Elke’s sister was brutally killed 37 years ago and she’s still looking for answers
Here, Elke Hall, 62, tells the story in her own words.
￼She was a skinny little thing, but my sister Deb gave the best cuddles.
It’s a bony hug, but a good hug, I thought, when she wrapped her arms around me.
Along with our younger sister Diana, us three girls were best mates.
So when I was 21 and married Steve, Deb, 18, and Diana, 13, were bridesmaids.
Beautiful in blue, Deb’s green eyes sparkled as she cracked up with laughter.
A fun-loving, free spirit, she was such a kind-hearted soul, happiest strumming her guitar or tending to the mung beans and alfalfa she lovingly grew.
‘You can sprout your own too, Elke!’ she’d say. But I didn’t have Deb’s green thumb.
After Steve and I built our first home, we had hardly any cash left over to furnish it.
So, Deb and I trawled antique stores for cheap treasures.
On one trip, Deb fell in love with an old loom.
‘You have to get it!’ she insisted. ‘But it’s falling apart,’ I said.
My dear Deb saw beauty in the broken – that’s why she adopted stray dogs and opened her home to friends who were down on their luck.
Then, when I was 25, I set off on a three-week bus tour around Europe.
After a day exploring Vienna, there was a rap on my motel door.
It was Steve’s brother, who lived in England. Ed? I thought, shocked.
‘I have some terrible news for you,’ he said gently. ‘Deborah has passed away.’
‘How... when?’ I choked out, distraught.
My sweet sister had been murdered on September 6, 1981 – Father’s Day. She was just 22.
On the next flight home, tears ran down my face.
I’d never hear the chime of Deb’s laugh again, or be wrapped in one of her hugs.
My parents, Wally and Horst, were broken.
Popping out on Father’s Day, they’d arrived back to find Deb had been by. She’d left flowers and choccies for Dad.
The next night, the police woke my parents to tell them their girl had been found dead at her home on Howlett Road, Capalaba, near Brisbane, her head shoved viciously in the gas oven. To make it look like a suicide... I realised.
Apparently she’d been ironing when she was strangled with a nylon dog leash that she used when she walked her pup. Turning on the oven, the killer had lit two fires – one in the kitchen and another in the lounge.
The police believed Deb’s attacker expected the leaking gas from the stove to ignite and cause an explosion.
To hide the evidence, I thought, disgusted.
A safety feature on Deb’s oven meant it hadn’t switched on after all. Her house had been ransacked too.
‘Who could’ve done such a thing?’ I fretted.
Police suspected Deb had known her killer as there was no sign of forced entry and her dog hadn’t made a sound. Deb’s two male housemates were cleared, as was her boyfriend, Robert, who she’d split with just before her murder. She was always so trusting... I thought. Had it been her downfall?
Saying goodbye to Deb at her funeral was agonising. But it was everything she missed afterwards that hurt the most.
Two years later, my son, James, was born. When he was two, we welcomed Samuel. Sweet Deb would’ve made an incredible aunty.
In the decades that followed, she was never far from my thoughts.
Then, recently, I started to hear about cold cases that were being solved.
There had been no fresh leads on Deb’s murder in years and our poor dad had gone to his grave in 2004 without answers.
Maybe we could get justice for Deb too, I thought.
After listening to The Teacher’s Pet, a podcast by The Australian, my friend from school Stacey had the same idea.
It had put the spotlight back on the disappearance and possible murder of Sydney mum Lynette Dawson a year after Deb’s death.
‘We have to start a Facebook page to investigate Deb’s murder – we’ve got to find the b*****d!’ Stacey said.
So, last November, we created the page, Who Murdered Deborah Smykalla – Father’s Day Sept 1981 in Brisbane?
‘I’m proud of you,’ Mum, now 82, said.
After 37 years, Deb’s story was shared on the news and tips came pouring in.
The police also revealed that a former flatmate, only known as Bluey, could hold vital information.
However, this Bluey had never been identified or spoken to and now officers are hopeful someone can help track them down.
The motive and the murderer remain a mystery.
If you know anything about Deb’s death, please do the right thing and come forward.
‘She’s a missing piece from the jigsaw of our lives,’ Diana, 53, said recently.
That piece can never be replaced. But maybe we can have the closure we so desperately deserve.
Read more in this week's issue of that's life, on sale now.
Watch: Chris Dawson faces court over murder charges