Wilhelm Paul "Willi" KOEPPEN




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The Cuckoo affair: What happened to Willi Koeppen?

Tammy Mills The Age

It was a Saturday night in the summer of 1976 and celebrated chef Willi Koeppen turns up to the restaurant in a foul mood. He’d been drinking, and after sacking one of the hostesses, he accuses his wife of having affairs and threatens to throw himself off the restaurant’s balcony.

Later in the night, Mr Koeppen disappears. And so begins a four-decade long mystery involving one of Australia’s first celebrity chefs, set high in the hills of the Dandenong Ranges in a kitsch German restaurant called the Cuckoo.

The persistent assumption is the 46-year-old simply walked off into the dense mountain ash forest that surrounds Olinda and took his own life. But there have been many other rumours about Willi Koeppen. One involves escaping to an island off the coast of Queensland with escorts. There have also been two supposed murder confessions – one from a dangerous underworld figure, and another, more recent allegation, that came from a wildly jealous love rival.

In the coroner’s court in Melbourne this week, it was apparent the mystery is no closer to being solved. The court heard that despite police investigations over the past 42 years, Mr Koeppen has disappeared without a trace. Police believe he was murdered, but his cause of death may never be established because his body has never been found.

When he opened the Cuckoo with his wife Karin in 1958, Willi Koeppen was a big deal in Melbourne. He’d migrated from Germany after completing an apprenticeship at Berlin institution, the Hotel Adlon, and in Melbourne, he became executive chef at the glitzy Chevron Hotel. He hosted a popular German radio show before he introduced cookery to Australian television with his own black-and-white show The Chef Presents.

The Koeppens were driving around the Dandenong Ranges when they passed the Quamby tea rooms in Olinda. They bought it, relaunching the venue as the Cuckoo Restaurant, and introduced Melburnians to the smorgasboard. It was a brash German sensation, playing host to prime ministers and rock stars. The red and white check tables heaved under ice sculptures and beer steins, with the raucous feasting supported by a floor show featuring cowbells and yodelling.

But, by 1976, Mr Koeppen had fallen out of love with the restaurant. The Cuckoo had ensnared him and, as one relative described, started to sap his creativity. He was also drinking too much and his marriage to Karin was breaking down, with both knowing the other was having affairs.

His eldest child Andrei was 17 and boarding at a school in Adelaide when his father disappeared.

He remembers the phone call from his mother, and thinking his father had gone to his island in the Whitsundays, one of Mr Koeppen's several investments.

Andrei flew up to the island with the restaurant’s manager to search for his father, but nobody had been there.


“We just didn’t know and if you don’t know, you can’t grieve. You can’t express anything,” he said.

“He may well have taken off somewhere, that was certainly the theory of the police – that he’d nicked off – so you started to think, well, maybe he had.”

Now Andrei is certain foul play was involved.

“I believe somebody else was involved … and in my mind, and in my heart, I don’t think that he is alive. I think that he probably perished that night in February 1976.”

When Mr Koeppen turned up at the restaurant drunk, depressed and abusive on the night of February 28, 1976, local doctor Bernard Butler went to the Cuckoo to help quieten him down.

In typed statements found within the original police brief, it’s apparent Dr Butler and Mr Koeppen had a rocky relationship. The police investigator at the time, Brian McCarthy, who went on to become a respected homicide detective, wrote that Mr Koeppen had apparently blamed the doctor for introducing his wife to her lover, a local lawyer.

But Andrei believes the doctor, who was a friend of the family’s, was more like a counsellor to his father.

Mr Koeppen and Dr Butler were seen drinking and talking quietly on the restaurant’s balcony into the night. Karin had left the restaurant and gone to a friend’s house and, in the early hours of Sunday, February 29, Dr Butler said he and Mr Koeppen went to his home, which doubled as his clinic, less than a kilometre down the road.


"I was trying to help Willi," Dr Butler told police at the time.

He said Mr Koeppen left in his Volkswagen Kombi between 3am and 4am after talking about going away to Poole Island.

Dr Butler had posted a medical report to Mr Koeppen’s insurance company the day before. He claimed Mr Koeppen had “attacks” of manic-depressive psychosis, that he had become violent and he may have to be institutionalised.

Dr Butler would not comment for this story, except to say in a text message that the medical board advised him he couldn’t talk about the case to “anyone other than Victoria Police”.

One of the restaurant’s cleaners found Mr Koeppen’s van parked at the Cuckoo when he arrived for work about 4.30am. The side door of the van was open and there was no sign of Mr Koeppen.


Mr Koeppen’s youngest daughter, Daniela Koeppen Rosenfeld, was 10 years old then. She remembers constantly asking where her father was and no one being able to explain it to her. She thought no one was looking hard enough for her dad.

“Even up until I was 21, I remember thinking maybe he’d just turn up on my 21st birthday. That he would walk through the door. I would wait for that moment,” she said.

The case would lie dormant for decades, with the original investigator concluding it was likely Mr Koeppen was alive. But something would happen that took the case down a bizarre path.

In 1991, standover man and underworld executioner Mark “Chopper” Read released a book. In it, he wrote that ruthless serial killer Alex Tsakmakis boasted to him in prison about his involvement in Mr Koeppen’s demise.


“I remember Tsakmakis said the bloke owed him money, and there was a falling out,” Chopper wrote.

“Alex was into that murder up to his neck. He was proud as a peacock over that one.”

By then Tsakmakis was dead, bludgeoned to death with gym weights by Russell Street bomber Craig Minogue.

On the Sunday of Mr Koeppen's disappearance, four escorts and their boss turned up for lunch at the Cuckoo. The brothel madam told police Mr Koeppen invited them for lunch three days earlier so he could choose one of the girls to take away with him to the island.

Some searched for a connection between the escorts and Tsakmakis, but a link has never been established. Police have also never confirmed Mr Koeppen owed Tsakmakis money, nor that any relationship existed between the pair.


But Chopper’s book, and the publicity around it, would leave a mark on Mr Koeppen’s family. Elke, the daughter of his middle child Sabina, grew up believing her grandfather was an underworld figure.

“It made it kind of glamorous and it tied all the loose ends up so we never interrogated what happened,” 29-year-old Elke said.

It was only when she read the original police evidence that she realised her grandfather’s legacy had been distorted.

“He was talented, charismatic, good looking and entrepreneurial; bringing this slice of European charm and European cuisine to Melbourne. But at the same he was flawed and sad ... a broken man,” Elke said.

She believes the answer lies in the original police brief.


“It tells a story and it’s not Tsakmakis,” she said.

“There has been a massive injustice here and someone has gotten away with murder.”

A second apparent confession to Mr Koeppen's murder has also emerged in the last four years.

The Age has learnt that police interviewed a man in South Australia who they were told claimed to have killed Mr Koeppen and dumped his body. He was wildly jealous of Mr Koeppen, detectives were told, and Mr Koeppen’s relationship with a woman the man was obsessed with.


There is a thread of it in the police file, a mention of the same woman. But, as police wrote, Mr Koeppen ended the relationship after finding her in bed with someone else six months before he disappeared.

Just how much weight detectives gave this claim isn’t known, though it is the theory that Andrei likes the most.

“It was a bit of a lightbulb moment. It was like, of course, why hasn’t anyone looked at that before? Forty years of searching, looking, interviewing and they didn’t look at the girlfriend,” he said.

“My hope is this will lead to the offering of a reward. If the police did offer a reward, we might actually get some information we don’t already have.”

But Daniela doesn’t believe it, nor the other so-called confession.

“They are stories. They’re all hearsay and there is no evidence. We haven’t actually had anybody say, ‘I was there, I was a part of it’. We’ve got this Chopper story and well, is that legitimate? People lie.”

Daniela is sitting in the Cuckoo restaurant of today. The tables, filled with busloads of tourists, are still covered in red and white check cloth. The wooden walls are adorned with cuckoo clocks, flags of the world, deer antlers and pictures of Bavarian landscapes.

Lunch service today – a buffet of schnitzel, sausages and sauerkraut – came complete with an accordion-playing Russian who easily convinced a stein-laden table to participate in a clapping song.

Daniela runs the restaurant, now in its 60th year, after taking over from her mother Karin.


Both Andrei and Sabina say it’s hard to get Karin, now deeply religious, to talk about what she thinks happened to her husband. Daniela said her mother, who left war-torn East Germany for Australia, likes to focus on the “good times”.

“She remembers that he was the love of her life. She really did love him,” she said.

His disappearance is still so entwined in the restaurant. Customers will ask about what happened and Daniela says his presence is everywhere.

“I’m still walking his steps, downstairs to the kitchen, up here. It’s exactly where he was,” she said.

All three children say their father was dedicated to them. Daniela believes something accidental happened the night he disappeared and it was covered up.

“Something happened that night. I don’t think he took off or left us because he loved his children, he did,” Daniela said.

She said it was important, now more than ever, for information to come to light.

“We need more evidence than just a story or hearsay,” she said.

“Time is of the essence because it has already been so long. It would be a year of redemption if someone came forward and said something now, to give the family some resolution.”


Could car hold the key to one of Australia's most baffling mysteries?

By | Under Investigation 2023
A dark, American-style car could hold the key to solving one of Australia's most baffling mysteries — the disappearance and suspected murder of this country's first celebrity chef.

Wilhelm Paul "Willi" Koeppen hasn't been seen since the early hours of February 29, 1976, when he vanished without a trace. His well-recognised pale blue Kombi van was found parked with the keys in the ignition and the sliding passenger door wide open. But there was no sign of the famous chef.

Under Investigation's panel of experts, including some of the most experienced homicide and missing person's detectives in the country, have re-examined every shred of evidence from the Willi Koeppen case, and made some startling discoveries.

And they all believe the same thing: Willi was murdered, probably by someone he knew.


Willi's story begins in Berlin, Germany, in the late 1920s when he apprenticed to one of the most famous hotels and restaurants in Europe, the Adlon Hotel.

Situated near Nazi party headquarters, Willi is said to have made pancakes for the most notorious man of his time, Adolf Hitler.

After the war, Koeppen moved to Melbourne and began work in the city's most respected restaurants.


He met and married a fellow German emigrant Karin and together they purchased tea rooms in Olinda, a quaint little town in the Dandenong Ranges.

The young couple rebadged the restaurant as the Cuckoo, introducing the smorgasbord to Australia in 1958 and their business exploded, making the restaurant one of the most popular and famous in the country.

At the same time, Willi had launched a glittering radio and television career with his own TV slot called The Chef Presents, becoming the first celebrity chef in Australia.


But with success and fame came a downhill spiral. Cracks began to appear in his marriage, with both Willi and Karin taking lovers.

Karin, a vivacious hostess, ran the restaurant from the front of house, her husband Willi driving the success from his kitchens. The Cuckoo played host to the rich and famous, from entertainers and celebrities to senior state and federal politicians.


As their success grew so did the distance between the couple, who are now the parents of three children, Sabina, Andrei and Daniela.

Sabina, now a lawyer, who joined Under Investigation, recalls those heady days.

"My mother was the driver of the front door, and it was a perfect combination," she told Liz Hayes.

"He did the back door, he did the food. She was so charismatic herself. She was the perfect hostess and she welcomed people, made them feel really special. And so it was a really dynamic sort of duo.

"They made so much money, this is the problem. And they're not particularly sophisticated with money. So cracks start to appear. And my father, of course, he was, despite being so talented, he was flawed."

As the cracks appeared, Willi started drinking heavily. He had moved out of the marital home to a small flat at the bottom of his property. Karin was having an affair with wellknown Melbourne barrister Tony Bonnici while Willi was with waitress Lainie Little.


Karin was surrounded by a group of friends whom she partied with regularly. They included the local doctor Bernard Butler and his partner at the time Anne Robinson.

It became clear during UI's investigation Karin's "posse" of friends did not like Willi and he reciprocated with venom.

Former homicide detective Alex Krstic; Damian Marrett a former undercover detective now private Investigator who has been looking into this case for three years; and missing persons expert Valentine Smith dissected every piece of the police file and all the witness statements for this special investigation.

"Look, he upset people. There's no doubt there were a lot of people who did not like Willie," Marrett told UI.

Krstic identified two distinct groups.

"You've got the Karin camp is the Dr Robinson, the barrister, and a number of others, including some employees. And in Willi's camp there's not a whole lot," he said.


It was 8pm on Saturday February 28, 1976, and the Cuckoo restaurant, was packed as usual. Willi entered the restaurant clearly very drunk and as witnesses later told police, spoiling for a fight.

He confronted long-time employee June Vink and in an abusive tirade threatened to sack her. Wife Karin was called to the restaurant to calm him down but things only escalated.

"The evidence suggests that Willi's had a lot to drink and that he's been unpleasant to a number of people, threatening to sack a couple of people," Krstic said.

Marrett said Willi had been saying Robinson was in a relationship with Karin and Butler, that "there's a three-way going on between those three people".

"That gets back to Bernie Butler and Bernie's furious. He even admits he was angry," Marrett told UI.

Butler the doctor decided he was going to confront Willi - to try to defuse a potentially volatile situation. But en route to the restaurant to "have it out with Willi" he stopped at his surgery and collected some strong anti-psychotic drugs, Mellaril, in case they were needed. 

What happens in the next few hours, which would turn out to be Willi's last, is critical.

Butler confronted Willi, who was drinking his favourite beer. The pair retired to a small balcony off the restaurant and according to Butler they discussed a range of topics. It appear Willi and Butler both calmed down.

Restaurant staff began to leave but Butler suggested Willi and he continue their drinking session back at Butler's surgery. Remember Willi has been drinking steadily all night having already arrived at his restaurant very drunk.

According to Butler, Willi arrived at his surgery, they continued to drink for another 45 minutes to an hour and then Willi departed. But before he went, Willi apparently received a mysterious phone call at the surgery. This has baffled our panel of experts.

"Now, the thing is if that phone call was made, I'd be asking questions. 'Who knew that Willi was at the doctor's surgery?'," missing persons expert Smith asked.

Krstic had another question.

"The issues that I have is that the fact is you're already in a licensed premises that contains significant amounts of alcohol to go to the surgery, what, about a kilometre away?" he asked.

Sabina had her own questions for the doctor.

"You're his treating doctor. Here's a person in crisis. This house had a bedroom. All you had to do was lock him in a room," she said.

"Why didn't you do that? Why did you let this person who has consumed vast amounts of alcohol out on the road again?"


About 4am on Sunday, February 29, the cleaner arrived at the Cuckoo restaurant finding Willi's kombi van parked in an unusual location. He normally parked near the rear kitchen doors but she found the van parked in a lower car park, hidden from the main road above.

Also strangely she found the kitchen doors ajar - highly unusual for the very security conscious chef.

Willi had vanished without trace but the alarm wouldn't be raised for several days when he failed to return to take up a planned holiday in Queensland.

The police investigation was told the cleaner and the local police officer Phillip Fairs both saw a mysterious, dark-coloured American-style car parked outside the Cuckoo restaurant, facing the wrong way in the early hours of the morning. They believe it could be a Ford or Chevrolet.

This car has never been found but could be the key to unlocking this mystery.

UI's expert panel also questioned some of the evidence provided by Butler, especially a letter of reference he provided for Willi written at the time of his disappearance, which is far from flattering.

"This is the letter, 'He has expressed suicidal ideas, has threatened his wife with a rifle, which on one occasion, he fired in the bedroom. And has attacks of paranoid delusions of grandeur, during which he states he can see through 18 feet of concrete'.

"Now, there's this line here, 'He threatened his wife with a rifle, which on one occasion he fired in the bedroom'.

"Now that seems to be in conflict with the way Sabina profiled and described her father," Smith ventured.

And in perhaps the most bizarre twist, questions were raised about Karin's involvement with, or knowledge of, what happened that fateful night.

"I asked her many times, I cross-examined her on countless occasions and often put it to her. I said, 'You hated him. You know, were glad to see him go'," Sabina Wakefield told UI.

"And she said, 'I didn't do it'." 

Sabina's younger sister Daniela also had her suspicions recalling how she had also confronted her mother about what she knew.

"I said, 'What do you really think now? You can tell me' and she said, 'I really think it was an accident'," Daniela told UI.

"And then I cross-examined her with, 'So you don't think somebody actually murdered him? Or there was some other conspiracy theory? Theory with mafia or gambling?' and she said, 'No, I think it was an accident'."

Neither sibling today believes their mother had any direct involvement in their father's disappearance and presumed murder but if she did, Karin took any secrets with her when she passed away late in 2022.


It's now been 47 years since that fateful night and olice are no closer to discovering what really happened to Willi.

Only two of the group of people with any direct involvement that night remain alive - Butler the doctor and his former partner Robinson. Neither agreed to discuss anything with Under Investigation.

Despite the lack of material witnesses or any new information, UI's panel of experts believe this case is still solvable. 

A coronial inquest finally determined Willi died in the early hours of February 29, 1976, from undetermined causes, but his case remaines an open homicide investigation, not a suicide as some had wrongly claimed.

"Where's the body if it's a suicide? You can't dig a grave yourself and bury it," Marrett pointed out.

Daughter Sabina says: "Do I believe he was murdered? Yes."