A harrowing tale of a former British reality TV star and his glamorous American girlfriend held up at knifepoint, robbed, bleeding and left for dead by “cannibalistic” tribesmen in the wilds of Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track.
In an interview with British newspaper The Sun the couple claimed spear-totting assailants — so primitive they spoke only in grunts — frogmarched them into the jungle where, according to statements made to the police, the 31-year-old American woman, Michele Clemens, was cut and raped, while her terrified boyfriend Matthew Iovane could do nothing but look on.
“We were about an hour into the walk when a tribesman appeared ahead of us and another behind us,” Iovane told The Sun, claiming one of the men wore a mask fashioned from feathers and vines.
“They looked very scary in native costumes and what looked like warpaint and came closer before circling around us.
“They tore up my T-shirt to blindfold me and the awful thought crossed my mind that we could be on the menu. They were totally feral and we were at their mercy. I thought we’d vanish into the jungle and never be seen again.”
Eventually the couple escaped and walked barefoot for six hours until they reached a friendly village where a helicopter came to save them. Two teenage suspects were later arrested are now being held on remand.
A somewhat happy ending? Not for those left picking up the pieces in PNG.
The Kokoda Track is the country’s number one tourist attraction. Last year more than 3100 foreign visitors trekked the length of the challenging 96km jungle path rated as the hardest sea-level walk in the world. Tourism on the track makes public transport, air routes, hotels, restaurants and medical centres viable, employs hundreds of locals and puts food on the table for thousands more.
But now the reputation of the people of the Kokoda Track is in tatters and the very future of PNG’s tourism industry is at stake. Even more concerning is that if convicted on all counts, the defendants, one of whom is a minor, could face the death penalty.
But an investigation published exclusively on this website on January 29 highlighted a long list of inconsistencies and doubts with the original story. Now, an even more detailed investigation conducted over 10 days on the ground in PNG’s capital Port Moresby and the Kokoda Track has uncovered hard evidence that cements some of those doubts.
The investigation can also reveal that when Iovane and Clemens’ whirlwind six-day adventure in the impoverished Pacific island nation came to an end, they left a trail of bad debts valued upwards of 80,000 kina ($35,000).
GETTING OFF ON THE WRONG FOOT
After touching down at Jacksons International Airport on January 6, Iovane and Clemens called Sogeri Lodge, a property set half way between Port Moresby and the start of the Kokoda Track at Owens Corner. The man they spoke to, Sogeri Lodge’s manager Alfie Jack, then drove down to the airport to pick them up.
“They were very friendly and told me they’d travelled all over the world,” says Jack. “But they made me very uncomfortable because they were kissing and hugging in the back of the car non-stop. When we stopped to get supplies at the supermarket, they were also kissing with open mouths in the middle of the supermarket. People asked, why they are doing this in public?”
Jack also drove the couple to the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) headquarters to buy trek permits. When asked to nominate their authorised guide — one of 14 guidelines printed on the back of every trek permit — the couple said they were experienced trekkers and didn’t need a guide. When the clerk insisted, they promised to hire a guide at Sogeri Lodge.
But when Sogeri Lodge’s Australian owner Warren Bartlett met the couple the following morning on January 7, he says they baulked at the idea of paying for a guide.
“I told them a porter costs 60 kina ($25) a day and a guide costs 100 kina ($43), which if you add a walk-home allowance would cost them a total of 900-1,300 kina ($388-$560),” he says. “But they said they didn’t have that kind of money, that they couldn’t afford it.
“When I asked where they are going to sleep, they said in guesthouses that would have beds and hot and cold water and dining facilities. I said no way, there are only camping sites and basic huts, you need a sleeping bag, so we hired the two sleeping bags,” Bartlett says.
“I asked if they had a map, and they produced a brochure they’d torn out of a magazine, so I said that’s not sufficient and sold them a map in a waterproof sleeve. They were completely unprepared and foolish for taking big risks.”
Bartlett claims the couple didn’t settle their bill before they checked out. Instead they arranged to leave some of their belongings and valuables at the lodge — and settle the bill — on the return leg of their journey. But those belongings and valuables were collected by police on the couple’s behalf.
Bartlett has asked Iovane over e-mail to settle the bill several times. He says Iovane is yet to reply. “They owe us more than 900 kina ($387),” he says. “I’m frustrated and annoyed that such rogue trekkers could sting us like that.”
Adds Alfie Jack: “Before leaving, they said ‘If you don’t hear from us in four days, raise the alarm’. I asked myself, why would they say something like that?”
Iovane and Clemens spent the next four days trekking through the lush green jungles of the Kokoda Track. “We lived like Tarzan and Jane on nuts packed into our rucksacks and bananas, papaya, wild spinach and exotic ‘tree tomatoes’ found only in this jungle,” Iovane told The Sun.
The statement is the first of many rubbished by veteran trekking guides who say no food grows along the track. On a three-day walk along the track, this reporter found one item resembling food: an over-size acorn-like nut that locals later identified as poisonous.
Iovane also told The Sun: “It was truly a dream trip made even better by the way Michele and I loved each other’s company.”
What he didn’t say was exactly how Clemens and he expressed their love. Guideline 9 on the laminated yellow trek permit that all trekkers must carry on the Kokoda Track says “respect the culture and religious beliefs” of people living on the track — “Seventh Day Adventists who observe daily prayer from 5pm-6pm” and their Sabbath.
It goes without saying that it paints a picture of a very pious and conservative people. But Iovane and Clemens were allegedly seen swimming nude in rivers and walking in revealing outfits along the track.
“I’ve heard about it from numerous sources and various times,” says Bartlett. “The ranger at Efogi, Landy Noel, he said they walked into the village wearing G-strings and bra looking for accommodation. He said they were very amorous, hugging and kissing.”
“I also saw them come to Efogi. They walked nearly naked from the landing strip,” says villager Ailynn Toksi, who also claims the couple had sex in the village. “Everyone saw them having sex. They did it in public.”
Ivan Nitua, a ranger at Isurava village who conducted his own investigation, shares a similar story. “I walked all the way from Isurava to Efogi and spoke to Dobu, a guesthouse owner,” he says. “There is a creek with an open space and good white sand. He told me he was looking down and the female was on top. He adds: “In our custom this is not allowed. It is against our beliefs.”
Iovane and Clemens’ problem was not sparked by their alleged sexual promiscuity. Neither was it a random attack as claimed. After obtaining a copy of a five page police report dated January 21, this investigation can now reveal both defendants were known to the couple.
One of the defendants, Toksi Jacob, the 19-year-old son of Ailynn Toksi, is a freelance porter the couple met on the Kokoda Track. Toski’s wife Terin Joe was also there at the time. She says the couple promised Toksi 500 kina ($216) to carry their heavy bags to the end of the track, yet paid him only a fraction of that amount for several days’ hard labour.
Terin Joe is not the only one alleging Iovane and Clemens short-changed subsistence villagers on the Kokoda Trail.
On January 10 — the couple’s last night on the jungle — they slept in a small campsite at Vase village. Guideline number 7 on their KTA trek permit says campsite fees are 20 kina ($8) per person and that meals cost extra. That night, Surina chopped firewood and cooked two large plates of food for the couple at a set price of 20 kina per plate. The couple’s total bill was 80 kina ($35).
But after packing their tents and bags the next day, Iovane offered Surina only 50 kina ($21). Surina was displeased but turned the other cheek. “I did not want to argue with them,” he says. “The Seventh Day church teaches us not to be angry.”
Yet the couple’s porter had had enough. Fearing he would too be short-changed, Toksi demanded part payment of his 500 kina fee.
Iovane’s first and only offer to Toksi was 20 kina ($8). Toksi became incensed and refused to carry their backpacks a step further until Iovane paid him more. Iovane refused. The couple then picked up their backpacks and went off on their own.
Shortly thereafter, the police report alleges that Toksi and a 17-year-old accomplice who cannot be named because he is underage set off after the couple armed with two machetes and a spear.
The report claims that after ambushing Iovane and Clemens on the track, the defendants tied them up, blindfolded them and hacked most of their clothes off. The report also claims Toksi cut two of Clemens’ fingers with a machete. It alleges the defendants robbed their couple of their mobile phones, backpacks and shoes as well as £500 and US$400 in foreign currency.
The final page of the report also alleges the 17-year-old sexually penetrated Clemens without her consent.
But Iovane and Clemens didn’t say anything about a rape when they spoke to The Sun. Nor did they identify Toksi as one of their assailants, fingering anonymous ‘tribesmen’ instead.
THE COSTS STACK UP
“They took our belongings, I was naked in the most remote jungle on Earth with no shoes and Michele was bleeding buckets beside me in her underwear. But nothing mattered except getting away, so we ran,” Iovane told The Sun.
He also said they were pursued by wild dogs. Yet of the dozens of locals interviewed by this reporter in the Kokoda Trail, not one said they had ever seen wild dogs in the area.
Exhausted, famished and covered in dirt, the couple finally reached Alola village, a picturesque hamlet encircled by mist-shrouded sawtooth ridges. Among the first villagers to assist them was Kila Eddie. “They said they had been robbed by their porters,” he says. “Yes, they were wearing shoes and no they didn’t say anything about rape.”
Alola villager Timothy Bocoi confirms the couple wore clothes and shoes. “The village people helped them, they brought them bananas and oranges and asked them what happened,” he recalls. “They said they were attacked by Toksi and [the 17-year-old].”
Eddie then took the couple to use a solar-powered two-way radio — Alola’s only means of communication with the outside world. After making contact with the Kokoda Track Authority headquarters in Port Moresby, he passed Iovane the handset.
On the other end was KTA deputy chairman Robert Batia. “The information I heard from the call was that the white man was held-up on the trek and he was in Alola and needed an immediate medivac,” Batia says. “I said ‘okay I will send you a chopper’. I asked him where his porters were and he said he would not say anything about the porters until he got to Port Moresby, but he needed help and his wife was pretty bad.”
Batia adds: “I am happy with what I did to get them out of there. But if I had known it was just a cut on the fingers, I would not have sent the chopper, it is too costly for us. I feel we have been cheated and they were not honest with us.”
The KTA’s accounting department estimates the entire incident has cost the organisation 80,000 kina.
“We are in financial trouble, we are in a very, very bad way,” Batia says. “At this stage we can still pay our wages for staff but we cannot pay for track maintenance before the season starts this year, check a lot of bridges and check if the roads and airstrip are in good shape. There’s also our management training. We cannot do any of it.”
The KTA has sent Iovane several emails asking for his insurance details to help the organisation recoup the rescue’s costs. Iovane has not replied. He did however send the KTA an e-mail demanding a “full refund of the trekking permit fee to my bank account ASAP … 350 kina per person (700 kina in total).”
The KTA has rejected Iovane’s demand.
After landing in Port Moresby, Iovane and Clemens were taken to Paradise Private Hospital. The hospital’s owner and medical director Dr Robin Sios was about to knock off after a long shift when Clemens was rushed in on a stretcher with Iovane hovering by her side.
After stitching up Clemens’ fingers, he gave her a pap treatment and examined her. He detected evidence that showed she had experienced sexual penetration in the past 24 hours. But he found no clinical evidence of rape.
“It was not a typical rape case where you can see scratch marks and bruising on the women’s back where they have tried to get away,” says the doctor, who’s treated three or four rape victims a month during his 30-year medical career. “There was no vaginal scarring or vaginal tearing or bruising around the upper thighs.”
He adds: “She did not say she’d been raped. From the little information I got out of her, I had to push it out because she did not co-operate. She did not trust me and did not allow me to do a full examination. She refused to give me a history of events that would allow me to do a thorough diagnosis. She barely spoke and kept quiet.”
Iovane, however, had plenty to say.
“He did not display any feelings of sadness or moodiness as the partner of a rape victim usually demonstrates,” the doctor recalls. “His behaviour was very unusual, telling me this is no good for your country, that I am to going to blow up this story and this is going to do a lot of damage to your country. He said he was a journalist and if he puts this out [in the media] it will do you a lot of harm. He said it would destroy PNG. He spoke very arrogantly and badly to myself and the police. He said he’d travelled all over the world, to South America and Africa, and that this never happens anywhere but here. He was cursing the country a lot.”
After treating Clemens, Dr Sios presented the couple with a bill for 1,600 kina ($690). “I told them this is a private health facility but he said they didn’t have any money,” the doctor says.
Concerned over their distress, Dr Sios let the couple go. In the past two months he has sent Iovane several payment reminders, but says Iovane hasn’t replied. “I feel like I was conned,” the doctor says. “You know, I had a packet of biscuits here. He took it without asking and ate the whole thing in front of me.”
THE CASE OF THE MISSING SHOES
After one night at Port Moresby’s luxury Holiday Inn hotel at the TPA’s expense, Iovane and Clemens flew to Australia on January 12. That same day, The Sun published their story under the headline: “Couple Stripped and Tortured by Papua New Guinea Tribe”.
On January 18, four police officers flew into Port Moresby on a helicopter from Efogi village (also paid for by the TPA) with Toksi and the 17-year-old in their custody. In the following days, Toksi was charged with wounding and robbery. The 17-year-old was charged with robbery and sexual penetration without consent. Neither had access to legal representation at the time. Both are now being held at Bomona Prison on the outskirts of Port Moresby.
According to the father of the 17-year-old, his son has contracted dengue fever at Bomana. According to Toksi’s mother Ailynn, who visits her son in prison every week, on March 22 a correctional officer told her son to close his eyes before pistol-whipping him thrice on the head and twice on his left collarbone. She says her son has lost part of the hearing in his right ear as a result of the assault.
Over the past two months, both Toksi and the 17-year-old have twice appeared separately in court for ‘mentions’ — preliminary hearings where a judge asks the public prosecutor to present evidence and allegations made against the defendants. At all four mentions, the prosecutor has either failed to appear or asked for more time because police are yet to present them with files.
On March 18, Provincial Police Commander Laimo Asi told this reporter he expects those files to be ready in “about a week” and was confident police had enough evidence to ensure successful prosecution on all counts.
“According to my lead investigator, the medical kit confirmed there was sexual penetration without consent,” he said. “[Iovane and Clemens] submitted a statement confirming there was rape … All their property is also with the investigator.”
Clemens’ shoes, however, are not with the investigator because they were seen by this reporter on March 22 in the home of 13-year-old Pauline Soru at Kokoda Station.
A grade-six student who was at Alola village on January 11 when Iovane and Clemens emerged from the jungle pleading for help, Soru, with the assistance of villager David Sega, walked the couple to Alola’s guesthouse after Iovane’s conversation on the two-way radio. There, she boiled hot water and dressed Clemens’ wounds.
Before flying out on a helicopter, Clemens gifted her shoes — a pair of black Nike runners photographed above — to 13-year-old Soru. Iovane also gave his away. “He gave his shoes to me,” says Sega, describing the gift as distinctive green, red and white Salomon hiking boots. “He said it was a token of his appreciation.”
THE DEFENCE SHAPES UP
Bernard Geita, a lawyer with the public solicitor’s office, is now defending the 17-year-old defendant. He says the shoes that were reported as stolen could be introduced as evidence to challenge Iovane and Clemens’ reliability as witnesses. He also said the lack of incriminating evidence is good for his client’s case.
“At [his] last mention, the public prosecutor asked for the matter to be adjourned a third time until April 20 because the police file wasn’t ready,” Geita says. “As a matter of practice, if the file is not ready within three months, we will make an application to dismiss the proceedings.”
If police do present a file to the prosecutor before April 20 and the judge does agree to send the case to trial, either Geita or the prosecutor may subpoena Iovane and Clemens to testify in court. If the couple don’t comply, they could be extradited under the provisions of a bilateral treaty signed by PNG, Great Britain and the US.
Speaking exclusively to news.com.au for the first time about this case, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill confirmed extradition was a possibility.
“We were very concerned about the way this story unfolded, because the stories we are hearing now do not match up to the original version of the story,” the Prime Minister says.
“Such an incident has never happened on the [Kokoda] track before. The people there are very, very friendly and value the contributions made by trekkers … Until now all have been looked after very well. And to suggest that cannibalism continues today in PNG is very upsetting. We have our suspicions about the believability of this story.”
The Prime Minister says his government will allow the legal process to take its course so the defendants can have “a fair opportunity to put their cases forward.”
But he says that if the court concludes that Iovane and Clemens made false statements to police, his government “will exercise all available means to bring them to justice and make them answer for their actions.”
Clemens has not spoken publicly about what happened in PNG since her interview with The Sun. She is believed to be living with Iovane but could not be reached for comment.
On March 24, Iovane was sent an e-mail detailing 24 separate allegations made against him by individuals, officials, businesses and organisations in PNG. He has not yet replied, while multiple calls and texts to his mobile phone have gone unanswered.
A message Iovane emailed to this reporter on January 25 remains the first and last statement he’s made since his interview with The Sun.
“The truth will always prevail,” he said.