The Tromp family were by all accounts a normal, hard-working household.
Mark Tromp, 51, and wife Jacoba, 53, had established a successful redcurrant farm and earth-moving business at their property in Silvan, on the outskirts of the Victorian capital, Melbourne.
But with little warning, on Monday 29 August they and their three adult children – Riana, 29, Mitchell, 25, and Ella 22 – got into a car and headed north.
They didn’t just leave their family farm, they had fled.
Police, later called to the home to investigate, found passports, credit cards and mobile phones had been left behind. This was to be a cash-only, “off the grid” road trip, with no way of being followed.
It was later revealed Mark and Jacoba had been suffering increasing signs of stress and paranoia. According to media reports, at least one of them had become convinced someone was out to kill them, and take their money.
The only phone not left behind belonged to Mitchell. He appeared to be the only one in the family not swept up in the belief that they were in danger.
He later said he had gone along to ensure they would all be safe, but that his parents became increasingly delusional and hard to tolerate.
Some 30km away from home, they made him throw his phone out of the car window. They were apparently convinced it was being used to track them.
Later on Tuesday morning, the remaining four Tromps headed east from Bathurst to a popular tourist spot, the Jenolan Caves. It was there that Riana and Ella decided to also part from their parents. They did this by stealing a car.
The two sisters drove south to the town of Goulburn, where they reported their parents had gone missing.
In Goulburn, Riana and Ella decided to part ways at a petrol station, with Ella saying she wanted to go home to feed her horses. She became the first Tromp to be located when she arrived back at the family farm on Tuesday night and found police there. Mitchell would arrive home the following morning, having taken a series of trains.
She had climbed into the back of a utility vehicle in Goulburn, and was only discovered there by the male driver after he had driven almost an hour away. He pulled over and found Riana to be in what he called a catatonic state, saying she did not know her name, nor where she was.
Riana was later taken to Goulburn hospital, where she remains in psychiatric care. Police say she has been spared charges over the stolen vehicle for mental health reasons. Ella, however, has been charged with car theft.
Mark and Jacoba drove back toward Melbourne from the Jenolan Caves. A day later on Wednesday, 600km south in the Victorian town of Wangaratta, they too became separated. Jacoba headed north again, by means which are still a mystery, and was found the next day 350km away in Yass, wandering in an agitated state.
She was taken to a hospital there, and later moved to Goulburn to be with daughter Riana, as the pair continued mental health treatment.
Back at Silvan, Mitchell and Ella made an emotional appearance before the media, saying they were baffled by their parents’ “paranoid” behaviour.
“I’ve never seen anyone like this or anyone conduct themselves in this way. I just really want my dad to be found,” Mitchell said. “He’s not dangerous, he’s my mate, my father. I love him.”
On Saturday evening, six days after the episode began, when Mark Tromp was found beside a road near Wangaratta airport.
He was questioned by police, assessed by a mental health officer, then released into the care of his police officer brother – showing the middle finger to photographers as he was driven away.
He later released a more contrite statement, apologising for “the hurt and concern caused by these events”. He paid respect to the community resources devoted to his family’s aid, as the public attempted to make sense of the drama.
Police do not believe there was any real threat to the family.
One investigating police officer from the Silvan district described it as “the most bizarre case I’ve seen in 30 years”.
“This is just a massive meltdown, I’m sure of it,” Sgt Knight said.
Mitchell and Ella Tromp admitted it was hard to explain.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s really hard to explain or put a word on it but they were just fearing for their lives and then they decided to flee,” Mitchell said. “It was a build-up of different, normal, everyday events – just pressure – and it slowly got worse as the days went by.”
While some ponder whether the family may have been affected by chemicals used on their farm, media reports say police are also contemplating whether the family suffered from collective delusions, in an episode of “folie a deux”.
The French term, meaning “madness of two”, covers a rare psychological condition occurring almost exclusively in close-knit families.
Is this a weird ass mental family? Or were they really running from something? The full reasons for the Tromps’ very public meltdown might never be known, however. Police say no further charges are expected to be laid, and that the issue is now simply a family affair.