Archive for Monday, June 26, 2000

Hostel investigators searching for suspect

June 26, 2000


— Police in Childers, Australia, are trying to find a man who was recently evicted from a hostel that burned last week.

Police stepped up their arson investigation Sunday at a burned-out hostel where 15 backpackers died and fire officials, hampered by rain, continued removing bodies from what remains of the building.

Only one body had been taken out of the 100-year-old Palace Hostel on Saturday, the day after the blaze. Five more bodies were removed Sunday, but persistent rain made retrieval of the remaining nine difficult.

"We're working in a very small area, with gaping holes in the floor," homicide Detective-Inspector Graham Rynders said. "And some of the bodies are in a very poor condition."

As authorities worked Sunday, young backpackers aboard buses on the nearby Bruce Highway craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the burned-out building.

The hostel served as a way station for some of the thousands of backpackers who tour Australia. Young tourists passing through the town of Childers often worked in local farmers' fields, earning travel money before moving on to more scenic parts of the country.

The fast-moving fire that destroyed the hostel broke out early Friday. Seventy residents escaped the blaze. Ten suffered minor injuries, most as they fled the flames by jumping onto the roofs of nearby buildings.

Inspector Phil Wardrope said that police were still looking for Robert Paul Long, a 37-year-old fruit-picker who was seen at the Palace Hostel just before the fire broke out. They want to question him.

Long was told to leave the hostel about 10 days ago because he fell behind in his $55 weekly rent.

Some of those killed -- six from Britain, four from Australia, two from the Netherlands and one each from South Korea, Japan and Ireland -- had worked side by side with Long, a former Sydney resident who picked tomatoes at local farms.

Police would not confirm whether he was the same man who threatened several women at the hostel a few days before the blaze.

They also refused to confirm reports in several Australian newspapers Sunday that Long had written two suicide notes over the past three weeks.

Long's father, Syd Long, said in Sydney that he was "worried sick" about his son.

He added, "I hope to God it wasn't him."

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