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Australia is generally safe and enjoys a low crime rate. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), unlawful entry and theft—two of the main concerns of Australian residents—dropped to 23% in 2020. However, a low crime rate does not mean a complete absence of danger. For example, sexual assault tied to domestic violence has also increased by 13% in the same period. (1)

As with other places, both past and recent criminal cases in Australia involve perpetrators suffering from severe mental and emotional issues. Some of these cases sent shockwaves, not just in Australia—but to the rest of the world as well.

Here’s a list of criminal cases in Australia that shook the world to its core:

Police investigation board
  1. The Melbourne Ripper
    Before being locked up for good, Peter Dupas had frequent brush-ins with the law. Considered one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers, Dupas was arrested yet released several times in the span of three decades. Before his murder conviction in 2000, Dupas had about 16 cases of sexual violence, including rape. (3)Each release only strengthened his resolve to commit more violent crimes, including the assault and death of at least four women. He earned the moniker “Melbourne Ripper” following his signature move of stabbing his victims and removing their breasts. Dupas is currently serving three life sentences. (4)
Forensic police investigating crime scene

2. The Port Arthur Mass Shooting

The United States is often the first country that comes to mind when mass shooting incidents are brought up. But in 1996, Australia shocked the world with the deaths of 35 and 18 injured victims in the hands of a gun-toting, psychologically disturbed person.

Martin Bryant, then 28 years old, armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle and set off on a killing spree in Tasmania’s Port Arthur. Bryant had a history of erratic behaviour and was previously diagnosed with an intellectual disability. Bryant pleaded guilty in 1996 and is currently serving the first of his 35 life sentences in solitary confinement. Following the Port Arthur massacre, Australia instituted reforms to its firearm and gun laws to prevent another mass shooting. (5)

3. The Sydney Mutilator

While most criminal cases in Australia involve road and traffic offences, the country had its share of infamous murders some decades ago. In the 1960s, criminal cases in NSW, or New South Wales included that of William MacDonald—dubbed as the country’s first documented serial murderer. (4)

MacDonald went around Brisbane, Queensland, and Sydney, targeting gay men. He was named “The Mutilator” because he would cut off his victims’ genitals after killing them. At least five deaths were attributed to him from 1961 to 1962. MacDonald was convicted in 1963 and died in prison at the age of 90 in 2015. (4)

4. The Backpacker Killings

Fast forward to the late 1980s, NSW once again became the scene of the gruesome murders of seven backpackers. The villain in the story was identified as Ivan Milat, whose modus operandi included picking up hitchhikers and driving them into the Belanglo Forest to end their lives. (6)

Milat managed to evade arrest until 1994 when a backpacker managed to escape from Milat and reported his ordeal to the police. Evidence found in Milat’s Sydney home includes rifles used in the killings and the backpackers’ properties. He was convicted of the killings and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He already died of cancer in a Sydney prison in 2019. (4)

5. The Snowtown Killers

In a killing spree likely inspired by “The Sydney Mutilator,” four men in Adelaide orchestrated the murders of 11 people in seven years. Like MacDonald, these serial killers hunted gay men and paedophiles. They tortured and mutilated their victims before throwing their body parts to rot in plastic barrels. (4) (5)

The gruesome crime, also known as “Bodies in the Barrel”, was unearthed following the discovery of the decomposing bodies in an abandoned bank in Snowtown in 1999. Police investigation led to the arrest of four men; John Bunting, Robert Wagner, Mark Haydon, and James Vlassakis. All of them are serving multiple life sentences. (4) (5)

Criminal cases and the public  

The public has a love-hate relationship with notorious criminals. For instance, Ivan Milat’s killing spree partly inspired a local horror movie in 1997. In 2011, a film based on the life of Snowtown killings’ mastermind John Bunting was released to critical acclaim. (4) (5)

This is nothing new in the entertainment industry. Even television viewers can’t help but ask themselves; “is Criminal Minds based on real cases?” while watching the realistic storylines of this top-rated TV crime show.

The Bottom Line

Despite these gruesome tales of murder, Australia is still a relatively peaceful country. Authorities are working hard to maintain peace and keep everyone secure, but human nature can sometimes deviate unexpectedly. While these criminal cases can pique morbid curiosity, it must be remembered that, unlike TV shows and movies, the victims in these stories are real.

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