From the start it seemed Joanne Lees was the one on trial, not her boyfriend's killer

MURDER IN THE OUTBACK Australian court verdict is vindication for Yorkshire backpacker's version of events over tragic day

Kate O'Hara

Crime correspondent

FOR Joanne Lees, yesterday's verdict did not just convict the man who murdered her boyfriend. It also vindicated her version of events on that tragic day in the Outback.

While barely anybody knew Bradley Murdoch's name, hers was always guaranteed to provoke a response – most often that something was "not quite right" about her story.

But after years of having her version of events called into question; her sex life and wardrobe scrutinised; and incredibly, the finger of blame waved vaguely in her direction Joanne Lees stands fully vindicated today.

Murdoch's conviction for Peter Falconio's murder, and the kidnap and abduction of Miss Lees, brings an end to years of torment for the Huddersfield estate agent, who first lost her boyfriend in July 2001, then faced fresh agony almost a year to the day later when her mother died following a long illness.

In spite of her terrifying ordeal, part of the problem with Miss Lees was that her story simply seemed so hard to swallow. That she and Mr Falconio had been randomly ambushed on a deserted highway by a stranger with apparently no motive was mysterious enough, but coupled with what some described as her "houdini-like" escape from her shackles, and the fact that an armed man with a dog failed to hunt her down as she crouched in bushes for several hours, seemed the stuff of pure fantasy.

When it emerged she had a secret, month-long affair with a friend, eyebrows were raised still further.

She was portrayed not as a normal young traveller whose relationship with fellow Brit Nick Riley had briefly "overstepped the boundary of friendship", but as a drug-taking backpacker who had cheated on her boyfriend behind his back.

Her icy attitude from the moment she began grudgingly talking about her ordeal, and her failure to behave as a stereotypical grieving victim, hardly helped her cause.

By refusing to answer questions about the ambush at her first Press conference while famously wearing an "inappropriate" vest top emblazoned with the words 'Cheeky Monkey', she did nothing to increase her popularity.

Just 11 days after the attack, only cameramen and one reporter were allowed into the conference in Alice Springs, with everyone else being told she was unhappy with the portrayal of her in some newspapers.

On that day, in July 2001, Miss Lees said: "No one doubts me. It is only the media who have questioned my story." But her family and friends paint a picture of Miss Lees as a tough and independent woman who refuses to show emotion at the best of times, but became more reticent as she tried to protect her terminally ill mother from worry.

Speaking from the home where she grew up in Almondbury, Huddersfield, her step-father Vincent James, said: "If she seemed reserved, it was her way of staying strong. She's always been an independent girl and believed in doing the right thing. That day (of the 2001 Press conference) she was desperate not to break down in front of the world's media.

"I was impressed by how resourceful she'd been to get away. Even though she was devastated, I knew she was glad to be alive. But no-one gave her any credit for escaping."

Mr James, who flew to Australia after hearing about the attack on TV, was perhaps the only person who saw the real pain Miss Lees suffered in the days following the murder.

"Her mum Jennifer was too ill with rheumatoid arthritis to make the journey. I was taken to the hotel where Joanne was being protected round-the-clock by police.

"Joanne was shaking and just kept saying: 'He wanted to rape me, that's why he killed Peter' over and over. She might not have shown it to the outside world, but she was traumatised."

Mr James said his step-daughter was hurt and confused by accusations at the first Press conference.

"She'd been questioned extensively and didn't have a change of clothes," he said.

"I don't know if she'd had her hair done. Her appearance is always so important to her. Maybe it helped her feel better."

After weeks of gruelling police questioning, Miss Lees returned to the family home in Huddersfield alone.

"She never let us see her cry – she always hid those kind of emotions. She didn't want to upset us, especially as her mother was ill," said Mr James. "But the happy, bright girl we'd known had gone forever."

In the weeks following the murder, even the Australian police were forced to defend Miss Lees from accusations in the Press. Commander Bob Fields said: "I find it offensive that anyone would question this young woman's story. We have no doubts about what she has told us."

Yet still the whispering doubt continued.

In the month after the attack, a Sydney ballet dancer said of Joanne's escape she "just couldn't do it" and one British newspaper called the move "worthy of famous escape artist Houdini".

But in March 2002, a police woman recreated how Miss Lees was able to move her bound hands from her back to her front – a move which Miss Lees also showed jurors in a matter of seconds during the trial.

One of the starkest examples of the negative feeling towards Miss Lees was during an exclusive interview with Martin Bashir – for which she was paid 50,000 – when Bashir asked her outright on national TV: "Did you kill Peter Falconio?"

Miss Lees, hardly surprisingly, replied bitterly: "No, I did not."

Doubts about her story were fuelled by a series of conspiracy theories aired in the Press that left lingering questions.

Some of the more extreme theories involved one that Miss Lees killed her boyfriend when he found out about her affair, that Murdoch killed Mr Falconio because the couple had obtained marijuana from him and driven off without paying, and that Mr Falconio faked his own death, perhaps as part of an insurance scam. A review of the police investigation supported Miss Lees's credibility.

Although the reviewers, retired South Australian assistant commissioner Jim Lister and Northern Territory Police Superintendent George Owens, found inaccuracies in her statements, they agreed that this was "perfectly reasonable" given her ordeal.

But during the trial in Darwin over the last three months the jury saw a transformed image of the victim, now 32, with the 'Cheeky Monkey' vest replaced by a series of dark business suits and knee-length skirts.

Both public and press opinion began to become more sympathetic to Miss Lees - who, at the age of 27, was alone on a remote stretch of highway at night when she heard a stranger shoot her boyfriend before he threatened her with a gun, abducted her, and tied her up.

Crying openly for the first time, and with her voice breaking, she told trial judge Chief Justice Brian Martin how she was more scared of being raped by Murdoch than of being killed during the attack.

For Miss Lees, the jury's verdict yesterday should finally kill any suspicions about her involvement in the circumstances leading up to Mr Falconio's death.

But with five books and film projects already on the horizon, it seems unlikely the whispers which have followed her for four years will be silenced, and the speculation about exactly what happened on that deserted highway in July 2001 will continue for years to come.