When an outback gunfight put paid to a killer
BARRY Lansdown was kneeling, the crosshairs of his 22.250 sniper rifle trained on the driver's side door of the Toyota 4Runner hidden under camouflage in the Kimberley bush.
He was trying to get off a shot at serial killer Joseph Thomas Schwab.
Gently, he applied pressure to the trigger. The bullet went on its way. The small part of Schwab's head he could see, immediately dropped from view. It had all happened in an instant. The opportunity to kill the killer had presented itself suddenly and unexpectedly. Instead of risking a shot at the small part of Schwab's body that was exposed, he put the bullet through the door, hoping it would hit centre mass, taking down the German murderer who had already stalked and killed five people.
Police knew Schwab was well armed, had thousands of rounds of ammunition and would almost certainly kill again.
That day, June 19, 1987, in the bush at Western Australia's Fitzroy Crossing, the right man was on the job.
Barry Lansdown, an ex-Australian SAS Warrant Officer Class 2 and sniper who had worked with the US Navy SEALS in Vietnam, was part of a Perth-based Tactical Response Group team hunting Schwab. With him were another six members of the West Australian TRG including Vietnam veteran and sniper instructor Don McPherson.
Twenty-seven-year-old Schwab was a security guard from Germany. He fitted the classic serial killer profile: shy, socially reclusive, no friends, no close relationships, a friendless drifter with a criminal background. A loner who loved firearms.
Schwab arrived in Brisbane on April 18, 1987. He hired a Toyota 4Runner from Avis at the Brisbane airport and drove to the 5 Ways Firearms shop in inner-city Woolloongabba. This was in the days before gun laws and Martin Bryant's 1996 murderous rampage at Port Arthur. Schwab bought a semi-automatic Ruger .223 rifle, a bolt action Sako .308, a Brno .22 bolt action and a 12-gauge Winchester pump action shotgun. He bought 900 rounds for the .223. He stocked up with 900 soft-nosed rounds, 100 hollow point and 280 full metal jacket rounds for the .308, a high-powered weapon held in high regard for accuracy at ranges up to 700 metres. This was a total of 1598 rounds for these two high-powered, centre- fire rifles. He bought 480 Solid Grain buckshot cartridges for the 12 gauge and 922 rounds for the .22. All up, nearly 3000 rounds. Schwab was set up for a killing mission.
Little is known about his movements between his leaving Brisbane and the final shoot-out at Fitzroy Crossing. There is some speculation he may have headed west from Brisbane via Townsville. According to a report compiled by criminal scientist John Horswell, Schwab bought fuel at Diamantina on May 6, 1987. Three days later, May 9, he was issued with a parking ticket in Mount Isa. Horswell noted that on May 20 he had the 4Runner repaired in Darwin.
On June 8 Marcus Bullen, 70, his wife Winifred, son Lance, 40, and Lance's wife Joan were at the Wayside Inn and Caravan Park on the bank of the Victoria River 518km southwest of Darwin. The foursome, from Western Australia, was enjoying a holiday in the Territory. At 9am on June 9 Marcus and Lance left in their vehicle to scout fishing spots, telling the women they would be back by 10am. They never returned.
Late that afternoon the two women went to the nearby Timber Creek Police Station and reported them missing. Police arrived and a search began. It wasn't until the next morning that the Bullens' burnt-out vehicle was found.
Soon afterwards the two men were found, buried under sand on the riverbank. They had been made to lie face down and then shot in the back, the bullets passing through their body and into the sand. They had been stripped naked. Their clothes along with any other evidence were thrown in the car before it was set on fire. Someone had seen them arrive and had hunted them down. Police found boot prints in the sand.
Five days later on June 13 in the West Australian Kimberley, Phillip Walkemeyer, his fiance Julie Warren and their friend Terry Bolt left Kununurra to go fishing at the Pentecost River Crossing, 110km to the southwest. They set up camp and prepared for a relaxing weekend. Other fishers came and went from the general area and saw the trio at the camp. Another fisherman later said he had seen a white Toyota with Queensland licence plates parked in a creek bed some distance from the trio's camp site. Someone unseen was watching the three friends at their campsite.
The alarms bells went off when neither Walkemeyer, Bolt nor Warren showed up for work in Kununurra on the Monday. The northern Australian outback was already on edge after the killings. Now, with another three people missing from a remote campsite, residents across the Top End feared the worst. Whoever it was who had killed the Bullens at Victoria River had killed again. A serial killer was on the loose in Australia's remote northwest.
At 11pm, Monday, June 15, Barry Lansdown and his Tactical Response Group team in Perth received the call-out.
"There were seven of us. We were put on a police plane with full kit for Kununurra. You couldn't move inside the plane for weapons, ammo, food and other kit. One bloke had to sit in the toilet," he said.
"We went to Home Valley Station and picked up a vehicle and drove to the picnic site at the Pentecost where the three people had camped," he said.
They found the trio's Toyota Troop Carrier burnt out not far from the picnic area. The same pattern was emerging. They found footprints that led to spent .223 shells in the cleared area of the picnic ground.
"We found the first body in the water near the picnic ground and then another body in the water. It wasn't until the next day that we found the third body in rocks further downstream," Lansdown said this week.
Julie Warren had been shot in the back with the .223. Bolt had been shot in the head, back and shoulder. Walkemeyer had been shot multiple times including in the ear and chest. Police could only conclude Schwab placed the bodies in this tidal section of the river because he expected they would be eaten by crocodiles.
Lansdown said they knew one person was responsible for the killings because the boot prints at the Pentecost matched those found around the crime scene at the Victoria River. They already knew Schwab had bought the boots at a store in Brisbane.
"The inquiry team based in Kununurra knew who he was. They were getting information coming in all the time. They were getting this info to us via a radio telephone at Home Valley Station.
"We were spending the days searching for him, doing vehicle stops on the Gibb River Road. We had a plane in the area searching as well. We'd been there for seven days and then we got a call to pack our gear and get out," Lansdown said.
New information had come in indicating Schwab was somewhere near Fitzroy Crossing 670 kilometres south by road from the Pentecost River Crossing.
"We were flown from Home Valley to Fitzroy Crossing. A helicopter mustering pilot had seen a vehicle hidden under camouflage in the bush. He'd flown straight to the Fitzroy Crossing police station and put in a report. We were able to speak to the pilot and get a location," Lansdown said.
"I was the only one with military bush experience. He was west of Fitzroy Crossing where the annual rodeo was scheduled to start the next day. We were two kilometres east of his camp. We set a course on foot for where we believed his vehicle was hidden. We were 800 metres away, when a shot rang out. I got the boss to bring us in in a circle for a briefing. More shots rang out," he said.
After two or three shots the Tactical Response Group realised it was the target. Lansdown and McPherson believed Schwab was zeroing in his rifle.
"The time between each shot coincided with the way we zeroed our sniper rifles," Lansdown said.
"I suggested we break into two groups and continue on towards the vehicle. I had one bloke behind me with a gas gun (tear gas). Don was with the other group. One group would move forward while the other group stayed behind and covered them. We moved like this until we could see the vehicle. It was parked under heavy cover and covered with a green tarpaulin.
"We requested the police plane fly low over the vehicle. The plane came down to 500 feet. When it reached this low altitude, Schwab jumped out of the vehicle, stood on the running board and shot at it with the scoped .308. I thought the plane had been hit because it revved high and then shot towards the ground. What had happened was that the pilot had heard the shot and immediately dropped the plane to 100 feet so that it was obscured from Schwab by trees. He couldn't see it to shoot at it," Lansdown said.
As the plane dropped closer to the ground team leader Senior Sergeant Bill Matson yelled out to Schwab to stop shooting. He yelled this out four times and each time Schwab fired back towards from where the voice was coming.
The bullets were coming in thick and fast. Matson told his men that Schwab was now trying to kill them and that anyone who saw him should "take him down".
Matson then gave the order to "get some gas into him". Initially Lansdown thought Schwab was inside the vehicle, but when the tear gas round went off, he realised he had been hidden among low bushes at the rear of the Toyota. Lansdown saw him run from the back towards the front of the vehicle and get inside. He could see a tiny part of Schwab's head. There was only a moment. He didn't want to risk a miss and instead, lined up the door from a kneeling position, hoping to hit Schwab's centre mass.
"I didn't have time to set up a shot. I thought I'd get a clean head shot at him, but I could only see a small part of his head, so I put a round from the 22.250 through the door. As soon as I did, I saw him go down, I yelled out 'move in' and as we started moving in, all hell broke loose. There were bullets going everywhere," Lansdown said.
Schwab had exited the vehicle on the other side and was now running low in the bush. The gas cylinder had started a grass fire. Smoke from the fire, combined with the gas cloud, reduced visibility. Schwab adopted the military tactic of fire and run. He would fire at the TRG police with the semi-automatic .223 and then run low for cover from where he would fire again. Police were shooting back through the smoke. The TRG's two fire teams played "leapfrog", one team moving ahead while the other stayed back, providing covering fire. It was a gunfight.
Schwab was firing at one of the TRG officers from the cover of low bush. The officer, Eddie Trindall, had taken cover behind an ant bed.
"All you could see was ant bed dust flying up everywhere," Lansdown said.
Schwab got up again and, keeping low, ran into the bush. Police fired and then everything went quiet. Lansdown crept over and looked into the vehicle. He saw that the bullet he had fired through the door had slammed into the wooden stock under the breech of the .308, rendering the weapon unusable. The 22.250 bullet had done its job and in doing so had neatly removed Schwab's pinkie finger which was lying in the front floor well.
This explained why he was running with the open-sighted .223. The only weapon fitted with a telescopic sight was the .308 and it was broken.
"The boss asked the plane to fly over again. The pilot saw Schwab lying face down with the .223 in his hand. We waited 30 minutes and the plane came back over and reported that he was still in the same position. I climbed to the top of the vehicle and put my rifle scope on him. He wasn't moving. We went over and looked," Lansdown said.
Schwab was dead. A bullet had passed through his back and exited through his heart.
They discovered that not only had Schwab lost his pinky finger when the bullet from Lansdown's rifle slammed into the breech area of the .308, but it had also blown away most of the palm from his right hand.
Lansdown said a later search of the vehicle found a German army survival guide for arid and jungle regions. Even more alarming were bundles of brochures featuring remote area campsites in northern outback Australia.
"There were all these brochures, heaps of them, for all of these out-of-the-way tourist places," Lansdown said.
This fuelled the suspicion Schwab was planning on targeting isolated camping areas.
Schwab was shot and killed on Friday, June 19, 1987, one day before the start of the nearby Fitzroy Crossing rodeo, a huge social event in this part of the world. Police at the time could only reasonably assume he was hiding out in this area in order to go on a killing spree at the rodeo. With his arsenal of weapons, he could have killed scores of people.
Lansdown said that immediately after Schwab was killed the TRG police were taken back to Fitzroy Crossing and isolated in the courthouse.
The local community, relieved at what they had achieved, and that Schwab was dead, sent platters of food and cartons of beer around to the courthouse.
Information for this story was from an interview with Cardwell's Barry Lansdown and from a June 2001 report by criminal scientist John Horswell.
Originally published as When an outback gunfight put paid to a killer