EXCLUSIVE: In time, Rick O’Brien would go on to become a much-loved teacher at some of Sydney’s best schools but in the summer of 1976 he was just a young surfie with a mullet looking for a ride out of the city. The man with the moustache who offered him a lift seemed like a nice guy. Less than an hour later though, Rick was left running for his life.
For the very first time, Rick shares the story of his spine-tingling close encounter with notorious serial killer Ivan Milat. Vedanshi Bhalodia reports.
It was the middle of the decade and the summer of 1976. Back then, Rick O’Brien was like many other young fellas; a bloke with a mullet seeking out some fun and adventure. Years later he would go on to become a highly respected award-winning teacher at some of Sydney’s best schools and have a family of his own.
But almost 50 years ago, he was a 22-year-old thumbing his way in Western Sydney waiting for a ride on the Hume Highway, hoping to get to faraway Cooma in the state’s Snowy Mountains. It was at that point when a friendly stranger stopped and offered him a lift. Rick was only too happy to get in to the front passenger side of the car. The vagaries of time have Rick not being able to quite recall whether the vehicle was a sedan or small ute.
The driver though wore a moustache and had “side levers” on his face, Rick remembers decades later when talking with True Crime News Weekly.
Not long after Rick got in, the driver pulled out a stash of “straight porno magazines” and threw them on the seat and said, “Have a look through these.”
As Rick was processing this, the driver then said he was going to pull over at a nearby pub’s bottle-o to get a six pack of beers. After returning to the car with his purchases, the driver offered Rick a beer. And then promptly asked, “What do you think of the mags?”
Rick did his best to play off the question nonchalantly. “Nothing startling,” he remembers saying.
As the ride down the highway continued, and two beers down, Rick was oblivious to the evil intentions of this odd yet seemingly harmless man who offered him a ride on a sunny day. The driver happened to be none other than one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers. A murderer who preyed on hitchhikers specifically. It was Ivan Milat.
Without warning, Milat left the highway and soon after stopped driving. He had abruptly parked his vehicle by a quiet road, saying that he had to get something from his ‘home’.
That’s when Rick got a very eerie feeling.
“It just freaked me out a little bit, he was giving me the creeps, you know,” Rick explains all these years later.
Rick found it a very strange decision as Milat never mentioned making a stop at his home during the ride. He told True Crime News Weekly: “There was no real reason for him to go home. He hadn’t mentioned it at that point till we got to the gate … That’s when I thought I am out of here”.
He felt it in his bones that something was amiss and that this was his only chance to run. His intuition screamed trouble and fortunately, he listened to it.
Before the age of 40, Ivan Milat is known to have abducted and raped four women, claimed to have shot a taxi driver “accidentally”, burnt his ex-wife’s house to the ground and had committed many more transgressions. Getting away with all these crimes early in his life gave him the confidence that he could perhaps never be caught.
This growing sense of power would eventually lead to his killing spree of backpackers that still plagues the Belanglo State Forest and casts a shadow across Australia. Seven bodies were discovered in the 1990s in the national parks south of Sydney, while about 20 more unsolved murders spanning back to the 1970s point toward Milat. Whether victims were shot multiple times, decapitated, or brutally stabbed, one thing was for sure, Milat wanted them to suffer in ways only a psychopath could even begin to imagine.
But the question has remained for a while now: Had Ivan Milat been perfecting and practising his plan of raping and murdering hitchhikers on the highways leading out of Sydney long before the crimes he became notorious for in the 1990s?
It is interesting to contrast Rick’s tale to that of British backpacker, Paul Onions, another man who survived and escaped an horrific encounter with Milat after being picked up along the Hume Highway. Onions’ encounter with Milat was in 1990, while Rick had his meeting with the serial killer almost 15 years prior. Whilst Milat made a stop at a house claiming to Rick he had to get something, probably a gun and a rope, he readily fished these out from under his seat during his encounter with Paul Onions a decade-and-a-half later.
Is it possible that Rick escaping was one of the experiences that made Milat sharpen his skills for murder? It is on record that in 1971 Milat picked up two female hitchhikers, raped one of them, before they escaped when Milat stopped at a petrol station. Wanted over the crimes, Milat faked his own death and escaped to New Zealand for two years before returning to Australia in 1974. Eventually facing trial over the rapes, Milat beat the charges with the help of controversial lawyer and accused paedophile, John Marsden.
In 1977, Milat then abducted two more female hitchhikers – who like Rick just a few months prior – he picked up off the Hume Highway while they were travelling from Liverpool in Sydney’s west to Canberra. The pair were lucky not be murdered. The women only told police of their ordeal in 1993 when the hunt for the killer responsible for the Backpacker Murders was in full sway.
All of Milat’s victims in the Backpacker Murders between 1989-1992 were picked up around the Liverpool area, and were flagging rides south along the Hume Highway. In 1976, was Milat hoping for Rick to be one of his earliest victims?
The timeline establishes that Milat, the murderer who got away with numerous serious charges, was not that clever after all. It was years of practice and the confidence boost from duping the justice system over and over again that allowed Milat to showcase the evil within him. Around five known hitchhikers escaped before Paul Onions did and whilst police complaints were lodged for most of them, Milat remained untouched. Practice does indeed make a man perfect.
Then and Now: Rick O’Brien in his youth and pictured today with his wife, Linda
Years passed by before Rick saw Milat’s now-infamous photo with a gun and moustache in newspapers. It was then he realised that he literally escaped the devil.
“I have got a photographic memory for faces,” Rick told True Crime News Weekly.
“I can tell you who served me a milkshake years ago. Milat’s face always stayed with me. As soon as I saw his photo with the hat and gun – I could tell straight away.”
Rick never went to the media or the police to talk about his sweet escape from one of Satan’s lieutenants.
He spent around 45 minutes that day with Milat more than 40 years ago. Reflecting back on that ride with the convicted serial killer, Rick told True Crime News Weekly it was a little bit of luck combined with a whole load of sharp instincts that got him out of a tricky situation with the deranged degenerate.
“If he hadn’t have gone to his ‘house’, he had me,” he remembers nervously. “That just shows how close you can brush death, you know.”
Lives That Ivan Milat Took
Just like Rick, Milat targeted those who were in the prime of their youth. After Rick’s lucky escape, he went on to become an award-winning Australian teacher, reaching the hearts of thousands of students across Sydney over the years. Milat meanwhile is known to have taken away seven lives before they even blossomed.
Nineteen-year-old James Gibson was extremely passionate about saving the environment and volunteered and protested for the cause. Deborah Everist was also 19, studying psychology and aspiring to be a journalist. Simone Schmidl, 21 years old, was an avid traveller who saved money by working as a bookkeeper to visit Australia, unbeknownst to her, her last travel destination. German couple Anja Habschied, 20, and Gabor Neugebauer, 21, the former was also a staunch protector of the environment and the latter was studying philosophy. Caroline Clarke, 21, was passionate about joining the force as a police officer, and Joanne Walters, 22, worked as a nanny in Sydney and was very passionate about her studies.
These are all the lives that Milat is known to have ruthlessly ended. Perhaps there are many more. We simply don’t know as he never confessed. It could be said that Milat failed to showcase any kind of remorse even in his last breath for all the precious lives he ended.
Did Ivan Act Alone?
Most experts believe that it is extremely unlikely that Milat abducted, murdered and hid so many bodies without any help.
Former NSW Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, is the man responsible for putting Milat behind bars after successfully prosecuting the serial killer over the Backpacker Murders in the 1990s. Mr Tedeschi recently spoke with True Crime News Weekly on our Renegade Radio podcast.
When asked about the possibility of Milat having any accomplices, Mr Tedeschi said it was more than likely the killer had some help during at least some of his violent crimes.
Former detective and Assistant Commissioner of the NSW Police, Clive Small, who led the hunt for Milat over the Backpacker Murders however believes that Milat committed the crimes alone, to no one else’s knowledge. He mentions in his book Milat: Inside Australia’s Biggest Manhunt – A Detective’s Story that every time hitchhikers escaped, Milat was the only one involved.
However, all those who escaped him were riding with him to a destination. What if Milat was taking them somewhere where an accomplice may have been laying in wait? The shady house that Milat stopped at with Rick claiming that it was his, was likely not his. Information suggests that in the mid-1970s Milat lived with his sister in his Eagle Vale house. Then whose place did he take Rick to and what if his accomplice was waiting there? Is it possible that systemic pressure compelled the police at the time to pin the blame entirely on Milat to close the case, rather than keep the case open till any accomplices were found?
One source who knew Milat while he was in prison after he was sentenced for the Belanglo Backpacker Murders revealed to True Crime News Weekly his opinion of how and why the file of this complicated case was closed despite the possibility of accomplices being involved.
“Met Ivan at his cell door at Goulburn in 1998,” the source revealed.
“I knew Brian Raven (deceased) who was in weekly contact with Ivan and was assisting Ivan with his legal fightback. In doing so Brian asked me if I could get him any criminal law books – there was a transition away from books to computers happening around this time – so I did a ring around of all the Criminal Law Lawyers that I knew.
“And one of them, a QC, asked me who the books were for. I said ‘Milat’. His response was ‘Small always improves the evidence’. It was the view of the Prisoners Action Group, that guilty or not, Milat was fitted up for the Belanglo backpacker murders.”
The source then added: “When I spoke to Milat I suggested that he should refrain from becoming the new Darcy Dugan type media star … Even dead, Ivan is still getting a run”.
There have also been whispers to True Crime News Weekly that Milat was largely left alone to his own devices and never properly identified as a sexually sadistic killer as he or others close to him acted as informants for the NSW Police when it was wholly dominated by corruption and the likes of Roger Rogerson during the 1970s and 80s.
There could be many reasons why more angles of this case have not been explored and they could be bureaucratic, judicial, or even personal. However, it is not very far-fetched to imply that at least one member of Milat’s family was in on some of his crimes. To this day, most of his family believe he was innocent. There were however allegations of possible involvement made against Milat’s sister, Shirley, with whom the killer was having an alleged incestuous affair since the 1950s. Milat’s brother, Richard, also made the statements, “There are two Germans out there, they haven’t found them yet” and, “There’s more bodies out there, they haven’t found them all”.
“Milat’s face always stayed with me”: Rick O’Brien remembers the day he hitched a lift with Ivan Milat in 1976, with the serial killer having a moustache and “side levers” on his face (Image: Wikipedia / Supplied)
Both these statements from Richard Milat were made before the bodies of the German hitchhikers Anja and Gabor were found along with the other bodies that were eventually discovered. During the trial, Milat’s advocate claimed his brothers, either Richard or Walter Milat, could have been the killers. Considering that the hitchhikers’ clothing, bags and other items were found scattered all around Milat’s and his family members’ houses, it is difficult to rule out the possibility of a helping hand in his crimes.
In our interview with Rick, he told True Crime News Weekly that he also knew of acquaintances who had once gone fishing and happened to come across Milat, who was holding a gun. Even just as importantly, they noticed that Milat wasn’t by himself before they made a run for safety. Rick’s acquaintances told their story to him after he had shared the memory of his brush with the psychopathic killer. True Crime News Weekly is currently in the process of getting in touch with Rick’s friends to get a description of Milat’s apparent companion.
Closure To The Grave: Was Ivan’s Younger Sister His First Victim?
During the Belanglo Backpacker Murders investigation, police quickly discovered that Milat and his brothers would never give each other up, and were always covering for each other. Considering the number of brothers Milat had, finding a possible accomplice became an intricate task for investigators.
In 1969, the Milat family moved to Guildford. That is where Milat’s youngest sister Margaret was killed when a car driven by brother Wally was involved in a head-on accident near the family home. Margaret was only 16 years old at the time of the fatal crash. It was claimed there was an issue with the car’s brakes suddenly failing. Ivan was one of the first on the scene and reportedly ‘took it rough’.
Within a month of his sister’s death in 1971, Milat was charged with raping one of two women he had picked up hitchhiking near Liverpool. It was the same area Rick would hop into Milat’s car in 1976. It was also near the point where, 20 years later, the backpacker victims would start to vanish. Milat’s pattern of jumping back to his fatal shenanigans can be somewhat correlated with his personal relationships. Whenever a relationship ended or there was some turmoil, his penchant to cruise the highways looking for victims escalated.
When Milat’s wife Karen left him in 1987 after being psychologically and physically tormented for a decade, he resumed his relationship with his former sister-in-law Marilyn with whom he had a hidden affair for years before as well. When Marilyn broke it off again, Milat resumed picking up hitchhikers at Liverpool. The first to be targeted were Melbourne couple Deborah Everist and James Gibson on December 30, 1989.
Knowing about his ‘relationship’ with Shirley and his pattern of criminal activity after his relationships ended, it is not too presumptuous to indicate that Milat perhaps had an affair or some form of sexual history (consensual or non-consensual) with his younger sister Margaret.
How was it that a family that was well-versed in mechanics had a car accident involving brake failure? How is it that Wally was driving and survived the fatal crash? How is it that Milat was the first one to arrive at the scene and his violent criminal activities began just a month later? Is it possible that Margaret was threatening to go to police and murdering her was the only way to save himself?
Well, Milat has gone to the grave and so have these unanswered questions.
Milat never confessed to any of the murders and always claimed his innocence. On his deathbed, detectives tried to get a few final words that would provide some kind of closure to the families who lost their loved ones. However, the convicted serial killer did not present a tinge of remorse and neither did he reveal anything new. Despite Milat’s demise in 2019, Australia is still haunted by his name.
Additional reporting and research by Serkan Ozturk