At 'ground zero' of uncovering Ivan Milat

GROUND ZERO: Les Smith flicks through old archived copies of newspapers which show his picture (on the right) of forensics carrying out one of the first bodies found in 1992. Picture: Emma Hillier
GROUND ZERO: Les Smith flicks through old archived copies of newspapers which show his picture (on the right) of forensics carrying out one of the first bodies found in 1992. Picture: Emma Hillier

Les Smith is known to many around the NSW Riverina as The Daily Advertiser's photographer.

But, years before he found his place in the Riverina, he was responsible for covering one of the most significant events in Australian history.

Ivan Milat is one of the country's most infamous names, but in 1992 a regional newspaper photographer had no idea he was at the ground zero of the hunt for a serial killer. The man convicted in 1996 of seven counts of murder died at the weekend after losing his battle with cancer at 74 years of age.

In his early 30s, Les had been working at the Illawarra Mercury for seven years when he was sent off an expedition following a vague tip-off.

"When we heard a body had been found, it was a Sunday morning, so we drove up," he said.

"I think the bodies were found on Friday, and we didn't even know where Belanglo State Forest was, and we drove past it for 20 minutes, and we looked at an old fashioned map and realised we had to turn around."

Les said they had to drive two kilometres into the forest along dirt roads. He added people would say in hindsight Belanglo had always been eerie, but it never seemed out of the ordinary to him.

"Initially, I thought it might have been a bushwalker who got lost and had a heart attack because all we knew was that a body had been found," he said. "Police let us into the site towards the end of the day, and we were taking photos as they removed the body and then we realised it was two bodies and something was not quite right."

After those first two bodies were found, every day he went back to Belanglo for a week or two, and this time media organisations from all over the country were swarming around the site.

"The Mercury was quite brave in calling it a serial killer," he said. "A lot of overseas backpackers had gone missing on the highway, and they had realised there were a lot of others that were unaccounted for. They turned out to be right."

Les said the hunt was on after more graves were discovered in 1993, and he also photographed the raids on Milat's property in 1994 from a subdivision block 500 metres away.

Les marvelled at the impact the murders had on hitchhiking.

"Everyone did it, and now no one really does," he said. "People used to think it would be the hitchhikers who would be dangerous not the other way around."

Les said what had happened to the seven victims of Milat always stayed with him.

"I wouldn't say I am traumatised; we were just a witness to it," he said. "It did not dawn on me until years later that I was part of history."

This story At 'ground zero' of uncovering Ivan Milat first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.