Coroner to find on Cuckoo chef mystery

Willi Koeppen.

By Casey Neill

Cuckoo Restaurant founder Wilhelm ‘Willi’ Koeppen might have been murdered, but what exactly happened to the celebrity chef will likely remain a mystery.

Mr Koeppen, one of Australia’s first celebrity chefs, disappeared without a trace on 29 February in 1976, aged 46.

The Coroners Court of Victoria received a summary inquest on Tuesday 10 July.

A coroner was expected to hand down an official finding on what happened to him later in the week.

“Mr Koeppen is believed to have died on or about 29 February 1976 and his death is suspected to be the result of homicide,” the summary said.

“As Mr Koeppen has never been located, his body has not been examined to identify a cause of death.

“I submit that it is not possible to make a finding with respect to the cause of Mr Koeppen’s death.”

The report said that no investigation a coroner could undertake was “likely to establish either the identity of the person or persons (if any) who caused Mr Koeppen’s death, or the circumstances in which the death occurred”.

The report said that Mr Koeppen suffered from alcoholism and appeared to suffer from some form of depressive illness.

“He was described as being prone to mood swings and erratic behaviour,” it said.

At the time of his disappearance, his marriage to Karin Koeppen had deteriorated and he was living in a cottage at the rear of the family home on One Tree Hill Road, Olinda.

“Both Mr and Mrs Koeppen knew that the other was having extra marital affairs,” the report said.

The Cuckoo, a book published to mark the restaurant’s 50th anniversary, said Mr Koeppen was a successful businessman known for his good looks, charm, and charisma who often had a few drinks with friends after work – and the early hours of 29 February 1976 were no exception.

Later that morning, Cuckoo staff found his Volkswagen Kombi van parked at the restaurant in its usual spot with the keys in the ignition and the doors wide open.

The Ferntree Gully Criminal Investigation Branch handled the case initially and believed Mr Koeppen had faked his own disappearance.

But in August 2012, police said that a review of the file indicated it was more than likely that the case was a homicide and it would be re-investigated.

In November 2013, then-Detective Senior Sergeant Ron Iddles reported Mr Koeppen’s death to the Coroners Court.

In March 2016, his son Andrei Koeppen said he was confident “the truth will come out eventually”.

He said the main suspect in his disappearance, Alex Tsakmakis, was beaten to death in prison in 1988.

“We believe he met with foul play on night he disappeared,” Andrei said.

“There was a window of four hours where he disappeared early in the morning until the realisation something might have happened.

“We have not had an opportunity for closure and we have always carried this doubt and suspicion.

“There are so many potential people who are suspects, some still alive, some moved on, and new theories coming forward all the time.

“I think that it would make a big difference, like being able to go to his funeral.”

Mr Koeppen learnt his trade in Berlin and in 1955 boarded a ship bound for Australia in search of a better life.

He started working in Melbourne’s hotels and his career blossomed.

He was soon hosting a popular German show on radio station 3XY and became Melbourne’s first television celebrity chef on Channel Seven show The Chef Presents.

Mr Koeppen and Karin married in 1957 and bought the run-down Quamby café in 1958 following a day trip to the Dandenongs.

They lived in its basement as they turned it into the Bavarian-themed buffet.

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