The troubling tale of Australia’s first celebrity chef, Willi Koeppen, features all the hallmarks of a Netflix true crime series.
The troubling tale of Australia’s first celebrity chef, Willi Koeppen, features all the hallmarks of a Netflix true crime series.

The tragic tale of Australia’s first celebrity chef

Every missing person is a mystery. Not every mystery is a murder.

Some people vanish because they want to. Such as the case in Beaumaris recently when an estate agent, a former policeman, was told a resident had gone out one day and had never been seen since.

After 16 years, neighbours were starting to think it a little odd.

"You could bury a body in there," a worried woman told the agent about the missing man's overgrown yard. That's when he called the police.

Officers were soon knocking on the door of the missing one's next-of-kin in a nearby suburb … and there he was, the man himself. It turns out he'd dropped in on mum on his way back from the shops and she'd invited him to stay. So he did. Forever.

Most missing people are harder to find than that. The tendency for people to voluntarily vanish is one reason why courts are slow to convict for murder when there's no body. Especially back in the pre-electronic age when people could fake a disappearance to look like suicide or drowning.

The sex killer Raymond "Mr Stinky" Edmunds staged his exit from a rowing boat on the Hume Weir in 1971. Everyone thought he'd drowned until a taxi driver recalled picking up a man matching his description. Bar that, Edmunds might have gone for good, working under a false name.

All of which brings us to the troubling tale of Willi Koeppen, Australia's first celebrity chef, pioneer television "personality" and owner of a string of restaurants apart from the one associated with his presumed death, the Cuckoo at Olinda.

The famous Cuckoo Restaurant.
The famous Cuckoo Restaurant.

It happened in the early hours of a "leap day", February 29, 1976. There is no hard proof that Koeppen was killed some time before dawn. But that's the way to bet.

As a teenage apprentice in a Berlin hotel, a nervous Wilhelm Paul Koeppen once made pancakes for Hitler. In 1956, he was hired before the Melbourne Olympics as executive chef at the fashionable Chevron Hotel.

By the time he met and married fellow German migrant Karin Lantzsch in 1957, Willi was well-known for his television show The Chef Presents and a radio spot on 3XY. The newlyweds bought old tea rooms on the Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd and started the Cuckoo restaurant.

The dash of Deutschland in the Dandenongs was a hit that turned into a cash cow. But the more fame and money Willi got, the less happy he and Karin were. By 1975 they were locked in a cold war: Willi was living in a cottage behind the family house and each was conducting affairs.

Willi's lover Lainie Little, a Cuckoo waitress, also had another lover, Tuan Barrett-Woodbridge, potentially creating a volatile love triangle for the already unstable Willi.

Karin's new man was Tony Bonnici, an enigmatic Melbourne barrister with a backstory.

The Maltese Bonnici arrived from Egypt in 1949 as a teenager. After working on the docks, he enrolled in the free university in Perth then transferred to Melbourne University, where he eventually studied Law.

Bonnici became Victoria's first Maltese barrister and a pilot officer in the RAAF reserve. He was famous in the Maltese community and lawyer of choice for many migrants, as he spoke several languages.

The charming and cosmopolitan barrister with the wife and four children in a big house in Doncaster was well respected in legal and political circles (and later a key player in setting up SBS television). But he fell hard for the beautiful Karin Koeppen and eventually left home to be with her.

Karin Koeppen with daughter Daniela after Willi’s disappearance.
Karin Koeppen with daughter Daniela after Willi’s disappearance.

In 1975 the two oldest Koeppen children, Andrei and Sabine, were teenagers at boarding school in Adelaide, where relatives lived. By accident or design, the interstate schooling buffered them a little from the turmoil at home, where little sister Daniela still lived with Karin.

Andrei and Sabine came back often enough to witness their parents' crumbling relationship. On one occasion that Andrei never forgot, his father insulted Bonnici, comparing his children to "monkeys". Bonnici grabbed Koeppen by the throat.

That confrontation might not mean much - but Bonnici later concealed it from police, claiming he didn't even know Koeppen.

By the new year of 1976, Koeppen was argumentative and verging on irrational. In fact, he was threatening to sell the restaurant to buy a farm in northern Victoria, a prospect Karin dreaded. She had worked hard to establish the Cuckoo and loved the social cachet and river of cash it provided.

Barrister Bonnici was not the only witness to Koeppen v Koeppen and the disappearance that would become the perfect crime. Another was Dr Bernard Butler, whose surgery was just 750m from the Cuckoo.

It was Butler who introduced Bonnici to Karin. He and his girlfriend Anne Robinson and Bonnici and Karin made a tight foursome, even taking a holiday cruise together in 1974 as Willi sank into a state of drunken anger and despair.

Dr Butler went to the restaurant late on the Saturday night, February 28, and saw that Koeppen was drinking heavily and acting erratically.

The two men were not close but the doctor was concerned about Koeppen's behaviour. The two drank together on the balcony long after the last diners left. At 1.50am a barman, Bill Ingles, told Koeppen he'd locked up and was going home.

 

Was Chopper Read right about what happened to Koeppen.
Was Chopper Read right about what happened to Koeppen.

 

After that, says Butler, he and Koeppen drove to his surgery a short distance away, where they continued drinking and talking until roughly 3am. Butler says Koeppen then left in his kombi van and he never saw him again.

At 3am the restaurant's weekend accordion player, Phillip Faiers, who often stayed in the cottage with Koeppen, was wondering where the boss was.

Faiers drove to the restaurant to see if he was missing "a party". The place was locked, dark and deserted, so he left. He noticed a big, dark-coloured car parked near the restaurant. He thought it might be a Chevrolet or Pontiac.

At 4.30am cleaner Nivelles Love turned up to clean the Cuckoo. As she pulled up, she saw a big, dark car driving off, followed by a light-coloured van. Koeppen's kombi was parked near the restaurant with its left side hard over the steeply sloping bank. Its rear sliding door was open.

Willi Koeppen was gone.

At first, no one seemed to care much. Koeppen had been talking about heading to the Queensland island where he owned a house, and that story did the rounds. Two days later Karin finally notified police he was missing.

They searched nearby bushland. Decades later, no one was even certain that the big septic tanks downhill from the restaurant were drained and searched properly.

Butler's story that Koeppen left his surgery around 3am has never varied, even if some other details have. Karin's story that she thought he'd left the state never varied. Bonnici always maintained he knew nothing.

In 1990, Pentridge prisoner Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read wrote a series of letters to his publishers. As an aside in one of them, he describes a conversation with fellow prisoner Alex Tsakmakis in which Tsakmakis boasted about being involved in Koeppen's murder.

The Read story was published three years after Tsakmakis was killed in jail, so the truth died with him.

 

Karin Koeppen with her daughter Daniela Koeppen-Rosenfeld inside their restaurant.
Karin Koeppen with her daughter Daniela Koeppen-Rosenfeld inside their restaurant.

Coincidentally, in the mid-1970s, Tsakmakis had been on a killing spree. He dumped one victim, Bruce Walker, into the water off Queenscliff from his boat. He was the sort of person who could kill someone or get rid of a body at short notice.

At the Cuckoo, life went on. Karin kept running the restaurant she loved and was soon living with the man she loved, Tony Bonnici. He was, according to older daughter Sabine Koeppen, a kindly man who treated her mother well.

Bonnici split with Karin in the 1980s when she turned deeply religious, a change in her that puzzled her adult children. They had loved their father despite his faults and never understood their mother's strained silence on his disappearance.

In 2018 a coroner formally found that Willi Koeppen was dead and it was homicide. Last year, frustrated family members hired private investigator Damian Marrett to chase loose leads.

The former Detective is amazed at how badly the case was investigated when the trail was fresh.

The "Queensland island" theory was a red herring that diverted police far too long. There were no flights from Melbourne to Queensland on that Sunday morning. No one named Koeppen flew out of Melbourne that month. Later, police produced an odd statement from a witness who claimed to have seen Koeppen at the airport. Marrett believes that if such a witness ever existed, he was wrong.

Andrei lived interstate and still does. In 1985 he wrote to the Chief Commissioner asking why the homicide squad had done so little. He was shocked to get a call from a former policeman who warned him to back off and not return to Victoria. Andrei took the veiled threat seriously.

He and his sisters still wonder if anyone alive can solve the mystery that eats at them. Their mother now suffers dementia and is often beyond meaningful communication.

Sabine said this week: "I love my mother but she knows more than she is saying." She went to Tony Bonnici when he was dying in 2013 and he insisted he knew nothing.

The Koeppens and Damian Marrett believe there are still people alive who know what happened to the chef who vanished.

They wonder why a reward has not been posted before it is too late. It seems a fair question.

MORE ANDREW RULE

INSIDE MATTHEW WALES' LONELY LIFE IN PRISON

HOW FAMILIES HELP SUBURBAN KILLERS SNEAK THROUGH CRACKS

 

andrew.rule@news.com.au

Originally published as The tragic tale of Australia's first celebrity chef

Willi Koeppen was Australia’s first celebrity chef.
Willi Koeppen was Australia’s first celebrity chef.
Willi Koeppen.
Willi Koeppen.

Queensland’s border snub to Sydney is a political gamble

Premium Content Queensland’s border snub to Sydney is a political gamble

OPINION: The Queensland Premier’s decision to continue to shut-out Sydneysiders has...

Students plant hundreds of koala trees to inspire others

Premium Content Students plant hundreds of koala trees to inspire others

High school students have spearheaded a project to boost koala habitat on private...

‘It’s just so tragic’: Mum’s fight to get son medical help

Premium Content ‘It’s just so tragic’: Mum’s fight to get son medical help

A North Coast family is facing bills of more than $150,000