One man’s 16-year quest to uncover truth of Simone's murder
The name Simone Strobel first crossed the desk of German journalist Manfred Schweidler 16 years ago, and he's been determined since then to find the answer to the question, "What happened to Simone?".
The Northern Star has liaised with Mr Schweidler on the case since 2005, sharing a commitment to find out what happened to the 25-year-old kindergarten teacher, who died while on holiday in Lismore.
Mr Schweidler is the crime reporter for Main Post, a newspaper from Wurzburg near Simone's home town of Rieden.
Over the years he has watched the case unfold and had the harrowing task of meeting with Simone's family five years after her death.
Mr Schweidler shares his attempts to interview Simone's travelling companions, her boyfriend Tobias Suckfuell, his sister Katrin, and Jens Martin, and speaks of his liaison with German investigators, who have the task of uncovering what happened to the German national abroad.
His account is compelling and offers an insight into the turmoil suffered by Simone's family.
This is Mr Schweidler's recollection:
The crucial question is still waiting for an answer: "What happened to Simone?"
That was the headline of Simone Strobel's home newspaper Main Post on February 17, 2005. It was the headline of a missing person report - and the first article on the tragic case (of Simone Strobel).
Two dozen more would follow in the next 16 years.
A fellow newspaper employee from Simone's home town of Rieden, just outside Würzburg, had brought the news with her - Simone's parents Gabi and Gustl Strobel had been called by Simone's friend (to say she was missing).
They were at a loss and described the 25-year-old kindergarten teacher as conscientious, reliable, and sensitive.
"It doesn't suit her character that she just runs away like that," they emphasised.
The newspaper received pictures of a happily smiling girl on the beach, arm in arm with her friend Tobias.
The region around Würzburg is one of the most peaceful and safest in Germany.
Violent deaths are rare here.
Accordingly, the case from distant Australia attracted a great deal of attention.
There was great sympathy for Simone's parents, who are simple farmers and enjoy great respect.
The case came to me as the criminal reporter for the newspaper.
The discovery of an unidentified corpse in Lismore made our worst fears come true after five days.
Würzburg police press spokesman Wolfgang Glücker said: "At the request of the German consulate in Sydney, we started investigating, (speaking with) the parents, and found out about their daughter's dental status through their dentist. The material is evaluated in DNA analysis.
When the three fellow travellers came back to Germany, the German police and public prosecutor's office also investigated in their own proceedings.
I still remember that Simone's parents broke off contact when the suspicion grew that Tobias and his sister Katrin might have something to do with Simone's death. (After a Coronial Inquest held in Lismore in 2007, then Deputy State Coroner Paul Macmahon said he agreed with evidence police say showed Tobias was the most likely suspect. He said however, there was not enough evidence to charge him or his sister, Katrin Suckfuell, who police suspect may have helped him hide Simone's body.)
I remember especially, when Tobias stepped in front of the cameras in Lismore on March 1 (2005), attacked the police, and melodramatically asked for help in the search for the "bloody evil monster" he thought responsible for Simone's death.
(The Coronial Inquest found that Simone died on or about February 12, 2005, that she likely died from suffocation or smothering asphyxia, and that her death was "caused by the action of a person or persons unknown".)
A help for us was the fast contact to Alex Easton from the Lismore Northern Star via email. It became more and more intense - because the time difference made it difficult for reporters in both countries to reach official investigators in the other country.
It was sometimes strange to be woken up by the phone in the middle of the night, half asleep to pass on new information in English - and to read the new article on the internet the next morning to see what had become of it.
At Simone's funeral in Rieden three days later we stayed far away so as not to disturb the family's grief.
Tobias cried incessantly and seemed close to collapse.
In the following days, he was harassed with questions by the police and the press - and suddenly disappeared from public view.
I heard more in 2006 when an English reporter contacted me, who had interviewed him in South Africa to see if he was coming to the Inquest.
Tobias refused: He would never go back to Australia - a promise he later broke.
More articles followed in May when the results of the forensic medical examination of Simone became known, and in June, when I learned details from investigators about analysing a hair from the crime scene, and the work of a profiler in Australia.
Because investigators were also working on the case in Würzburg, they interviewed the three returning travellers, Tobias, Katrin, and Jens, who were living here (in Germany) again.
None of them wanted to talk to the media anymore.
On June 15, 2005, the Würzburg public prosecutor's office confirmed Tobias was a person of interest in the investigation, which was confirmed at the 2007 Inquest.
Fifteen years later, as the prosecutor's successor recently told me, the suspicion still persists.
Simone's parents refused to believe that for five years.
They ignored the rumours in the place, lived quietly, tormented by grief.
Every year they went to Kreuzberg, Lower Franconia's most famous pilgrimage site, to commemorate their daughter.
They had been there with Simone before she left for Australia.
Simone's father later told me he had been approached by strangers in a church, asked where he came from.
"Rieden is the village where the girl who was killed in Australia comes from, isn't it?", he was asked. He suffered the question in silence.
Much changed in the parents' minds with the visit of the Australian author Virginia Peters, who wanted to write a book about the case.
She was extremely convincing when talking to the parents.
She knew a lot of details, and even got Tobias to speak.
She opened the eyes of the Strobels, who now began to think very differently about Simone's friend.
One summer evening in 2010, Gustl Strobel told me, via a police officer, that he was ready to speak to me - not on the phone, but face-to-face, in his house.
I will never forget the scene - when I reached the house and he climbed from his tractor - a white-haired farmer who was used to working hard, who used frank words.
He put his hand towards me and said: "So you are the guy I would have loved to nail to the cross for years!"
I swallowed, he invited me in, where his wife Gabi was waiting.
What followed was a terrible, open three-hour conversation with two people who were tormented by the fact that they did not get an answer to the question: "What happened to Simone?"
There were pictures of her and other memories all over the room.
Her mother fought back tears. And her father had long breaks in his telling, forming sentence after sentence, very cautious.
Gustl Strobel had not rested when the efforts of the police gradually flagged.
He drove, for his own personal investigation, the 17km to the neighbouring town of Altbessingen, where Katrin and Tobias had returned to their parents.
But he didn't get any answers from either of them, he told me.
Then she jumped into her car and drove away.
Tobias' visits to the parents of his six-year-long-girlfriend had become rare and ended, he had no answers to Gustl's questions.
Three years later I entered the Suckfuell's impressive farm in Altbessingen, with a huge wooden gate.
Someone who used to play soccer with Tobias as a boy called me and said Tobias had come back - contrary to earlier assurances - with his new girlfriend from Australia, whom he was going to marry.
I wanted to give him the chance to describe the case from his point of view.
But I got no chance to ask him about it in the yard.
Katrin promised me I would have contact with her lawyer - and her mother with a hoe if I didn't leave the property immediately - which I did.
Weeks later I officially found out Tobias was actually celebrating his wedding in a romantic castle nearby.
A TV team from Sat1 and I were hoping to ask him a few questions there. But his scouts had warned him.
When he drove up with his bride in a Cabrio car, his surfing friends surrounded him like bodyguards, pushed us away, and hit the camera.
When I called my questions from a distance of five metres, Tobias just smiled and kept walking.
They celebrated inside until evening.
Because we were waiting in front of the gate, they wanted to force us to leave the scene.
But police did not react and we stayed outside.
Then they secretly fled through a back door into the forest to a car that was waiting for them.
"Where's the story?" asked my disappointed editor-in-chief.
Nothing appeared in print about it, at first.
A week later, while on vacation in Italy, I got a surprise call from a police officer:
"You don't guess who we've just arrested," he began the conversation.
Police would allege Tobias had ordered cannabis from a dealer in Berlin for the wedding, and the police were secretly listening in on the telephone line.
When the dealer arrived in Schweinfurt by train, there were handcuffs instead of joints for both of them.
I grabbed the laptop of my girlfriend's son and wrote the story from Italy, and months later, another one about a very silent and angry Tobias in court. (Tobias was provisionally released in time to attend his wedding. It is understood the charge was later withdrawn.)
That was the last time I saw him, but not the last story.
His argument over Virginia Peters' book, the search for secret documents by police in his home in Perth, the reward of a million Australian dollars, and the planned second inquiry drove us on and on.
(In 2017, Tobias was ordered to pay $120,000 in legal costs after dropping a defamation action against Virginia Peters and a publisher of her book, Have You Seen Simone? which he alleged unfairly incriminated him. Police investigating Simone's death seized documents related to the defamation action, which they were legally able to access after the defamation case was dropped.)
Tobias has always maintained his innocence over Simone's death.
Jens Martin, Simone's third fellow traveller, has not been classified as a suspect by German authorities since late 2020 but is now classified as a witness.
He was questioned again by investigators in Würzburg in 2018 and 2019, I learned from police sources.
His girlfriend at the time said years ago that he suffered like a dog from his past.
But neither she nor his lawyer, got him to speak to me.
He does not want to travel to Australia again for a proposed second Coronial Inquest, as he did for the first one held in 2007.
"He doesn't have more to say than he has already said," his lawyer Reinhart Stumpf told me.
The contact with the Strobel family has remained.
They have my promise that they'll hear about new stories from me personally before they're in the papers - a promise I've only made once in 35 years.
We keep talking on the phone, sometimes about other topics, like congratulations on the birth of their first grandchild by Simone's brother.
"The joy about it alleviates the pain somewhat," says Gabi Strobl, who otherwise prefers to drop the phone quickly when the conversation comes down to it.
Simone's father was happy that the investigators in Australia are still on the ball.
"I vacillate between fear and hope," he told me recently.
He is in contact with the Australian authorities and received an email that the inquiry has been postponed to an unknown time.
He had thought about flying there himself to get an idea of the location.
Now the question remains unanswered for him for the time being: "What happened to Simone?"