Northern Territory police doubt a serial killer is loose in the wild Tennant Creek area despite three mysterious recent disappearances, among them New Zealander Jamie Herdman.
Australian newsmagazine the Bulletin reports that three men, all white, all travelling alone, had simply evaporated from Northern Territory highways, in roughly the same area, a void around Tennant Creek, in the past nine months.
"In each case, they leave behind motor vehicles and possessions. At a glance, there's a common thread," the magazine said.
"But police refuse to talk in terms of a serial killer and are not linking the disappearances."
Writer Paul Toohey added: "Police are damping down talk of a serial killer but there are rising fears in this post-Falconio world."
He was referring to Peter Falconio, a Briton killed in the Northern Territory in 2001. His body was never found.
Australian Bradley John Murdoch was convicted in 2005 of murdering Falconio and kidnapping his girlfriend Joanne Lees on an outback highway.
Toohey said Tennant Creek was a place where people vanished.
"Peter Falconio is the standout example, although some vanish by choice. Think of Keith Murdoch, infamous for becoming the first All Black to be kicked off a tour [of Wales in 1972].
"Either ashamed, or angered by his harsh treatment, he abandoned New Zealand but turned up years later, in 2001, in Tennant Creek, where he was called to a coronial inquiry to answer questions about the death of a young Aboriginal man who'd been left for dead down an open-cut mine.
"Murdoch was never implicated by the coroner but he didn't like the attention, refusing to talk to journalists ... and then he vanished again."
An off-duty policeman reported seeing Herdman hitching 500m south of the Hi-Way Inn on November 26 but the New Zealander's father said there was now doubt about this.
Police are still checking reports that Herdman might have been seen hitch-hiking in Queensland late last month.
Toohey noted that Queenslander Oswald Orman, 37, who set off hitching on January 21 on the Barkly Highway, 200km east of Tennant Creek, and hasn't been seen since, had indulged in some strange behaviour. He said Northern Territory people were familiar with the phenomenon of people with problems taking themselves to the open road and losing themselves.
But he quoted Herdman's father, Steve, now in Darwin, as saying his son had no history of mental illness.
"But he had departed Broome [Western Australia] on November 24, where he had been working as a removalist, in an upset state. And in a real hurry."
His boss, the last person to see him in Broome, told his father that Jamie Herdman "was in a very distressed state" but was unable to pry out what the problem was.
"Something ... happened," Toohey quoted Steve Herdman as saying, adding Territory police flew to Broome last week to try to find out what that might have been.
"Police initially speculated Jamie may have wandered into an Aboriginal community. They appear to have gone cold on the angle."
Steve Herdman is not thinking about serial killers but considered the talk an advantage because it was getting the attention of the media to focus on missing people in the area.
Brett McGillivray, 26, disappeared in April last year. His Toyota Camry was abandoned at Attack Creek, 80km north of Tennant Creek, with its keys. His parents told the Bulletin their son was on medication but showed no sign of being unwell. "Brett [from Perth] just took off in his Camry, telling no one where he was going."
The Northern Territory seemed to be a place where people who didn't want to be found seemed to go, a place where people could disappear.
"Accordingly, police know their priority is to find the missing people, dead or alive, before they start hunting for maniacs."
The three recent vanishing acts:
* Brett McGillivray, 26, of Perth. In April last year, his Toyota Camry was found abandoned at Attack Creek, 80km north of Tennant Creek, keys still in it. Ground and air searches showed no trace.
* Jamie Herdman, 26, was at the Hi-Way Inn, 400km north of Tennant Creek on November 26. Appeared to have abandoned his vehicle, leaving personal possessions.
* Queenslander Oswald Orman, 37, set off hitching on January 21 on the Barkly Highway, 200km east of Tennant Creek. He hasn't been seen since. Orman's backpack was found at a rest stop 50km east of the roadhouse.