27 May 2018

Unsolved: the Rack Man - 85UMNSW

(Note: this is the fourth in a series published each Sunday until July, focusing on unsolved NSW murders. If you have any information regarding this or any other case, please call Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000).

Today we're going back nearly a quarter century to a case that has stuck with me for all that time - the "Man on the Rack", an unidentified man whose body was found lashed to a metal frame in the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney in 1994. And whilst it certainly has its creepy and macabre elements, sadly we know little more about this man, and how he died, now than we did back then. But it's not too late. He was someone, and he deserves a name.

The Hawkesbury forms the northern boundary between Sydney and the Central Coast, running from the west of Sydney before cutting through deep, isolated bushland before meeting the Pacific Ocean. Its many bays islands and inlets makes this one of the most beautiful places I've seen. But the beauty is haunting ion more ways than one. The isolation provides ample opportunity to dispose of a body.

The Hawkesbury Rive north of Sydney, showing the approximate location
where the Rack Man was discovered.

Whoever the man on the rack was in life, the story of his afterlife began on March 11, 1994, when fishing boat the Lady Marion set out on its regular trawl of the Hawkesbury River. The boat was in 8 metres of water off Flint and Steel Beach when its nets were snagged; winching the load to shore, the skipper saw a bizarre, metal frame, welded in the shape of a crucifix, and loaded down by plastic bags containing human bones. He headed for shore and contacted the police.

Investigators determined that the bones belonged to a single body, a man who had been bound to a metal frame custom welded for his size - and that was a comparatively short size, 163cm or 5'4". Based on hair and anthropological testing, he was European, possibly from the  Mediterranean, between 25 and 45 years old when he died. He was clad in black No Sweat brand tracksuit pants, a medium size black polo neck Everything Australian T-shirt and medium blue & white striped Sparrow brand underpants. There was a packet of cigarettes still in his top pocket. The body was too decomposed to take fingerprints - he'd been dead for at least six months, possibly up to five years - but they did manage to obtain a DNA sample, described as "weak" using the available technology of the time.

With few clues at to the man's identity, police released a forensic reconstruction. So we do know Rack Man looked something like this:

It's hard to imagine how someone ends up like this. How a person goes from being, once upon a time, a baby boy cradled in someone's arms, a child having their school shoes pinched to check for room for growing feet, blowing out candles on a birthday cake, learning to ride a bike... How does anyone go from being loved and cared for, to being chained to a rack, dumped in a river and unidentified, and unclaimed for 25 years?

But whoever he was, someone really wanted him dead; and by lashing him to a custom made metal frame and dumping his body, they wanted him found. They wanted to send a message. As we can see from the map of the Hawkesbury above, the location where he was found is not that far from open ocean. If he had been dumped in the ocean, and never mind without going to all the trouble of the cage, he would never have been found. But he was strapped to a rack and dumped where it was likely he'd turn up eventually, just north of Australia's biggest city. If you're going to go to the trouble of welding a cage, after all, you could without much effort go to the trouble of hiding a body where it wouldn't be found. No. The Rack Man was meant to be found, lashed to a cage reminiscent of a medieval torture device. His death was meant to strike terror in the hearts of those the message was intended for.

The obvious conclusion is that Rack Man's death was somehow connected to organised crime. In the years leading up to his death, there was something of a gang war in Sydney. It was the era of corrupt cop Roger Rogerson, dealer and crime heavyweight Neddy Smith, "Mr Sin" Abe Saffron, hitman Christopher Flannery and others (indeed, there was speculation Rack Man might be the body of Christopher Flannery, who has been missing presumed murdered since 1985, but this was soon ruled out). It was a struggle for control of the heroin trade, a time dramatised in TV series such as Blue Murder and the Golden Mile.

Was Rack Man a part of all this? Did he see something he wasn't meant to? Did he rip someone off? Did he commit the worst of all offences in the gang world - was he a police informer, a squealer? (Although in that era of police corruption, things could get a little murky in that area). There have been other possibilities suggested for how he met his death; such as that it wasn't gang related at all, but part of the plague of gay hate crimes taking place across Sydney at the time. But the gay murders tended to be crimes of opportunity, killings occurring at gay "beats" with gangs attacking gay men who happened to be in the area, and with little attempt to conceal the victims' bodies. That said, there is a suspected victim of the gay hate crimes who I believe bears a strong resemblance to Rack Man, but it's a pretty far fetched theory.

Two names that come up in relation to Rack Man are Joe Biviano, a drug dealer missing from Sydney since 1993, and Peter Mitris, a Greek-Australian business man last seen in Kings Cross in 1991. Mitris is the more interesting possibility, as the word on the street was that Mitris was bashed to death and his body dumped in the water off Sydney. But Peter Mitris was 182cm tall in life - far in excess of the 164cm height recorded for Rack Man - and his sister said his teeth were nothing like Rack Man's. Joe Biviano, meanwhile, was the right height and colouring, and he does bear a resemblance to the reconstruction. But there are no dental records for comparison, and a DNA comparison between Rack Man and Biviano's sister was apparently not a match.

I've been following this case online since about 2004, and careful searching of news records shows little development in the case since then. I've scoured missing persons records from the US, Europe and Australia, but I've never had the moment all those of us who search for the faces of the unnamed dead long for, the "aha! That's him!" when you know you've found the identity of your John or Jane Doe. Every missing persons case I've seen is just a little off, somehow. I will keep looking. But the best hope at this stage for identifying Rack Man is probably through the use of DNA in family genealogy which is getting much media attention in cases such as the identification of the Golden State Killer suspect.

A quarter of a century after he was discovered in the river, Rack Man waits in a box in Glebe morgue for someone to find him, give him a name and bring him home for proper burial. No matter what this man may have done in his life, everyone deserves a name.


Joe Peter Biviano http://www.australianmissingpersonsregister.com/Biviano.htm  true stories

The mystery of ‘Rack Man’, tied to a crucifix and dumped in the Hawkesbury River http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/true-stories/the-mystery-of-rack-man-tied-to-a-crucifix-and-dumped-in-the-hawkesbury-river/news-story/ebe70da893b76b75dfdb1130f813acc6


  1. His name is Max Tancevski. He was a gambler who went missing from sydney's west.

  2. I'm not 100% confident in that identification - I'll be researching and posting on this soon.