When a British backpacker stopped at a roadhouse in the quiet Australian town of Mitchell last Sunday, Beverly Page – who was working behind the counter – noticed the young woman was “shaking”, but did not realise she was serving a hostage who was being held captive on a brutal 900-mile-road trip across the outback.
Ms Page listened as the 22-year-old tourist, who had black eyes and bruises, explained that she could not pay for petrol because her “ex-boyfriend” had her purse.
The tourist, from Liverpool in England, then stepped back outside and drove away, without paying, in a white four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Pajero.
Describing this encounter, which took place at Mitchell’s Caltex petrol station at 3.40pm on Sunday, Ms Page said she thought the woman might be worried because she could not pay for the petrol.
“She was distressed, she was crying and she was shaking,” she told Channel Seven.
Ms Page notified local police, who intercepted the vehicle on the dry, dusty Warrego highway, just outside Mitchell. It was immediately apparent that the woman was in serious trouble: she had facial fractures, bruises and cuts.
Searching the vehicle, the officers found her alleged abductor, a 22-year-old Australian man, buried under clothes in a rear alcove. It was not clear whether he was hiding or asleep.
The young woman began to tell police details of her ordeal – an account they described as “catastrophic”. She said she had been repeatedly raped, strangled and assaulted for weeks during a trip from Cairns, about 900 miles to the north.
Police said the pair met at a bush dance party near Cairns in January and began a relationship but he began to repeatedly assault her at locations across the state of Queensland from January 2 to March 5.
Before the nightmarish drive, which began up to two weeks ago, the pair spent most of their time in Cairns, a warm tropical city that is better known as a backpacker hub and as a base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef.
Two friends of the alleged offender told The Telegraph yesterday that they had several encounters with the man and his British girlfriend around Cairns in recent weeks, but did not notice anything amiss.
One friend said he first saw the pair swimming together at Crystal Cascades, a natural pool in a rainforest near Cairns, in January. He then saw them again in the centre of Cairns about two-and-a-half weeks ago: the pair were in the Pajero and apparently planning for a trip.
He has a ton of anger stuck in his head
“She just said ‘hello’ and that’s it,” said the friend, who did not want to be named.
“It just seemed normal to me.”
Another friend of the offender said the pair came to visit her at her work on February 18. The woman, who did not want to be named, said she was in contact with him again on February 25 and he was still in Cairns.
“She said hello,” she said. “She looked fine to me.”
But she added: “He is pretty much into drugs. He has a ton of anger stuck in his head… I just feel really sorry for the girl.”
Police said it would have been difficult for the woman to escape. She is believed to have done most of the driving and the pair slept in the car.
"A lot of the areas … would have been unknown to her, and she wouldn't have known anyone there so it would have been difficult for her to make an escape," said Detective Inspector Paul Hart, from Queensland police.
"From the information we've been provided she had very limited opportunity to try and do that anyway… We're still piecing it all together but we do know that they were known to each other for a couple of months and had had some sort of relationship at the start.”
The man, who was from Cairns, allegedly damaged his victim’s British passport to try to prevent her fleeing.
Police charged the man with drug offences and allegedly seized a small amount of MDMA and a pipe from the car. He faced more than 20 charges, including four counts of rape, eight counts of assault, four of strangulation, and two of deprivation of liberty.
Describing the ordeal as “horrific”, police said the woman had been subject to “significant level of violence and catastrophic offences”.
The woman has been in Australia since 2015 and has travelled around the country, including working on farms as part of her visa requirements.
Following her rescue, the woman spent time in hospital and has made contact with family in Britain and Australia. She is apparently planning to stay in Australia for the court hearings.
“They have formed some sort of relationship,” Inspector Hart said.
“By her account, that has soured to the point that while they were travelling around she has tried to leave but was held against her will.”
During a brief court hearing on Monday, the man applied for bail but was refused. He is due to face court again in May.
A spokeswoman for the British High Commission said: "We are supporting a British woman following an incident in Queensland and remain in contact with local authorities."