Son's disappearance haunts family

The Lehmann family searches for closure so they can properly grieve for their missing son.

The day in August when everything stopped
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Each year, more than 38,000 people are reported missing in Australia. Although 95 per cent are found within a week, about 2,000 people remain missing long-term. Matthias Lehmann is one of them. His story is part of an SBS series on missing persons from multicultural backgrounds.

For Matthias Lehmann's family, it's as if life paused on 15 August 2012, the day he was due to sail from Devonport to Melbourne on the 'Spirit of Tasmania' ferry.

"You get on with your day to day life, but underneath it's like you're holding your breath," says his elder sister, Claudia Krilov.

The last time Matthias's family heard from him was on 5 August 2012, when the 38-year-old phoned his mother, Ute, on her birthday. He had already arranged for a friend to present her with a big bunch of flowers from him.

"That was typical Matthias," smiles Ute. "He rarely had any money, but when he did, he always spent it on other people."

'There was very little to go on': Matthias's mother Ute Lehmann.

Although Matthias's lifestyle was chaotic – he never stayed in one place for long, and often fell out of contact for months – he "didn't forget occasions like that, ever", Ute adds. So when Father's Day came and went that September without a word from their youngest child, she and her husband, Wolfgang, began to worry.

In October 2012, the couple reported Matthias missing. Detectives in Tasmania established that he had bought a ticket for the overnight crossing two months earlier. Since then, he had not been seen, nor had his phone been used, or his bank account touched.

Nearly five years on, his loved ones are still searching for answers – and wondering if a clue might be found in the events leading up to his disappearance.

 

'A frightened person'
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Some months before he went missing, Matthias joined the Hindu Hare Krishna movement, spending time with the Krishna community in Melbourne and volunteering in the soup kitchen at their Albert Park temple.

In February 2012, with a fellow Krishna follower, he travelled to the movement's headquarters in the north-eastern Indian city of Mayapur. In April, however, he phoned his family, distressed, telling them he "couldn't stand it and had to get out". Claudia's twin, Petra Lehmann, organised him a flight home.

On his return, Matthias did not speak about what had happened. He was, recounts Wolfgang, "somehow changed... a frightened person".

Back in Melbourne, he became besotted with a young woman, another Krishna devotee, who then moved to Tasmania. In June or July, he followed her there, only to discover, to his crashing disappointment, that his feelings were not reciprocated.

On 12 August, the landline rang three times at the Lehmanns' home in Canberra; each time they picked it up, the line went dead. It was their son trying to get through, police later ascertained.

 

On the 15th, Matthias – or, at least, someone with his ticket – boarded the 'Spirit' and upgraded from a reclining seat to a cabin.

By the time he was reported missing, the boat's CCTV footage had been overwritten, so it is impossible to know for sure whether he did get on, and, if so, whether he got off in Melbourne. His pink and blue Pensioner Concession Card was discovered on the vehicle deck, which foot passengers have to cross when embarking.

Most likely, police believe, Matthias – who had a history of mental health problems and prescription drug overdoses – leapt off the 'Spirit' during the night.

To varying degrees, his family think that, too – but with no evidence, they remain trapped in an excruciating limbo, unwilling to give up hope and unable to say goodbye.

"You're grieving, but you don't really know what you're grieving about, so the grief never really ebbs off," says Petra. 

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At home in the nation's capital
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"He was such a happy child," sighs Ute Lehmann, picking out a framed photograph of a beaming seven-year-old Matthias in primary school uniform from the family portraits displayed in a corner of her living-room.

"He was a delight – very inquisitive and funny," says Ute, who last saw her son on Mother's Day 2012, nearly three months before their last phone conversation.

She and her husband dissolve into laughter as they remember some of Matthias's childhood exploits. "He was cheeky!" interjects Wolfgang. "And so engaging. Everyone loved him."

Both German-born, the couple met in 1963 in Rabaul, in what was then New Guinea; Ute was working for an import-export firm, while Wolfgang was a regional Volkswagen engineer.

After getting married, they moved to Australia and, following a brief spell in Brisbane, settled in the national capital.

Claudia and Petra were eight years old when Matthias was born on 25 January, 1974. Their brother, Dominik, was six.

The twins doted on the new arrival. "We were the little mothers and he was our toy we dressed up in the morning," jokes Claudia. "He was so cute, with a great sense of humour."

Their newish suburb was full of children, and Matthias was forever outside, playing and exploring Canberra's open spaces. From a young age, he was also a voracious reader.

"Books were his world," says Wolfgang. "Later on, when you were out shopping, you'd suddenly lose him, but if you looked in the next bookshop, he was always there."

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A square peg in a round hole
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When the time for high school approached, it seemed natural that Matthias should follow Dominik to St Edmund's College, run by the Christian Brothers.

"Eddies" had a formidable sporting reputation. With little aptitude for sport, Matthias found himself a square peg in a round hole. One of his friends, Nathan Vaughan, recalls: "Because we weren't jocks [athletes], we were treated like second-class citizens. A lot of the teachers didn't give a shit about us."

A sensitive, slightly-built boy, Matthias was bullied from day one. "He got called 'moon face' or 'moon head'," according to Vaughan.

"It was relentless," he adds. "You'd be walking up to your locker and getting paid out by 10 to 20 dudes, all ganging up. The Italian and Greek kids always singled out Matthias. But he copped it from everyone. He had a really hard time."

Shockingly, "everyone" included Matthias's teachers. Vaughan says: "Our form master used to call him 'fathead' in front of the entire grade. We'd be sitting there in form assembly and he'd call out, 'Hey you, fathead, shut up!', and everyone would chuckle."

Musically gifted, Matthias was ridiculed at school for walking around with a violin case. He gave up learning the instrument. In his teens, he "self-medicated by smoking pot", and "watched horror films before school to desensitise himself", he later confided to Petra.

At the time he was going through these ordeals, she and his other siblings had already flown the nest. Protective of his parents, Matthias told them only that he was "teased". Says Wolfgang: "We had no idea of the severity of it."

At the same time, Matthias forged lasting friendships at school, and Vaughan insists he "wasn't a miserable person when we were growing up". At weekends, they and other friends, all film nuts, would visit the local cinema complex, the Cosmo Twin, or watch videos at each other's homes. They whiled away hours in record stores.

At 16, Matthias started running away. Usually, he came home after a day or so. On one occasion, he spent the night in a stormwater drain near his house.

In Year 11, he finally cracked and opened up to his parents about the bullying. Appalled, they withdrew him from St Edmund's and enrolled him in Phillip College (now Canberra College), where he had a much easier time.

"But it was too late," believes Ute. "I think the damage was done." 

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Cries for help
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Matthias had nurtured hopes of becoming a marine biologist, but his HSC results were mediocre. After graduating, he lived in a series of share houses in Canberra, where Wolfgang was "forever paying out his landlords", then followed a girlfriend to Adelaide, plunging into a peripatetic existence that continued until he vanished nearly 20 years later.

Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Newcastle were among the cities where he lived, never for more than a few months. Although he occasionally rented a room, or stayed with one of his siblings, mostly he couch-surfed, or found a cheap hostel, or – particularly in the run-up to disappearing – slept on the streets.

"By choice," emphasises Ute. "He could have always come home."

Together with the rootless lifestyle went an irregular work routine. There were jobs – in bars, clothes shops and fast food joints – but after a while Matthias would stop turning up.

 

Hopeless with money – "when he had it, he'd spend it or lose it," explains Petra – he was usually penniless, relying on the dole and hand-outs. Moving on, he would leave a trail of debt – and, at times, broken friendships – behind him.

Repeatedly dropping off the radar for extended periods, Matthias was a constant worry to his parents, brother and sisters. Often it was impossible to contact him. "If he ran out of credit, or if he owed too much money to someone, he'd just ditch the phone," says Claudia. "He probably had about 50 numbers."

Ute remembers the first time he took off without warning. "I offered him a lift to the local shops in Woden. When we got there, he said, 'See you later,' and I didn't see him for three months. Then all of a sudden he got in touch with Claudia and said, 'Here I am, has anybody died?'"

In July 1996, the Lehmanns received a call from their local hospital's emergency department. Matthias had overdosed on his prescription drugs.

Ute weeps as she recollects "seeing him lying there more dead than alive, with the staff trying to revive him". Later, she gently asked her son if he knew where he was, "and he just lay there, and this tear trickled down his cheek".

It was the first of a dozen or more such episodes, some of them apparently cries for help, with Matthias making sure he would be found. Others, although more serious, were, Claudia suggests, "about ending the pain of living, not ending his life".

Initially, the overdoses would occur when Matthias stopped taking his medication – the drugs dulled his mind, he complained. Sometimes, they followed a relationship break-up.

Matthias saw a psychiatrist at Canberra's Calvary Hospital. He also became a regular on various psychiatric wards, where he would stay for up to a month. Diagnoses, never definitive, ranged from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, the last triggered, presumably, by the bullying.

"Actually, when he was in hospital, we could relax a bit, because at least we knew he was safe," says Ute.

"Otherwise we were always on tenterhooks. We couldn't go away or make plans, because it was always, 'What about Matthias, he might need us, we must be here.'"

During 1999, Matthias slept on Nathan Vaughan's couch in Sydney for a few months. The rave scene was in full swing and the pair, both techno music fans, partied hard. Vaughan would buy the tickets, along with everything else. While he had a steady job, Matthias's work consisted of sporadic DJ-ing shifts in nightclubs.

Integral to the raves were the recreational drugs, which boosted Matthias's mood and confidence. They may also, his family fears, have aggravated his mental health issues.

Ute shows me a bundle of letters and cards, bound together with a mauve ribbon, which Matthias wrote to his parents over the years. In one letter, he apologises for putting them through "yet another ordeal", adding that "you must be used to this by now, but you shouldn't have to be."

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Always looking for answers
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Hunting, always, for answers to life's big questions, Matthias dabbled in different religions and spiritual philosophies, exploring, in turn, New Age spiritualism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhism, Hinduism and even Satanism.

Each one he embraced with the same intensity. Haunting libraries, he devoured everything from fantasy and sci-fi to Jung, Freud and the French philosophers. He engaged friends and family in exhausting, hours-long conversations.

According to Wolfgang: "He had a thousand things in his head which tested him, and they were scrambled continuously."

The overdoses, at least, became less frequent, as Matthias learnt to recognise the danger signs and take himself to hospital before he "crashed". Although still prone to fits of despair, he seemed more accepting of his problems and more careful of his health. He worked less, and drew a disability pension.

Ever restless, though, he would still vanish without a word. Ute persuaded him to call home once a month.

Each time he reappeared in Canberra, "we were convinced that this was it, this was the new start," says his mother, "so we took him out, we bought him new clothes, we set him up and supported him. And then he was gone again.

"Especially in his later years, Matthias tried so many times to settle down. But he could never could see it through."

The same applied to his love life, often involving women he met on the psychiatric wards. Petra believes: "They really wanted to help each other, but it would end up dysfunctional and toxic. And then he didn't know how to extricate himself without hurting them, so he'd just run away."

Speaking in a Sydney cafe one Saturday afternoon, Claudia and Petra, who both live in Ulladulla, on the New South Wales south coast, recount how Matthias turned up at nearby Batemans Bay District Hospital one day in late 2011. His feet, they recall, crying, were "just shredded".

Incredible though it seems, he had walked all the way from Melbourne, a trip of more than 700 kilometres, absorbed by almost non-stop phone conversations.

Tasmania and the beginning of the end
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In early 2012, after another spell in hospital, Matthias returned to Ulladulla, where the local mental health team arranged a support package, including a house. He was happy to be close to his sisters, and excited to be embarking on what he called a "normal life".

One month later, Petra and Claudia arrived at his home to find he had abruptly left. His toothbrush was still in its jar.

It was after that, on surfacing in Melbourne, that Matthias joined the Hare Krishnas. He adopted their healthy lifestyle, giving up meat and stopping smoking overnight. Petra, who visited him at the soup kitchen, thought her brother much calmer and more settled. "It made him feel useful. He felt like he belonged."

In April, after the trip to India, Matthias arrived home with a shaved head and saffron robes. His family speculate that he left in a hurry because he owed someone money.

Nathan Vaughan, with whom he stayed for a while in Canberra, was exasperated by him assuming that Vaughan would, once again, fund his lifestyle. He urged his friend to "get your shit together". Then came the move to Tasmania.

After his relationship collapsed, Matthias washed up at Devonport's Community Church, where the pastor, Neville Overton, gave him a mattress in a corner of the chapel. Overton remembers him as "an intelligent, good-natured fellow ... [who] used to put up a little altar at night where he slept".

On 14 August, Matthias reserved a spa room at an apartment complex near the 'Spirit of Tasmania' ferry terminal, paying $150 in cash.

The next day, he withdrew $400 from an ATM and made his way to Devonport Information Centre, where he booked a one-way passage on the 'Spirit'.

Ute retraced her son's last known steps in 2013. She showed his photograph to the manager of the apartments.

He confirmed that Matthias had slept there the night before the ferry departed.

 

'Too sensitive for this world'
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In the Sydney cafe, Claudia is describing the "really bad hand of cards" her brother was dealt.

"I've always believed Matthias was too sensitive for this world," she says, picking at a napkin. "He was a gentle, warm-hearted guy. And so brave, always picking himself up and trying again."

Petra agrees. "He didn't have his outer skin. He took on everyone's worries, and everything he felt was amplified."

They sometimes ponder the possibility, however remote, that Matthias did not board the ferry. Since passengers are not required to show photo ID, someone could have stolen his wallet, travelled on his ticket and dropped his pensioner card.

'Sometimes he's very close to me': Wolfgang Lehmann.

If that was the case, though, Matthias went missing deliberately – and he was not the type, his sisters are convinced. Erratic though the contact was, he always stayed connected to his family. Had he ditched the ferry ticket and, say, headed to a spiritual retreat, he would not have remained there for years, they say, especially without getting in touch.

What is certain is that, after 15 August, Matthias stopped drawing Centrelink payments, and stopped filling prescriptions for the drugs on which he depended.

Did he take his own life? At the time he disappeared, he had not overdosed for two years. Detective Sergeant Gavin Thomas, who investigated the case, says not one of the friends whom Matthias spoke to in the previous month recalled him "being upset or talking about self-harm".

For the family, the not knowing is hardest to endure. "Because your imagination takes over and you wonder, for instance, was there foul play?" explains Wolfgang.

Matthias’s loved ones have discussed holding a memorial service, but have held off, "because there's always that element of, 'What if he reappears, what if he's found?'" says Claudia. She adds: "A big part of you knows he's probably gone, but the emotional side of you feels guilty for even thinking that. Because it's like giving up."

Just recently, she stuck a photograph of Matthias on her fridge. Previously, she could not have pictures of him around.

Ute still scans people's faces whenever she goes out. "You always think, maybe it's him. Part of me thinks he's still out there, and one day he'll just appear and say, 'Sorry I haven't been in touch, I hope you weren't worried!'"

Wolfgang says: "The problem is we do not have closure. I think if we knew, if only we knew, we could put it to rest and grieve and have our memories, instead of hanging on.

"But how can you declare your offspring dead if you don't have proof?"

If you have any information regarding a missing person, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.