had moved to Brighton where Falconio was doing a degree in building and construction management.)
We went on holiday a lot because of my job with Thomas Cook and afterwards wed get our photographs and it would be a palace and a beautiful beach and then construction site ... construction site ... why-eee? But that was his passion, you see. She remembers one occasion, on a boat ride in the Canary Islands, the sea was choppy and she spent the next two hours throwing up in the loo. Not wishing to draw attention to herself, Lees waited until everyone had disembarked before emerging, only to find that Pete had made friends with everyone.
So theyre all lined up, saying, Are you all right, darling? and Poor you! and hes only gone and invited them all back to our apartment for a party. That was totally him and I was, Oh, noooohhh, Im so embarrassed. He was also a bit of a mummys boy perhaps because he was the youngest of three brothers and he loved his mum and was always phoning her up. And that was another thing. Whenever we bought anything, hed be like, Weve got to have an Olympus camera and Id be, like why-ee? and hed say, Cos my mums got an Olympus camera. Hed be a bit like that. 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 Joanne Lees. Its all too easy for someone like her to become a victim, once again, of the competitive newsprint war and I wouldnt be at all surprised to see her further condemned by other newspapers which may have lost out on the bid to buy her book: Right! Lets get the bitch! (As some of the Australian commentators highlighted at the time, Lees was shafted foraccepting a fee for the Bashir interview by the very newspapers, in the UK, which routinely engage in the practice of chequebook journalism.) So lets set the record straight, from Leess vantage point, anyway the Falconio family have always supported her and fully support this book: Theyre 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? Theyre really pleased and they support me 100 per cent. The fact that she has been paid quite a lot its not about the money, she says, Ive been offered more for a half-day interview has never been an issue with the Falconio family. Theyre proud of me and they know that Ive worked hard on it, so its not something thats 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 doesnt know whether she would ever have told Pete about it: That was one thing I struggled with. I dont know the answer, and the thing is, all I can say is that was taken away from me, too, wasnt it? All I wish was that Pete was still here and I could ... well, I wish he was still here more than anything. I used every trick in my ken to get Lees to tell me her plans for the bright new future which she is set upon pursuing, and got absolutely nowhere. More writing, perhaps? A university degree, perhaps? Sydney or Huddersfield or Brighton? Who knows? There is no significant other, but she would love to have children at some point, yes. Im a bit disappointed she has chosen to withdraw her complaint against the way she was handled by the Northern Territory police, since so many aspects seem deeply 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 uniquely horrible circumstances. When we say goodbye I cannot help but give her a hug and when we part there are tears in both our eyes. I say that it has been a very difficult interview and she says, in the natural way she has of reassuring others: Its because its such a personal story, I think, and private and painful. But her last words to me are these: You know what, Im a really positive person and when you look at what has happened to other people, I feel really blessed. Really, thats what I think God, Im lucky.
And, in one major respect, at least, you would have to agree.