“Rack Man” is the nickname given to a John Doe whose body was found strapped to a makeshift metal cross when it was pulled from an Australian river in 1994
On Thursday, 11 August 1994, Mark Peterson’s workday began like any other. He’d cruised up the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, until his boat the Lady Marion was bobbing calmly in the water just past Challenger Head.
But rather than a bounty of prawns or squid, the fisherman discovered a most macabre catch — the remains of a human body, tied to a rusting steel crucifix.
It was around midday when he dragged the cumbersome steel frame onto his deck. Attached to the frame were several plastic bags, and out of one poked a bone. Surely it was from an animal, he thought. But when Mark looked closer, he could see even more bones and realised his catch was even fishier than usual.
Shocked, Peterson immediately called the police, who examined the remains and confirmed they were human. A forensic pathologist noted that the remains were of a male between 21 and 41 and that the bones were anatomically arranged on the crucifix. The victim’s entire body and head was wrapped in plastic. In addition to the plastic, there was wire wrapped around the head and torso.
Detective Chief Inspector John Lehmann from the New South Wales Unsolved Homicide Team had this to say...
“I would say as an investigator that it’s an unusual way to dispose of a person...”
“...And was this person attached to the frame and tortured before he was thrown in?”
It was a possibility that horrified the veteran detective.
Identifying Rack Man has been the number one problem ever since the rusty steel frame and its grisly human cargo were hauled out of the water.
“Until you identify the victim, you haven’t got a starting point,” John explains.
“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?”
Victimology — the study of a victim and their associations — is crucial to the success of a homicide investigation.
“The background of a person will tell you so much,” John reveals.
“In this case, for example, was he a drug dealer? Did he owe people money? Knowing those things would open so many doors.”
Once they confirmed that the corpse was indeed human, they sent the body and rack to the New South Wales Institute of Forensic Science where it was examined by pathologist Dr. Christopher Lawrence. When Lawrence removed the sheets of black plastic he found that there were clothes, hair, soft tissue, and adipocere attached to the remains. He also noticed that the murderer(s) had used wire and orange rope to bind the body to the metal frame.
Dr Lawrence noted that the set of bones on the steel slab before him were...
"roughly anatomically arranged".
The examination of the corpse, including the hair, revealed that the remains belonged to a dark-haired, Caucasian male, possibly of Mediterranean or Central European descent. Lawrence found that Rack Man was between 21 and 46 years old, and likely stood between 160cm (5’2”) and 166cm (5’4”) tall. Lawrence said that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, but it was not clear if the John Doe had been tied to the metal frame before or after he was killed.
Forensic odontologist Dr. Chris Griffiths at the University of Sydney analyzed the skull and teeth and found that John Doe’s face may have been somewhat “misshapen” and his first lower right molar had been removed when he was younger.
Unfortunately, the water had washed away the dead man’s fingerprints, and his DNA sample was of such poor quality it couldn’t identify him either. But police don’t rule out that, with advances in technology, DNA will eventually name him.
Other clues to his identity were his clothes. He wore a medium sized polo shirt with the label ‘Everything Australian’. His large, dark-coloured tracksuit pants were branded ‘No Sweat’, and there was a packet of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and a pink lighter in his left pocket. He also wore a pair of ‘Sparrow’ brand blue and white striped underpants which were designed to fit an eighty-five centimetre waist.
The original investigators tracked down the shirt’s manufacturer, who gave them a general idea where the garment might have been purchased. Police showed the shirt to the operations manager from “Everything Australian”, who indicated that the company used the logo on the shirt tag between 1982 and 1987. The manager also indicated that during that period of time, the company had around twenty-three stores throughout Australia, mainly in New South Wales and Queensland.
Determined to identify the man somehow, detectives travelled to Adelaide’s Forensic Science Centre where forensic biologist and specialist hair examiner Silvana Tridico put Rack Man’s dark strands under the microscope. She agreed that the hair appeared to have belonged to a Caucasian man, and was able to add that he was possibly Mediterranean.
Forensic science was again used to tell the dead man’s story when police lugged the steel frame over to Emeritus Professor Donald Anderson at the University of Sydney. The professor removed two barnacles in order to assess their growth rate and thus determine how long the frame had been submerged in the water.
“It’s like entomology, you’re able to tell how a long a body has been there.”
Professor Anderson concluded it had been underwater for less than a year, although he couldn’t entirely rule out a longer immersion time. The investigators’ next step was to try to find out what Rack Man had looked like before someone mercilessly bashed in his head and threw him in the river.
Sydney-based forensic anatomist Meiya Sutisno carried out a facial reconstruction of the victim’s skull when she was a student, under the supervision of forensic anthropologist Dr Denise Donlon.
Detective Senior Constable Phil Redman from the Physical Evidence Section then provided the investigators with a variety of computer-enhanced pictures of what Rack Man might have looked like. The facial reconstruction and the computer-enhanced images were broadcast on the news, in the papers, and on the TV crime show Australia’s Most Wanted.
The public responded right away and names came in thick and fast.
The possible victims
One member of the public said the victim could have been convicted drug dealer Joe Biviano, who was born in 1963 and had gone missing from the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne in December 1993. On face value, Joe fitted the bill: he was the right age, had dark hair, was of Mediterranean appearance, and 165 centimetres tall.
“Information was also received that he was similar in description to the facial reconstruction,” John Lehmann says.
Unfortunately, Joe’s dental records couldn’t be found, so the police, hoping Rack Man’s weak DNA sample might eventually provide them with an answer, asked Joe’s family for their help.
“A DNA sample was taken from a relative in 2005 but to this date it has not matched to the remains on hand,” John says.
Others suggested the victim was Greek businessman Peter Mitris, who was last seen on the mean streets of Kings Cross in April 1991. Police had previously received information that Peter had been bashed to death and his body dumped in the ocean off Sydney. But Peter was 182 centimetres tall, far taller than the man whose remains were found strapped to the steel frame and dumped in the Hawkesbury River. And according to his sister, Peter’s crooked teeth didn’t look anything like Rack Man’s.
There was also talk that the bones had belonged to Mr Rent-a-Kill himself, Christopher Dale Flannery, who’d disappeared in May 1985. But when Dr Chris Griffiths compared the alleged hit man’s dental records with Rack Man’s, they didn’t match.
Then there was the possibility that the victim was Stephen Bryant, who told his friends James and Christine Nissen that he’d spend Christmas with them in Tucabia, near Grafton in northern New South Wales, but never turned up. Subsequent inquiries led police to suspect that Stephen may have been involved in a ‘drug rip-off’ which led to his demise.
The final possibility was that the remains were those of heavy gambler Matt Tancevski, whose live-in lover last saw him in January 1993 at Newtown in Sydney’s inner west. At the time of his disappearance, Matt had eighteen hundred dollars in cash on him, but it wasn’t unusual for him to withdraw large sums from the bank. It wasn’t unusual for him to travel to the Gold Coast on a gambling binge either, but he always came home a few days later. Just not this time.
With nothing to prove that Rack Man was Stephen Bryant or Matt Tancevski either, police continued to search for names. John Lehmann explains that it’s the job of the New South Wales Missing Persons Unit to collect DNA samples from the relatives of missing people, to match against unidentified remains...
“The DNA database is always checking samples, but that hasn’t been successful with Rack Man to date.”
All these years later, police are wondering if the metal crucifix itself can help them solve this gruesome case.
“We’re looking for anything that’s identifiable about the components or the metal frame itself that might tell us where the components were manufactured or sold, or what type of industry they might have been used in. That may tell us a bit of information about the victim and possibly about the killer,” John says.
“Is the person involved in the murder or in disposing of the body involved in some sort of welding occupation, or are those materials available to him?” he asks. “Is he a metal worker or a builder, or is the victim possibly connected to that type of thing? You have to look at those kinds of things.”
The gangland-style disposal of the body strongly suggests the victim was involved in something unlawful which led to his nightmarish end. But what?...
“You do think of organised crime or something the victim may have been involved in,” John says. “A normal person would not expect to meet their demise like this, so we think that the victim was involved in some kind of criminal activity.”
Even so, what a way to go.
“Whoever this person is, he’s someone’s son or husband or brother and it’s not just the actual victims of homicide who suffer — it’s their families,” John reminds us. “There is more than one victim.”
Today, the body of Rack Man still lies refrigerated at the morgue, waiting for someone to claim him and give him a proper burial.
But is there another weird possibility?
Another, somewhat strange, theory has been put forward and it raised another possibility.
A monster is said to live in the Hawkesbury River.
Every now and again, slide marks will appear on the banks of the river. Or a boat will be discovered. Crushed. Abandoned. And its crew disappeared.
For centuries, the Darug people who have fished in the river and farmed the shore, have told stories of the monster. They’ve drawn it, too. In their art and paintings.
A snake-like head, a long, muscular body covered in scales…
Could Rack Man have been a sacrifice to the monster? And if so, who made that sacrifice, and why?
It’s been well over 20 years now since Rack Man was found.
To this day, he has no real name, no real identity.
Rack man's body is still kept in a Sydney morgue. Waiting for a breakthrough, waiting for justice. There is still a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of his murderer.
The corpse is known simply as Unknown Human Remains E48293.
Video: Into the Cold takes a look at the Rack Man murder mystery.