Fishermen on the Lady Marion found a body at the bottom of the Hawkesbury River in 1994.
Fishermen on the Lady Marion found a body at the bottom of the Hawkesbury River in 1994.

Mystery of the body on the cross

IT HAS been close to a quarter of a century since they found his body, but to this day nobody knows the identity of the man tied to a crucifix and cruelly dumped in the Hawkesbury River to die.

Next week marks 24 years since one of Australia's most gruesome and baffling discoveries. A crew of early morning fishermen were out on August 11, 1994, on their usual mission. The Lady Marion trawler cast vast nets to fish the healthy squid population thriving in the mouth of the Hawkesbury, northwest of Sydney. That morning, as they lifted a net, they discovered it was caught on a rope anchored by a steel frame. As they struggled to lift the net, they discovered something more troubling than dumped wreckage.

The boat's captain, Mark Peterson, recalled to press at the time: "As I pulled it in, I saw there were plastic bags tied to it, and then I saw a bone stuck out of one of the bags."

 

The Lady Marion trawler.
The Lady Marion trawler.

 

A body, wrapped in plastic, was tied to a steel-framed crucifix. Wires and ropes around the torso, wrists, and neck bound the remains to the cross. Scientists at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Glebe estimated the body had been submerged for somewhere between six and twelve months. The description of the man was crude and unspecific: of vague European extraction, 160-166cm tall, aged between 21 and 46. There were no missing persons reports that matched these vagaries and, in any case, police had very little to go by.

It was almost as if the man had gone out of his way to be unidentifiable - or somebody had taken pains to ensure this was the case. He had no personal belongings on him, save for a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. His clothing was unmarked and mass-produced: an "Everything Australia" polo shirt and "No Sweat" trackpants, both sized medium.

 

Police created facial reconstructions of the Rack Man.
Police created facial reconstructions of the Rack Man.

 

Being 1994, DNA technology was nascent. That year's arrest and subsequent trial of OJ Simpson introduced the term to the wider world - and even then it wasn't fully understood by the jury as being admissible, scientifically sound evidence. So, DNA was barely on the minds of NSW Police trying to identify a murder victim. To further their frustration, six to twelve months in the murky water had eroded his fingerprints and facial features, and compromised any DNA that may have been available for extraction.

A facial reconstruction was done based on his bone structure, and this image was splashed across news bulletins and papers for months, as police struggled to identity the crucified man. In the forensic lab, he was given the unceremonious name of Unknown Human Remains E48293, but in media circles he was dubbed the arguably less-humane "Rack Man", based on the steel frame he was attached to.

A reward was increased over time until it hit $100,000, but no credible information was received. It seemed that nobody in Australia knew the man - and those who did were keeping quiet, for obvious reasons.

Without a victim, it's hard to find a suspect.

 

The Lady Marion fishing boat captain Neil Peterson, who discovered body was trawling for squid. Picture: Glenn Dickerson
The Lady Marion fishing boat captain Neil Peterson, who discovered body was trawling for squid. Picture: Glenn Dickerson

 

What was clear, though, was this was a deliberate and meticulous killing. Every new piece of evidence was more chilling than the last. The steel-framed crucifix was custom-built for the unidentified man. The welding job was alarmingly professional and concise, and the cross-frame matched the man's wingspan perfectly. It was also far too heavy for a single person to have lifted and dumped into the river, suggesting more than one perpetrator.

Police chased gangland connections, but little came of these. Due to the religious nature of such a crucifixion, it was posited that a satanic cult may have been responsible. The moral panic around such cults at the time saw this salacious theory do the rounds of news outlets and current affairs programs. An episode of Australia's Most Wanted featured the killing, but no leads came from this.

 

The Lady Marion on the Hawkesbury.
The Lady Marion on the Hawkesbury.

 

The cult theory is not without credence. There were a number of religious-based sects operating in isolation in NSW in the mid-'90s, many of which were within easy driving distance of the mouth of the Hawkesbury. The controversial Kenja Communication cult - still operational today - has two centres in Sydney and one in Canberra, while Twelve Tribes is located in Picton, a three-hour drive from where the body was found. A further 90 minutes south was the Order of St Charbel in Nowra, also well within reach of the Hawkesbury River.

All three were troubling, religious-based cults that were investigated on numerous occasions for crimes ranging from child abuse to violent rituals.

Leads provided by the public at the time of the media blitz saw police investigate a number of shady missing persons: convicted drug dealer Joe Biviano from Sydney suburb Drummoyne; Kings Cross businessman Peter Mitris; Chris Dale Flannery, known to underworld figures as Mr. Renta-Kill; and gambling addict Matt Tancevski, who went missing in Sydney's Newtown in January 1993 with $1800 cash. All these leads were dismissed due to discrepancies in height, dental records and other identifying factors. The dead ends were maddening for investigators, to say the least.

 

Sydney University anthropologist Dr Denise Donlon and PhD anatomy student Meiya Sutisno created a facial reconstruction of the Rack Man.
Sydney University anthropologist Dr Denise Donlon and PhD anatomy student Meiya Sutisno created a facial reconstruction of the Rack Man.

 

Detective Chief Inspector John Lehmann from the NSW Unsolved Homicide Team told crime reporter Justine Ford - who penned a book on a number of unsolved Australian murders - that until the victim is identified, it is near impossible to pin the murder on anyone.

"Until you identify the victim, you haven't got a starting point. At least with a victim who has been identified, you can look at who the person was and ask questions like: What was he doing? Who were his associates? Was he in trouble? Was he known to police, and if so, for what reasons?" he said.

These questions have plagued investigators for 24 years. As with most cold cases, the further from the crime we get, the less likely it is to be solved. Advancements in forensic science occur daily, but given the decomposed state of Rack Man's body, such scientific leaps are unlikely to help. Still, the possibility exists that someone with a heavy conscience will shed light on this man's identity.

Until then, Rack Man lies refrigerated in an inner-Sydney morgue, waiting to be known.



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