Crime

The worst Australian serial killers who went on shocking killing sprees

From the "bodies in barrels" case to the backpacker murders.
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Ivan Milat, John Bunting, David Birnie. Their names are synonymous with evil and evoke feelings of revulsion and horror throughout the world.

They are just three Australian serial killers who reigned terror on communities as they went on murder sprees that ranged in length from weeks to years.

WATCH BELOW: Notorious serial Killer Ivan Milat is dead

A serial killer is person who murders at least three people in a series over a period of time. This is different to a mass killer who commits their atrocities in one continuous incident, such as a mass shooting. A serial killer’s crimes are usually to serve an abnormal psychological gratification.

The term “serial killer” was coined by the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit in the 1970s. It is believed FBI agent Robert Ressler, who is the inspiration for the character Bill Tench in Netflix’s Mindhunter, came up with the term.

From Australia’s first serial killer (William MacDonald) to its worst (the “Snowtown” murders), Australia has suffered a wide range of homicidal psychopaths who were compelled to keep killing until they were caught. Here are ten of the worst.

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Sarah Spiers, Ciara Glennon and Jane Rimmer are all believed to be victims of the Claremont killer.

10. Claremont Serial Killer

It is believed the Claremont Serial Killer murdered at least three people in Perth in the mid-90s. All victims were last seen in night spots in Perth’s well-heeled Claremont.

The first woman who disappeared was Sarah Spiers, 18, on Jan. 27, 1996. She was last seen waiting for a taxi on a main road. Her body has never been found. Jane Rimmer, 23, disappeared on June 9 that year, and her body was found nearly two months later in bushland.

On March 14, 1997, lawyer Ciara Glennon, 27, disappeared from Claremont and her semi-clothed body was found on April 3.

Following one of WA’s biggest investigations, Perth Telstra technician Bradley Robert Edwards, 48, was arrested in 2017 over the murders. Bradley was later convicted in September 2020 of abducting and killing Jane and Ciara, and was sentenced to life in prison with a non-parole period of 40 years.

In 2023, Channel Seven produced a drama series – The Claremont Murders – based on the investigation starring Kate Richie. 

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Peter Dupas killed three women in Melbourne.

9. Peter Dupas

A serial sex offender before he turned to murder, Peter Dupas is serving life terms for the murders of three women in Melbourne, but he is the prime suspect in more unsolved killings.

Dupas brutally stabbed his victims to death and he was known to cut off the breasts of the women.

“To me, the guy was just pure evil,” said Sen Det Ian Armstrong of Dupas’s sexual assaults. “His attacks were all carefully planned and he showed no remorse.”

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Kathleen Folbigg was found guilty of murdering her children.

8. Kathleen Folbigg

It is one of the most disturbing cases of serial killing in world history. Melbourne’s Kathleen Folbigg was found guilty in 2003 of murdering three of her children and sentenced to a maximum 30-year sentence.

She killed Patrick, 8 months old, Sarah, 10 months, and 19-month-old Laura. As there was no obvious cause of death, it was initially believed the children had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or cot death. Folbigg was also convicted of the manslaughter of her child, Caleb, 19 days.

RELATED || Convicted child killer Kathleen Folbigg speaks out

She was charged with murder after her husband discovered her diary, which appeared to detail the killings.

A 2019 judicial inquiry into the deaths upheld the 2003 verdict.

But in a shocking twist, Kathleen was pardoned and released after more than 20 years in prison in May 2023. 

Best friend Tracy Chapman referred to the past two decades as “horrific” for Kathleen. 

“The past 20 years have been horrific for Kathleen, not least for the pain and suffering she has had to endure following the loss of her four children,” she said. 

It is important to note that Kathleen has always maintained her innocence.

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The Birnies raped and murdered four women.

7. David and Catherine Birnie

It was a union that led to a horrific series of rapes and murders. Over one month in 1986, and with the help of his partner Catherine, Perth’s David Birnie raped and murdered four women, and attempted to kill a fifth.

Their first victim was psychology student Mary Neilson, 22, who visited the Birnie’s home to buy car tyres. Once there, she was gagged, chained to the bed and raped while Catherine watched. She was taken to bushland where she was raped again, strangled and buried.

It was the beginning of a serial killing spree that terrified Perth. The Birnies drove around looking for their victims (who were initially trusting of the couple because there was a woman present) before abducting them and bringing them back to their home in Willagee, in Perth’s south.

Their fifth victim, Kate Moir, 17, managed to escape, leading to the Birnies’ arrest. Serving four life terms, David hanged himself in prison on 2005. Catherine remains in prison and is never to be released.

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William MacDonald in custody.

6. William MacDonald

Regarded as Australia’s first true serial killer, William MacDonald murdered five men in gruesome crimes that included postmortem mutilation.

Apart from his first victim, who MacDonald killed in a flat in Brisbane, MacDonald’s murders took place in Sydney in the early ’60s.

He lured his victims to dark spots in public places then stabbed them multiple times before cutting off their genitals. At the time of his death in jail in 2015, at the age of 90, MacDonald was the longest-serving prisoner in custody.

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Leonard Fraser was described as “a sexual predator of the worst kind.”

5. Leonard Fraser

Born in Ingham, Qld, Leonard Fraser spent 20 years in prison for sex crimes before he was freed and turned to murder.

He was first convicted over the abduction and murder of 9-year-old Keyra Steinhardt in Rockhampton, Qld, in 1999. While in prison, he was tried for more murders.

In 2003 he was sentenced to further life terms for the separate killings of Beverley Leggo, Sylvia Benedetti, and Julie Turner. He died in prison in 2007.

In Keyra’s murder trial, Justice Ken Mackenzie called Fraser “a sexual predator of the worst kind.”

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An illustration of Thomas Jefferies.

4. Thomas Jefferies

His name might not be familiar now, but at the time his crimes made him one of the most feared people on the continent.

Long before Australia’s federation in late 1825, British convict Thomas Jefferies murdered six people on the idyllic island that would later be called Tasmania.

After escaping from prison, the bushranger and other escapees went on a robbing and killing spree that lasted more than three weeks.

Jefferies’ killings included those he robbed, a baby, and a policeman. He was also a violent sexual offender and was known to partake in cannibalism. He was captured on Jan. 23, 1826, and executed by hanging in jail.

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The ‘Granny Killer’.

3. John Wayne Glover

Over 13 months beginning in March, 1989, Four’n Twenty pie salesman John Wayne Glover killed six elderly women in Sydney’s affluent harbourside suburb of Mosman, earning him the moniker “The Granny Killer”.

His first victim was Gwendoline Mitchelhill, who he sneaked up behind as she went to enter her apartment building. He hit her in the back of her head with a hammer and stole money from her purse.

In his subsequent murders, Glover usually attacked his victims with a hammer, before removing their pantyhose and strangling them with the garment. He came to the attention of the police over a string of nursing-home assaults that he had also committed.

When he was asked to attend a police interview, he attempted suicide and wrote a suicide note. In the note, he had written, “no more grannies” leading to his arrest over the murders. But before his arrest, he would kill one more woman. He was sentenced to multiple life prison terms and hanged himself in jail in 2005.  

In an appearance on Channel 9’s Under Investigation in March 2022, retired homicide detective Brian Collis said it was “highly likely” that John had many more victims. 

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Backpacker killer Ivan Milat.

2. Ivan Milat

One of Australia’s – and the world’s – most notorious killers, Ivan Milat was sentenced to life terms for the murders of seven backpackers in NSW’s Belanglo State Forest between 1989 and 1992.

The travellers, which included five women and two men, came from Australia, England and Germany. It is believed Milat picked up his victims as hitchhikers before driving them deep into the forest, tying them up and either stabbing or shooting them to death (or both).

He took his time with the killings and decapitated one victim (her head has never been found). Police began investigating Milat when his name kept cropping up in tips from the public as a suspicious, gun-loving person.

He was arrested after an English backpacker called Paul Onions, who had escaped Milat during a “robbery”, identified his abductor as Milat. Milat was arrested on May 22, 1994, and a search of his western Sydney property yielded a trove of evidence including a part of the rifle used in the murders, and the murdered backpackers’ property. Ivan died due to cancer in 2019 at the age of 74.

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The infamous bank vault in Snowtown.

1. Snowtown Killers

The worst serial killings case in Australian history exposed a sordid “killing club” of four men in Adelaide and put a tiny South Australian town on the world map for all the wrong reasons.

Over seven years, 11 people were murdered in a sadistic murder spree orchestrated by John Bunting and his mate Robert Wagner, often with help from their cohorts Mark Haydon and James Vlassakis.

RELATED || Snowtown serial killer makes bid for freedom 

The men targeted homosexuals and paedophiles. They dismembered eight of the bodies with saws and dumped them in barrels, which were found in a disused bank vault in Snowtown.

Following their arrests, Vlassakis turned witness, detailing the graphic horrors of the crimes. Bunting was found guilty of 11 murders, Wagner of ten. They are serving multiple life sentences. Vlassakis was sentenced to 26 years for four murders. Haydon was convicted of assisting in five of the murders and sentenced to 25 years.

“The evidence given at trial has driven me to the conclusion that both of you are incapable of true rehabilitation,” sentencing judge Brian Martin told Bunting and Wagner. “It is no exaggeration to say that you were in the business of killing for pleasure.”

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