The Monika Zumsteg Murder
The Chance Meeting
In the Autumn of 1980, a young aristocratic Englishman, Michael Telling, was in Sausalito, a city in Marin County, California, across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco, USA. He was riding a special edition Harley Davidson motorcycle. A chance meeting with an American couple, Lou and Elsa Zumsteg, their daughter Erika and other friends, whilst out for a motorcycle ride, was to change their lives forever.
The Vestey Fortune
Michael Telling was born on 17th May 1950, he was an only child. His father was Henry Willis Maxwell Telling and his mother, Joyce Vestey, was the daughter of The Honourable Leonard Vestey and Hilda Dorothy Thompson.
Joyce was the granddaughter of William Vestey. William and his brother, Edmund, worked in their father’s modest provisions business in Liverpool, England. However, they ventured on and pioneered cold storage food shipping from the late 1890’s. In the US they realised that only prime or better cuts of meat were being used and the lesser cuts were being wasted. The brothers found a way to preserve, can and sell the ‘waste’ meat. They opened a cannery in Chicago, which was a success. Canned beef was a staple food during time of depression and war and that saw the Vestey fortune grow.
The Vestey’s owned cattle ranches in South America and Australia. During World War I the family is said to have purchased 6 million acres of land in Australia alone. This made them the largest private landowners on the Australian continent. But their occupation in Australia was not without controversy. In 1966 at the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory, the Gurindji workers walked off the ranch. The reasons for the protest were varied but included disputes regarding their working conditions and rates of pay and the occupation of Gurindji lands. In the mid 1970’s the Vestey family handed a 90 square metre package of land to the Gurundji people.
J.H.Dewhurst Ltd was part of the Vestey Group (now Vestey Holdings). ‘Dewhursts, The Master Butcher’ became the largest butcher’s chain in the UK, in 1977 there were 1,400 shops.
The business had grown over the years and the fortune that came with a successful multinational corporation was enjoyed by members of the Vestey family. It is said at one point in the 1980’s, the Vestey’s were the second wealthiest family in the UK, after the Queen. They no longer hold that prestigious place but their fortune is still considerable.
And so in 1950 Michael was born into this very successful and extremely wealthy family.
Michael Telling: The Early Years.
Michael was a troubled child, when he was just 6 years old, he started a fire at his exclusive boarding school. There were incidents of his anti-social behaviour, stealing and causing damage to others property. When he returned home from boarding school, he would be looked after by nannies. He had very little contact with his parents during those early years. Michael’s erratic behaviour continued his mother would later recall being attacked by him with a carving knife. At the age of nine, he set another fire, again at school, which destroyed a staircase. He was therefore, expelled from the school.
After his expulsion, the decision was made that Michael should be admitted to the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital, South London for treatment. Once again, the contact with his mother (his parents had divorced in 1953) was infrequent.
In 1966, when Michael was 16 years of age, Joyce remarried. Michael’s step-father was Dr Thomas Hugh Strong. They moved to Kirribilli, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. Kirribilli is and was an affluent area. Kirribilli House, built in 1855, is located in this suburb, it is one of the official residences of the Australian Prime Minister. In 1970 it is understood that Michael moved to Rossmoyne, Perth, Western Australia, his mother and step-father remained in Kirribilli.
The Zumstegs were a somewhat typical, ‘all American’ family. Louis David ‘Lou’ Zumsteg was born in 1930 in Oakland, California. He served in the Air Force and was a Korean War Veteran. He married Elsa Aschwanden in 1955. She was born in Switzerland in 1929 and emigrated to the USA when she was young. Lou and Elsa had 3 children, Monika was the eldest, born 24th November 1956, Mark and Erika were twins born to the couple on 21st November 1962. They were a happy and contented family.
In 1980, Monika was living independently in Sacramento, California and working at a computer software company where she enjoyed some success. The twins, only 17 years old at the time, were living with their parents in Santa Rosa, California.
Lou and Elsa had a passion for motorcycles, an interest they passed on to their children. On a Sunday morning in the Autumn of 1980, Lou, Elsa, Erika and some friends all went for a motorcycle ride and whilst enjoying their ride out, they saw and struck up a conversation at a ‘Stop’ sign in Sausalito with a young man sat astride a special edition Harley Davidson Sturgis.
Their lives changed with that one chance meeting and a conversation over a mutual interest. If they hadn’t gone out that day, or left their home earlier or later or decided on a different route, their paths would not have been crossed by Michael Telling. Their lives and futures would have been very different. This meeting would be the cause of great distress to Lou, a meeting that haunted him until the day he died.
Michael Telling and the Zumsteg Family.
After having that conversation about motorcycles and exploring their mutual interest, Lou invited Michael to their home. Days later Michael visited the Zumsteg family home. Erika was living at home with her parents and twin brother, Mark. Initially, it would appear Michael’s attention was directed toward Erika, he bought her expensive gifts and took her to restaurants. This made Erika uncomfortable. She had always been raised to believe you worked for, and earned, everything you needed in life and not just handed to you, hence the discomfort. Erika outlined her feelings to her father and asked him to speak to Michael and advise him his actions were creating a feeling of unease. She would be a friend to Michael but nothing else.
Having exhausted the sightseeing opportunities around the Santa Rosa area, Lou decided that Michael should go and stay with Monika in Sacramento, California. She could show this young visitor around the area in which she lived. Michael travelled up to Sacramento. Monika and Michael enjoyed each other’s company and before too long, Monika was falling in love with this charming young gentleman. Such were their feelings for each other they were to be married.
But what did Monika know of her intended? He had told her and her family he was a member of the British Secret Service and he couldn’t talk about the work he did. Unbeknown to the Zumstegs this was a lie, he didn’t work at all, his income came from a trust fund that the Vestey family provided. He had a generous allowance and when he had other expenses, any bills would be paid.
Another issue he had not addressed with the Zumstegs was the fact that he was already married to Alison Ruth Webber. They had married in March 1978 and had a son, Matthew, born in March the following year. Michael was unable to arrange for a divorce before the date of his planned wedding to Monika in Santa Rosa, so he had to admit why he had to postpone the wedding. He told them about the wife, the divorce and the child.
Michael and Monika had come to England by that time. Initially, they rented a property in Poona Road, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent. There Monika made a friend, Christina Percy, with whom she would share her good times and her not so good. Monika was a good friend to Christina, everyone liked Monika, she was funny, witty, intelligent and outgoing.
Lambourne House, Buckinghamshire.
Financed by the trust fund, Michael bought Lambourne House near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. It was a mansion house set in its own grounds. On 27th November 1981, Michael and Monika were married in a civil ceremony in the Dashwood Room at High Wycombe library. There were few guests, but Monika’s parents and grandparents were flown from the USA for the event. The small reception after the wedding was held at Lambourne House. They spent their first night of marriage at The Hyde Park Hotel in London. For some it must’ve seemed idyllic, the young wealthy aristocrat and his beautiful American wife living deep in the heart of the English countryside, it was perfect, wasn’t it?
What happened during the marriage is a matter of some debate. Families can be vociferous allies of other family members, that’s no different for the Tellings or the Zumstegs. Each family seek to protect their own.
Monika shared with Christina her worries, her concerns and her fears about Michael and his unpredictable outbursts. Indeed, Christine was privy to some of Michael’s bizarre and hurtful behaviour. Monika expressed concerns to her family back in America, at one point her mother, Elsa, suggested she go back home. But Monika thought she could support Michael through these turbulent times and change the way he behaved.
Monika had been in regular contact with her family in the US but in early 1983, the contact stopped. The family heard nothing for 5 months, nothing from Monika and nothing from Michael.
Elsa, concerned by the lack of contact talked to Lou about her worries. He presumed they were just working things out between themselves and allayed her insecurities. The alarm wasn’t raised. In hindsight perhaps making contact with Michael or their friends and neighbours or even the local police to conduct a ‘welfare check’, would have been the thing to do, but hindsight is a marvellous tool. Perhaps they still trusted in Michael. During this time not only was Michael telling friends and neighbours that Monika had gone back to the USA, but he also used Monika’s ATM card giving the impression she was still around and accessing her account. He hired a private investigator to try and ‘find’ her.
Monika’s friend, Christina felt uncomfortable about the explanation that Michael had given about Monika’s absence, would her good friend really leave without speaking to her? She felt so uneasy that when she was invited to Lambourne House by Michael, she made her excuses and stayed away.
September 1983: A Grim Discovery
On Saturday 3rd September 1983, a man had parked his vehicle in a wooded area near Exeter Racecourse. Once out of the vehicle he made a grim discovery; a decomposing body. He reported the matter to the local police immediately. Once a Home Office Pathologist was called to the scene, it was ascertained the body had been decapitated, a search of the area for the head proved fruitless. A post mortem revealed gunshot wounds to the body. Initial enquiries were made to try to identify the corpse. The Police made an appeal on television.
The badly decomposed body was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt. The forensic scientists managed to reproduce what the tee shirt would have looked like and the image of that distinctive tee shirt was part of the police appeal. There were calls to the Police in particular a woman whose daughter had been in California and had bought similar shorts. Christina saw the appeal, she recognised the tee shirt, it was Monika’s. She went to the Police and made a statement about Monika’s disappearance. The pieces of the jigsaw started to fit together and a series of events unfolded; visiting Lambourn House, talking to Michael Telling about his wife and the admissions he made thereafter. Monika’s severed head was found wrapped in bags in the boot of the Mini Cooper parked in the garage at Lambourn House.
Monika’s family in the US were informed and so began the unbelievable torment that would affect them all for decades to come.
Michael Telling was charged with murder and made his first court appearance on Monday 12th September 1984. He was remanded in custody awaiting trial.
The Trial and the Aftermath.
The trial was difficult for the Zumstegs and for the friends of Monika. Monika, was portrayed as a drug taker, a drinker, a lesbian and good time girl, who tormented her husband about his lack of sexual prowess. There were witnesses who gave evidence in the trial for the defence, who supported Michael’s version of events. Michael was represented by probably the most famous British advocate of that time, George Carmen QC. The defence outlined that Michael was the victim of name calling and verbal attacks. The court was told that Monika goaded him and in a fit of ‘irresistible impulse’ he had shot her. Monika wasn’t at the trial to account for herself but those who knew her, did not recognise the Monika that was described in court.
This was Michael’s defence to the charge of murder. His defence was successful and he was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The verdict came on 29th June 1984 after a nine day trial.
Michael was sentenced to life imprisonment and you would think the story ends there. However, he was released on 24th January 1994 after serving almost 10 years. He left England and arrived in Perth, Western Australia. He bought a house in the wealthy suburb of Rossmoyne and slipped into a quiet and gentle life, once again a lifestyle funded by the Vestey fortune. He continued to live in Rossmoyne, WA until his death on 16th December 2009 aged 59 years. On his death certificate it makes mention of Alison and the fact their marriage ended in divorce, it makes no mention of Monika. After Michael’s death, an Australian journalist, Paul Murray, was ‘tipped off’ about Michael and his past. Murray researched the information he had been given and found details relating to Michael’s trial, his conviction and subsequent period of imprisonment and how it had been concealed from those who lived around him. Friends of Michael in Rossmoyne were shocked at what they learned of the wealthy English who lived amongst them. Even his closest friend, Wilf Chambers, who delivered the eulogy at Michael’s funeral, was not aware of his tormented past.
As for Monika’s family, as far as they were concerned, Michael was behind bars and he would likely remain there. They were not made aware, until after Michael’s death in 2009, that he had actually being living in his community since 1994.
The effect on the Zumsteg family was tremendous and they all had to live with the torment. Lou, lived with the guilt of bringing his daughter into the life of the man who, after just a short period of time, killed her, hid her body, mutilated her and then disposed of her. Sadly, Mark took his own life in 1994, perhaps the sadness too heavy a burden. Lou died in 2006. Erika is married with a family and lives in Oregon, USA. Monika’s mother, Elsa, now in her 90’s lives with and is cared for by Erika.
The outcome of a chance meeting some four decades ago leaves its impression upon the family even now.
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