Outback murder: Joanne Lees returns to Australia to raise money for memorial for Peter Falconio

Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio in their van in a photo taken before they were ambushed. Photo / Getty Images
Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio in their van in a photo taken before they were ambushed. Photo / Getty Images

Joanne Lees, a victim in the outback crime that gripped Australia more than fifteen years ago, has returned to Australia to raise money for a memorial for her murdered boyfriend.

The 43-year-old has returned on a mission to honour Peter Falconio - who was shot dead - with a roadside memorial to help warn travellers of the potential dangers of the outback, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Lees, who works as a social worker in her hometown of Huddersfield, was involved in one of the greatest crime mysteries to be played out in the Australian outback where Bradley Murdoch executed her boyfriend on July 14, 2001.

However, she has since returned and has been living quietly in Sydney and Canberra since May.

Back in August this year, it is reported Lees met with Aboriginal elders in Ti Tree, 200km north of Alice Springs, to discuss a memorial and the Aborigines also agreed to continue to look for the remains of Peter Falconio.

Ti Tree was the last place her and Falconio watched the sunset together and she does not want the memorial at the murder site near Barrow Creek because it was too painful.

In her trip to Ti Tree, Lees was accompanied with Libby Andrew, the former police officer who stayed with her in the aftermath of the 2001 murder.

During the trip she also met with Gwen Brown, a former officer aid who was one of the first officers on the crime scene, and met for the first time with Aboriginal couple Pam Brown and Jasper Haines.

Brown and Haines provided pivotal testimonies at Murdoch's trial to help sentence him to jail.

Bradley Murdoch whose DNA was on Lees' t-shirt, was jailed for 28 years for murder. Photo / AP
Bradley Murdoch whose DNA was on Lees' t-shirt, was jailed for 28 years for murder. Photo / AP

The funds will be raised in an an exclusive, one-day sale of Aboriginal Art in Melbourne's Queen Victoria Women's Centre on October 28, with the sculpture to be a car-sized bird called 'Falcon Dreaming'.

Lees' art event is supported by 2015 Australian of the Year anti-violence campaigner Rosie Batty and will be opened by the British High Commissioner.

The trip to Australia is only the second time she has been back since 2001, when Lees and Peter Falconio, who was 28 at the time, were touring Australia in a VW Kombi campervan when they were ambushed as they drove north to Alice Springs by Interstate drug runner and trucker Bradley Murdoch.

Although she escaped Murdoch's attempts to hunt her down by hiding in the Outback, near Alice Springs, she then found herself a prime suspect for the murder even though Murdoch's blood was discovered on her T-shirt. The drifter was eventually found guilty and is currently serving a 28-year sentence.

In the ensuing court case, Joanne recounted how she and Falconio had been followed by a four-wheel drive vehicle, the driver of which signalled them to stop because of an apparent problem with the exhaust.

It was when Falconio got out of the VW to talk to the man who had pulled up behind them that she heard what she thought was a shot. Then that stranger, with his long dark hair and moustache, appeared at the side of the vehicle and dragged her out.

She fought, bit and scratched at the man on the ground before she was thrown into the front cabin of his vehicle.

As he attended to something at the rear of the VW she told police, she scrambled over the front seats of the man's van into the rear, before dropping to the road and dashing into the darkness of the roadside bushes.

She remained there for five hours as the man and his dog came looking for her before he went away and she found the courage to run to the road and wave down a passing truck and raise the alarm. Falconio's body has never been found.

The court hearing in Darwin, northern Australia, saw the brutish 6ft 4in rogue, who in his earlier years had been convicted of causing a death by dangerous driving and had been jailed for a gun offence, sentenced to life in jail after a speck of his DNA was found on Joanne's t-shirt.

Recalling the night Falconio was killed, Lees told the court they had been followed by a vehicle when the driver signalled them to stop due to an apparent problem with the exhaust. Photo / Supplied
Recalling the night Falconio was killed, Lees told the court they had been followed by a vehicle when the driver signalled them to stop due to an apparent problem with the exhaust. Photo / Supplied

But Joanne is serving her own sentence, for she must live with the memories of the tragic incident.

For the last eight years, she has lived away from the public eye in a two-bedroomed terraced house in Berry Brow, Huddersfield, a working-class village blighted by high unemployment and soaring crime rates.

Instead, Joanne has thrown herself into her work. When she returned to normal life after her boyfriend's death, she vowed to go back to college, and studied Sociology at Sheffield University.

Now she works as a social worker at the Directorate for Children and Young People for Kirklees Council.

Her life has become work and sleep, and she does not appear to have family close by. Her mother Jennifer tragically died of lupus only a year after her boyfriend's murder in June 2002. Her stepfather Vince James, whom she used to be very close to, now rarely sees her. Her only half-brother, Andrew James, is not close to her.

In an interview with Woman's Day last year, Vince James said: 'Nine times out of time she won't answer the phone, it's difficult to get hold of her, I don't know why. She works full-time, she's a social worker of some sort. I don't see her as much. She goes to bed early, she gets up early in the morning, it's difficult to see her. You'd have to ask her why.'

Joanne's quiet lifestyle is a far cry from a decade ago when she seemed to embrace the limelight, releasing a book called No Turning Back. However, said the book was simply to help other victims like her.

She has now wound down her two writing and book publishing businesses - Joanna Lees Ltd and Joanna Rachael Lees Ltd. Their last accounts were in April 2014 and dissolved the same year with assets of £20,000 [$NZ34,400].

Former British backpacker Joanne Lees leaves the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin in 2005. Photo / AP
Former British backpacker Joanne Lees leaves the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin in 2005. Photo / AP

If she was wealthy as a result of the book, Joanne didn't flaunt it. She drives a simple four-door Corsa and her modest two-bedroom house is plain.

She has remained in touch with the Falconios, who live just seven miles away in the pretty village of Hepworth, west Yorkshire, close to where the BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine is filmed.

Peter's parents Joan and Luciano have struggled to move on from their son's death and it still haunts his siblings - brothers Nick, Paul, and Mark. Now, neighbours say, Joan and Luciano spend increasing amounts of time in Luciano's birth country, Italy.

The last public act either Joanne or the Falconio family took part in is to petition for a lasting memorial for Peter to be put in Alice Springs - which has not materialised - and Joanne's previous relationship with her local newspaper has petered out.

Joanne has recently had to endure a number of false claims in the last few years, including a cruel campaign by Vienna-based Dr Keith Allan Noble, who claims that Joanne is the murderer and even put up a £25,000 [$NZ43,000] reward poster around Alice Springs appealing for information which would lead to her arrest.

Dr Noble recently claimed: 'Murdoch was set up. It was a show trial. So-called evidence was manipulated, other evidence was withheld from the trial. There was not one shred of incontrovertible evidence presented at the trial that proved guilt, or proved a murder took place.'

In an exclusive interview in his Alice Springs prison five years ago Murdoch, then 55, told the Daily Mail that he had been set up, despite a speck of his blood being found on Lees' t-shirt.

"It's her false account against me that has led to me being in here," he said in the visitor's area. "They haven't found Mr Falconio, yet they've convicted me of murdering him.

"The police have had all the time in the world to find the body of Mr Falconio. They say I've hidden 'out there' - 10 long years to search while I, according to their case, had just hours to hide him. Show me the body. Show me the body of the man I am supposed to have murdered."

Joanne, for her part, refrains from ever commenting on the tragedy she so narrowly escaped from. She has no social media presence and given up even using her previous monikers, Daisy Bell and Daisy Lees.

In her book No Turning Back, now available for one penny on Amazon, she said her only reason to gain publicity was to help other victims, adding: 'The book is for me, my family, the Falconios, for Pete - and for anyone who has been the victim of violent crime.'

One of the UK's leading forensic psychologists Dr Ian Stephen - who has studied serial killers and was the chief adviser on the ITV hit detective series Cracker - says that it's not uncommon for a victim to suffer years later.

The scrub where Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees were assaulted. Photo / Getty Images
The scrub where Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees were assaulted. Photo / Getty Images

The consultant forensic clinical psychologist said: "You find some people become traumatised later in time. At the start, it doesn't seem to affect them, they carry on as normal. It's only later in life, something else can trigger the memories.

"It's a form of depression. Something triggers that reality to come back. It gets them thinking about things and they start having regrets. I've come across a lot of people with afterthoughts like I wish I had done this or that. It's almost a wistfulness.

"They become self-contained and detached from people and life. It also locks away the feelings that are negative so that they do not have to face them. Whereas their previous presentation of normality is like a mask.

"If it makes them depressed, you need to go and talk things through. Psychotherapy is all about talking and remembering the past. They need therapy to help bring them back to the past and get all of those feelings in perspective. It's overwhelming, you get pre-occupied, it's a weight on your shoulders."

Meanwhile the family of Falconio have finally placed "a most fitting" memorial to him 15 years on at a secret spot in Australia.

Mum Joan told how the new memorial which they have campaigned tirelessly for will help ease their heartache.

She said: "We're very pleased we have a special memorial to Peter after all this time. It has recently been placed in Australia. It is most fitting for our son, we chose it but have not seen it yet.

"We are hoping to visit it one day but we don't know if it will be possible, not because of the expense but because of our age and health."

The family have chosen not to share details of their commemorative gesture with the world.

Joan explained: "We want to keep it private, we are a very close family, and we will not be saying exactly where it is or what form it is. But we're happy with it."

She and husband Luciano, who have three other sons, all live in the same village of Hepworth, near Huddersfield, West Yorks.

Joan added the family remain friends with Lees.

Joan, speaking exclusively to MailOnline ahead of the anniversary, told of their relief they had won the long battle to erect a memorial.

The family with Joanne's support had petitioned for a tribute to be placed in Alice Springs after failing to be granted permission from the Town Council. They called on Megan Hunt, British Ambassador in Australia, who helped it become a reality.

Joan, speaking from her comfortable detached home which she shares with youngest son Mark, 36, explained: "Megan Hunt helped us to do this. Without her it may not have happened so we are very grateful. The memorial has gone up in time for the anniversary of Peter's death."

She added: "We're doing alright, we're okay as a family. We're still in contact with Joanna, we get on, we still see her."

- Daily Mail

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