After nearly 50 years together, a husband is jailed for life for the strangulation of his wife. Greg Bruce talks to the author of a book about the extraordinary end to what appeared to be an ordinary relationship.

Brigitte Scholl, 67, died in the woods in 2011, strangled with a shoelace in such a way that her killer must have been looking her in the eyes while she went through her death throes. Once dead, she was partially buried beneath moss. In her pocket was a Viagra and a condom, and her underwear had been pulled down in an apparent attempt to fake a sex crime. Her dog lay alongside her, having also been strangled to death.

It could be said, and was, that Scholl's husband Heinrich, then 68, behaved strangely immediately after his wife's disappearance, which was the day before he found her body. Just hours after she had gone missing, when someone else might reasonably have assumed she had gone to visit a friend or take part in some other unplanned triviality, Scholl, having already gone to the homes of several friends, went to the police.

Heinrich Scholl was a legend in the small east German town of Ludwigsfelde where he and his wife lived. He was the first mayor elected democratically after the Wall fell, the first democratically elected official in the town since World War II and was re-elected every time he ran, for 18 years, until he retired in 2008.

Ludwigsfelde was built by the Nazis but it was rebuilt by Heinrich Scholl. Through his mayoral tenure he was photographed at a stream of openings and events with notables like Prince Charles and German chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Ludwigsfelde was held up as a post-reunification East German success story, and Scholl was at the heart of the story.

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His crowning achievement, which came just before he stepped down as mayor, was to push through, in the face of considerable opposition, the building of Europe's biggest covered nudist spa. Three years later, he was arrested for the murder of his wife.

At the time of his arrest, Anja Reich-Osang was editor of the weekend magazine at a major daily newspaper in Berlin. When she ran a story about the case, some Ludwigsfelde residents wrote to her, pointing out its inaccuracies, so she went to the town in search of the truth.

Nearly five years later, after Scholl's eight-month trial, conviction, and sentence of life imprisonment, she hasn't stopped searching.

Brigitte's husband Heinrich.
Brigitte's husband Heinrich.

In 2014, she published a book called The Scholl Case, which spent 19 weeks on the German bestseller charts and which has just been translated and published here. It tells the story of what she found, or at least its remnants: two lives and one marriage, all doomed, and the strange, tawdry, seemingly inexorable way in which that doom flowered.

The book - written after Reich-Osang had sat throughout the trial, and many months more interviewing Heinrich Scholl, his friends, his wife's friends and anybody else she could find related to the case - is the story of a boy brought up in a loveless, abusive home, who overcame that start to become something more than anyone ever expected, and then got into a relationship in which he became - maybe - something much, much worse.

Speaking over the phone from Germany, Reich-Osang says there were things about the trial that surprised her. She thought some of the police work was not good, that they didn't follow up some important leads and that the judge seemed to be convinced of Scholl's guilt before the trial was over.

"The last day, when they read the verdict, I thought actually they couldn't put him in jail," Reich-Osang says. "They couldn't say for sure that he was the murderer of his wife. My colleague from another big German paper, we both were talking about it, we both thought that he would be free."

Heinrich Scholl's trial for murder occupies a single chapter of The Scholl Case. The court reaches a decision on his guilt, but the book does not. It's possible to read the book as the story of a marriage headed inexorably for disaster, or as an unresolved, possibly unresolvable, mystery.

There were witnesses who could place Heinrich and Brigitte Scholl together on the day she died, or who could at least place him in a compromising position, but their stories all fell apart under questioning: they couldn't be sure it was him they saw, or they couldn't be sure of the day, or both.

Ursus, Brigittie's dog, whose strangled body was found beside hers.
Ursus, Brigittie's dog, whose strangled body was found beside hers.

Scholl had a consistent alibi, but not a great one. There was nobody who could swear he was with them when his wife died. When two witnesses came forward to swear exactly that, their story contradicted his own.

In the past three years, Reich-Osang's opinion on the case has changed. "If he wasn't the murderer, there must be someone else and I think by now something from someone might have come up. You know, it's a small town. Somebody would have heard something. I don't think you can keep a secret for such a long time ... I guess time kind of convinced me it was him. But what I think is, I don't think he planned it as the judge believed. I really think what his lawyer said, that it was a spontaneous situation, that he just couldn't keep it [together] any longer."

It is likely that Heinrich Scholl will spend the rest of his life in prison. His sole available appeal has already failed. What must that feel like?

"I write in the book that he was really really sick," Reich-Osang says. "He almost died, living with his wife, having this illness, he was going from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital and he couldn't do anything. Nobody could do anything about it and it's an illness that's caused by psychological problems.

"This illness has vanished since his wife is dead. It's gone."

She is still puzzled by many details about the case, and how Scholl, if he was the murderer, could have done it. "He must have looked into her eyes for quite some time, five minutes I think it takes until you can strangle someone and that person dies. But how he killed both of them, the dog and the woman, this is something I still don't understand.

The area where Brigitte and her dog's bodies were found.
The area where Brigitte and her dog's bodies were found.

"Just imagine if he killed the dog first, she would have realised that, so he must have killed her first, but why didn't the dog attack him? The dog didn't like him anyway and was barking at him. That's what people said. Is it realistic that the dog was just sitting there, watching Brigitte Scholl dying? How did he do that? This is something people who are experienced with dogs and came to court didn't know.

"He also must have done everything really fast. There wasn't much time. This is something also nobody could explain. He must have had some dirt somewhere on his clothes and the man he met for lunch right after he must have killed her, he said, 'He was totally fine. There was nothing conspicuous about him'."

Heinrich and Brigitte had been good friends as teenagers but never more than that. Nobody seems quite sure why, in their early 20s, they got married. He'd had a child with another woman, and left the mother a week later. About the same time, Brigitte had become pregnant to another man and then separated from him.

"We knew each other," Heinrich is quoted as saying in the book. "We knew what we were like. She could depend on me entirely. She needed a father for Frank. It was the most convenient arrangement."

Heinrich Scholl as a child.
Heinrich Scholl as a child.

Their marriage plodded along. She was controlling; he appeared comfortable being controlled. In retrospect, it could be seen as the build up to something terrible, but without the knowledge of how things ended, it could also be seen as a garden variety marriage of convenience, overlaid with regret, sadness and the sense that things could be worse.

He started an affair with a woman he thought looked like Julia Roberts. He was 60, she was 20 years younger and he said it was the first time in his life he had fallen in love. Word of the affair spread quickly however, and she broke up with him. He had long suffered from stomach problems, and now it got worse. He was diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. A professor prescribed therapy and a stay at a health resort.

In therapy, Scholl wrote down things that bothered him about his wife: "Nannies me. Doesn't let me hang up my pictures. Has a cleaning mania. Treats me like a small child. No love any more!" Some time after he returned, he was hospitalised with his intestinal problems and when she visited him, he sent her away, saying: "You're my disease!"

In 2008, aged 65, he resigned from the mayoralty. He began renting a flat in Berlin and spending his weekdays there. He put up two photos, one of his former mistress and another of Julia Roberts. He wrote a bizarre, not-very-good book about his affair. Reich-Osang, in The Scholl Case, describes it thus: "The erotic passages read like assembly instructions for model planes or IKEA furniture."

He started frequenting brothels. He found a Thai girlfriend, decades younger than him. She had some debts, which he paid off, and some desires, which he paid for: a new kitchen, new sofa, Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags, designer sunglasses, cosmetic surgery. He transferred 25,000 Euros to her family in Thailand.

The Scholls' home in Ludwigsfelde.
The Scholls' home in Ludwigsfelde.

In mid 2011, six months or so before his wife was murdered, Scholl lost the consultancy work that had been his main post-retirement source of income and he also lost his girlfriend - who had never much cared for him anyway.

He moved out of his flat and back in with his wife, a development which excited neither. He couldn't afford a divorce. He wrote in his diary: "Reserves exhausted! Endless knock-on effect! I'm the only one who can do anything about it!"

Reich-Osang says of the time: "He didn't work any more. All of a sudden he had so much time in his life and he wasn't that recognised any more, he didn't meet up Prince Charles any more, or other famous politicians, and he was missing that."

Part of what makes the Scholl case so interesting is the ordinariness of the relationship at its centre. If we believe the verdict, and believe therefore that a reasonably stable, well-liked, man of nearly 70 murdered his wife of nearly 50 years, it may also make us rethink some assumptions about how life plays out.

Reich-Osang says she was fascinated by Scholl's personality, and the fact he was a product of a particular time and set of circumstances common to Germans born in and around World War II.

"The women were so strong: they had to be so strong during the war and after the war because the men were gone and they came back injured, so the women had to do everything, they had to raise the kids, they had to earn the money. He grew up like that. He never wondered with his wife why she was so bossy with him, he never dared to speak up against her, they never really argued in their marriage. I was really interested in that because this is a topic that has been coming up during the past few years - people from that generation, why they don't talk up about their past, what happened during the war.

Brigitte handing over a fundraising cheque.
Brigitte handing over a fundraising cheque.

"It's just a trial, you can't expect something like that, but to me that was important because you have this whole generation. You can watch those old couples in restaurants, sitting there not talking to each other. They don't talk and they don't argue and they're still married, and you wonder why and what happened."

"That was one thing I was really fascinated by, to peek into a marriage like that."

By the end of The Scholl Case, the details of the murder that is its nominal centre are cloudy, but the picture of two people trapped in a relationship ready to explode couldn't be clearer.

The Scholl Case by Anja Reich-Osang $37 (Text Publishing)