By Sylvana El-Khazen
The plaintive expression on a young German backpacker’s face in a missing person’s poster haunted author Virginia Peters and would ultimately change her life. In the local café she frequented most mornings in Byron Bay, she found the poster of 25-year-old Simone Strobel who had had been missing from Lismore for six days.
The magnetic pull of Simone’s face would result in a tumultuous nine-year journey that would place Virginia Peters at the centre of an unsolved murder and the publication last year of her book, Have You Seen Simone? The Story of An Unsolved Murder.
“I kept staring at the picture,” she says. Simone seemed so familiar, like the writer had known her in some way. This was back in 2005, when a week after Simone was reported missing, she was found dead under a pile of palm fronds 90 metres from the Lismore Caravan Park. She had been staying there with her boyfriend of six years Tobias Suckfuell, his sister Katrin and a friend, Jens Martin.
Virginia Peters’ attendance at Simone’s inquest was the catalyst for the writer to begin her own investigation into Simone’s murder. She also decided she was going to write a book, despite having never been interested in true crime cases or books.
At the time, Virginia Peters was a stay-at-home mum in Byron Bay, raising three children while her husband commuted to Sydney four nights a week for work. Although she was writing short stories with “frustrated domestic content”, she says she felt disempowered and isolated in her domestic life. This “lack of purpose” troubled her.
The choice to investigate the case and write Have You Seen Simone? was motivated by much more than curiosity. She wanted to feel a connection to Simone, a connection that was far from her “comfortable” position in life. She read about the case in the media. “I think crime articles in particular create an emotional connection. It can be quite a powerful thing for a reader.
“But while a newspaper has that power to draw you into someone’s story, the paradox is it can also remind you on a rational level that the fate of this stranger has nothing to do with you personally.”
Virginia Peters says she chose to bridge the gap by becoming involved in a story that had nothing to do with her.
The process of writing Have You Seen Simone? took her on an unimagined journey. Given access to all the police files and reports of Simone’s case, as well as tapes of the interviews with the suspects, the writer was soon working with the NSW detectives investigating the murder.
Making several trips to Germany over the nine-year period, she met with Simone’s family, made contact with the German police investigating the case, and also met with the Suckfuell family. This would ultimately lead to a long anticipated interview with Tobias Suckfuell.
The mystery surrounding Simone’s murder, said to be most likely a result of asphyxiation, and the red flags that kept coming up in police evidence engrossed the writer. Simone’s boyfriend was regarded as the prime suspect by police. Contradictions in his statements, both his and his sister’s absence at the inquest, and the bizarre behavior displayed by Suckfuell baffled police; it is something the writer tried to come to grips with in her book.
She also examined significant ethical dilemmas she faced in writing the book. One was her diminishing sense of objectivity, and her realisation she was not acting from a “sterile” third-person position.
“I didn’t feel comfortable writing this story from a distance, like a journalist does All I could do was use my own storytelling skills as a narrator.” The writer says it would be inappropriate to describe the book as a true crime novel. Instead, she prefers the description ‘creative non-fiction’ as the text contains “elements of memoir, essay, reportage and fiction techniques that don’t distort the facts”.
What followed was the writer’s own reflection on her subjectivity. “I wanted to make the story as transparent as possible, to say ‘this is only my version’. I wasn’t going to pretend to be objective because I wasn’t.”
Virginia Peters makes it clear that the research in the book (as does police evidence and their conclusions) imputes a suspicion of guilt concerning Suckfuell however it does not claim that Suckfuell is guilty.
What startled her on meeting the Strobels in Germany was how little they knew of their daughter’s last night alive, and the police investigation. She found she was the one to pass on critical information about the case. She says the weight of relaying such information and the subsequent repercussions tormented her and she “didn’t sleep easy for years”.
Publication of the book has been difficult. The project became her PhD and the university in which she was initially enrolled was apprehensive about publishing such a controversial text. While this was overcome, Tobias Suckfuell then decided to sue for defamation claiming the book imputes his guilt.
Despite such obstacles, Virginia Peters’ says her reward was the gratitude the Strobel family expressed for the support and information the writer had offered. The German police were also grateful saying the writer had helped the family in ways they were unable to.
Virginia Peters discussed ‘A Life of True Crime’ with Asne Seierstaf and Julie Szego at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival.