Northern Territory police are searching rugged bush near Darwin for a man accused of killing and beheading a reclusive 54-year-old named Ned Kelly.
Tactical response officers, dogs and a helicopter equipped with a thermal imaging system were hunting Jonathon Andrew Stenberg, 56, in the Berry Springs area south of Darwin in what police described as a "needle in the haystack proposition".
Police have sealed off a 45sq km area and, after lifting an earlier ban on locals returning to their homes, have urged vigilance and cautioned against using rural roads.
Stenberg, a former Defence Force member, is believed to be armed.
Northern Territory Police Commander Richard Bryson said the hunt was extremely dangerous for his officers.
"They are actually blindly searching on the ground for someone who has recently shown a demonstrated propensity to engage in extreme violence," he said.
"Make no mistake, this is a very serious situation. In policing terms, this is as serious as it gets."
Last week Stenberg is reported to have walked into the Broadwater Hotel in the small sugar town of the same name near Evans Head, New South Wales, and asked publican Dave Raymond about Kelly.
Four days later a friend told police he was worried about Kelly and when police called at the dilapidated home he had been trying to sell for a year they found him dead of multiple wounds and decapitated, with a hat placed where his head should have been.
The killing shocked Broadwater. Unlike his bushranger namesake, Edward "Ned" Kelly was known as a gentle man who kept largely to himself. He was a keen fisherman who locals said was also a talented artist.
A woman who had been given a place to stay by Kelly when she left home, and who looked after his River St house in the early 1990s, told the Northern Star he was a "quiet, gentle soul".
"Ed kept to himself all the time," she said.
"He only went to town to get his bread and milk, so for this to happen is totally out of character."
Although not known to have links in the Northern Territory, Stenberg drove to Darwin and hid his vehicle in bushland, leaving a rifle, clothing and other personal effects behind as he fled into rough country.
Police believe he is still armed with a handgun.
Bryson said it would take time to find Stenberg.
"It is heavy bush country where the vehicle was abandoned," he said.
"It was a lucky break to locate the vehicle as quickly as we did. But [tracking] a single individual making their way in that bushland is akin to the needle-in-a-haystack proposition."By Greg Ansley Email Greg