The Phantom of Hielbronn

DNA and the transgender Gypsy super-criminal.

by Paul Buchanan

On the afternoon of April 25, 2007, Michele Kiesewetter, a 22-year-old police officer in the German city of Heilbronn, drove with her partner to the parking lot of the local Theresienwiese, a sort of fairground along the east bank of the Neckar River, used for Oktoberfest. The two parked there for a lunch break. Witnesses in the area reported hearing gunfire at around 2 p.m.

Police units arriving on the scene found Kiesewetter lying dead outside her BMW 5-Series patrol car from a single gunshot wound to the head. Her partner, Martin A., had also been shot in the head. He would emerge from a coma weeks later, with no memory of what had happened.

Both the officers’ service handguns were missing, as were their handcuffs. The crime scene and the victims’ patrol car were scoured for forensic evidence. Minute traces of DNA were recovered from the car’s center console and from its back seat. The DNA samples were found to belong to an unidentified woman, a person of interest who would come to be called Die Frau ohne Gesicht, or The Woman without a Face.

That same unique DNA signature had already been linked to a couple of murders. In 2001 that DNA was tied to an unsolved 1993 murder in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, a town about two-and-a-half hours northwest of the Heilbronn murder. There, 62-year-old Lieselotte Schlenger, a churchwarden and pensioner, was found dead in her home. She’d been garroted with a wire taken from a bundle of flowers that were strewn on the woman’s table. No fingerprints or footprints were recovered, but a swab later taken from the rim of a Meissen china teacup yielded enough genetic material to be typed. That DNA, from a crime scene 14 years earlier, perfectly matched the DNA found in Kiesewetter’s patrol car.

The DNA also matched a sample found on a door handle in Joseph Walzenbach’s home in Freiburg. Walzenbach was found murdered in March 2001. A 61-year-old antiques dealer, he too had also been strangled, this time with garden twine. Both the Schlenger and Walzenbach murders were thought to have occurred during the commission of a burglary. Neither scene provided any further forensic evidence, and the DNA recovered matched no individual known to the German penal system. All that could be determined was that the genetic material came from a woman of Eastern European ancestry.

A few months after Walzenbach’s murder, yet another DNA match suggested a possible motive for both the earlier murders. In October 2001, 7-year-old Juergen Bueller stepped on a discarded syringe on a pathway near his home in Gerolstein, about 300 kilometers northwest of Heilbronn. He brought the shattered syringe home, and his parents immediately took him and the needle to a local hospital, fearing that he might have been exposed to the HIV virus.

Tests showed that the syringe had been used recently to shoot heroin. Traces of blood found on the needle showed no signs of HIV but did come back with a perfect match to the same phantom killer’s DNA. The killer, police concluded, was a junkie. She may have killed her earlier victims during botched robberies fueled by her habit. Celebrated criminal profiler, Kurt Kletzer, concluded that the Woman without a Face was “someone from a damaged home life” who had been abused by her drug-addicted caretakers. She was, “compelled to murder to feed her habit, thus reducing the victim to the status of a worthless object.”

Yet in many ways the phantom woman’s crimes didn’t seem those of a desperate addict. She was brazen, that was clear—but she wasn’t reckless. She left no fingerprints, no witnesses, no clues of any sort—except her DNA. As the crimes linked to her multiplied—break-ins and burglaries and cash-register thefts—the scenes sometimes yielded a second strand of DNA, but it was never the same strand twice. This suggested that the Woman without a Face sometimes worked with an accomplice but never with the same one twice. This inference hinted at powers of manipulation or intimidation that would keep a series of associates quiet. In many ways her methods seemed more the work of a cold and cunning psychopath than a junkie feeding her addiction.

In the years between Schlenger’s strangulation in 1993 and Kiesewetter’s execution in the Heilbronn parking lot in 2007, the same woman’s DNA was detected on a half-eaten cookie in a trailer-home burglary in Germany; on a toy gun at the scene of a gemstone robbery in France; at an optometrist shop robbery in Austria. A car stolen in Heilbronn was found to have her DNA on the gas cap. A bar robbery crime scene in Karlsruhe yielded her DNA on some beer bottles and on the rim of an empty wine glass. In all, the “Woman without a Face” was linked to nearly 40 major and minor crimes scattered across central Europe.

Some of the cases were eerily perplexing. In Worms, in 2005, a local gypsy shot his brother with a 7.65 caliber pistol. After his arrest for attempted murder, traces of the mysterious woman’s DNA were found on one of the bullets. This, The Observer noted in 2008, suggested “that she may have ties with one of the loosely linked groups and communities who move back and forth across Europe's increasingly porous frontiers.”

After Michele Kiesewetter’s murder, the reward for information that would lead to the phantom’s identity reached €300,000. The Heilbronn police department, alone, racked up 16,000 hours of paid overtime in its pursuit of the phantom. More than 800 women with criminal records were tracked down across Europe and tested for a DNA match. In all, the search for the Woman without a Face cost an estimated $14 million.

Police wondered if the woman might be a transsexual or might, at least, be able to convincingly impersonate a man. Eyewitnesses had seen a young man on the site of a 2006 Saarbruecken burglary attempt, but it was the phantom’s DNA that turned up on a stone found at the crime scene. A composite picture of an androgynous young man sporting a soul patch was released to media outlets hungry for information. “We can't rule out that our suspect is a man now, or that she looks like a man,” a police spokesman told the BBC. “We just don’t know.”

Then, in February 2008, the bodies of three Georgian car dealers were dragged from the Rhine, near Mannheim. The men had come to Germany on a mission to buy used German cars to transport home for resale. Evidence showed that the three had been executed near Ludwigshafen and their bodies transported about 15 kilometers to be dumped in the river.

Two men, a 40-year-old Iraqi and a 26-year-old Somali, were quickly arrested. The Iraqi had been working as a police informant, and the white Ford Escort station wagon he drove (on loan to him from local police authorities) showed blood traces belonging to one of the victims. His car had been used to transport the bodies. When forensic officers subjected the Ford’s carpeting and upholstery to analysis, they found yet more DNA traces of the Woman without a Face. Had she been the executioner?

The arrests seemed like a huge break—the police finally had two of the phantom’s accomplices in custody—but both men accused the other of being the triggerman, and neither would admit that a woman had been involved in any way. The police had bought the Ford Escort second-hand several months earlier, so all previous owners were tracked down and investigated, but no new leads emerged. “We are as baffled as everyone else about how her DNA came to be there,” Chief Superintendent Horst Haug told Australian journalist Alan Hall. “But it is one more piece in the mosaic. All criminals, no matter how deadly or how clever, all slip up eventually. We just hope we catch her before she kills again.”

There was indeed a “slip up,” but its discovery proved even more astonishing than the capture and prosecution of a transsexual Gypsy super-criminal.

In March 2009, French authorities tried using DNA to identify a burned corpse. Their investigation indicated that the body was probably that of a particular male asylum seeker who had gone missing. The man’s application for asylum, which he had filled out years earlier, had required a fingerprint. Authorities hoped that by matching the corpse’s DNA to any trace genetic material found on the fingerprint they could clearly establish the dead man’s identity.

Instead, the results that came back were literally incredible: the DNA obtained from the fingerprint belonged to The Woman without a Face.

This made no sense. “Obviously that was impossible,” a prosecutor’s office spokesperson, told Spiegel, “as the asylum seeker was a man, and the phantom’s DNA belonged to a woman.” A second test on the fingerprints found none of the phantom’s DNA. There seemed only one explanation: the sample taken from the fingerprint had to have been contaminated.

Some old-fashioned, low-tech detective work was called for. It seemed impossible that the DNA sample from the asylum-seeker’s fingerprint could have been contaminated between when it left the document and when it was processed in the lab. So there was only one other possibility: somehow the DNA had been introduced to the process before the fingerprint was tested.

Investigators quickly found a pattern: the French lab and the lab in Heilbronn used the same brand of cotton swab manufactured by the same German company. Other regional crime labs that used a different brand of swab had never found a match to the phantom.

After nearly a decade of inspiring dread, the Woman was finally given a Face. She was an employee of the Greiner Bio-One factory, an innocent, though perhaps careless, woman who worked packaging sterile cotton swabs.

 “The things were double-packaged,” one investigator told Bild newspaper. “We thought they were the Mercedes of cotton swabs.” The swabs were marketed as being sterile, and they were. They had been processed to remove all germs, fungi and viruses—but the process did not destroy DNA. They simply weren’t designed for collecting genetic material. Hence, forensic technicians across three nations had for years found the same DNA at scores of crime scenes because they had brought it there on the sterile swabs they carried.

If a lesson is to be learned from the Phantom of Heilbronn—and with so much effort and money wasted, one would hope a lesson might be at hand—it is perhaps that we should temper our current infatuation with forensic science with a little common sense. It seems instructive that so many trained professionals would sooner posit the presence of a transsexual-Gypsy-addict-serial-killer than wonder if someone, somewhere had made a simple mistake.

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