Phantom of Heilbronn
The Phantom of Heilbronn, also known as “The Woman without a Face,” stumped German law enforcement from 1993 until 2009. Her DNA was found at multiple crime scenes ranging from murder to petty theft in both France and Austria, as well as Germany. Her list of accomplices included everyone from Slovaks to Serbs, Albanians to Romanians. Other than that, the police could find out little else about her, except that she was deadly, she appeared to be a heroin addict, and she was very, very busy.
The first crime attributed to the Phantom occurred in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, a town well known for its gem mines and the Church in the Rock. In May of 1993, retired churchwarden Lieslotte Schlenger, 62, busied herself making a nice floral centrepiece in preparation for tea. Which is probably as exciting as it gets in a town famous for its rocks. Unfortunately, things got a little too exciting for poor Lieslotte, as she was found dead not long afterwards, strangled by the wire used in her own flower arrangement. An empty tea cup was found next to her body. It wasn’t until 2001 that they were able to identify that the rim contained a mystery woman’s DNA, and “The Woman without a Face” was born.
Eight years after Lieslotte met her untimely death, the killer was at it again, this time in Freiburg, a university town bordering Germany’s Black Forest. Joseph Walzenbach, 61, an antiques dealer was found strangled with garden twine. Once again, the Phantom’s DNA was found at the scene, but other than that the police had no clues, other than the killer had an obvious disdain for horticulture.
Soon the mystery woman’s DNA was popping up everywhere. On a heroin syringe found near Gerolstein. On a cookie left behind at a break-in in Budenheim. On a toy pistol involved in a robbery in Arbois. Even on a projectile found after a fight between two brothers in Worms. I remember a nasty boy who used to throw worms at me in grade three, but something tells me this wasn’t the same thing.
Burglaries, break-ins, home invasions, even the car used to transport three murdered Georgians, the Phantom of Heilbronn’s DNA was found there. But the real double strand helix didn’t hit the fan until 2007, when Michèle Kiesewetter, a German police officer was shot dead in her car in Heilbronn. The Polizei were determined to find the elusive criminal who had gunned down their sister-in-arms.
The police stepped up their efforts, and even as they did the “Woman without a Face” continued to taunt them, showing up in seemingly random places, a disused swimming pool, an apartment that had been burgled, a motorcycle theft, and finally in the car of an auxiliary nurse who was found dead. By the end, a 300,000 Euro reward had been offered for information leading to an arrest. Her DNA had been associated with thirty-seven separate crimes. And over 3,000 homeless and heroin addicted women had been swabbed for their DNA to see if one of them matched. None did. Which is not surprising, Because the Phantom of Heilbronn didn’t exist.
Or I suppose she did, but she didn’t have a heroin addiction, and she hadn’t murdered anyone. She did work in a factory that made cotton swabs though. I suppose she didn’t get the memo to always wear her latex gloves when she packed up the swabs for delivery to the local police forensic team. They used them for DNA collection. You can figure out the rest, I think. Even if the authorities didn’t until 2008. I’m not sure whether they even admit to the case being closed now. A perpetual cold case is not half as embarrassing as being outwitted by a Q-tip.
They did solve the case of the murdered police officer though. It turned to be the work of neo-Nazis, which does seem much more likely than a cookie eating addict with a hate-on for horticulture. I don’t know who killed Lieslotte, the retired churchwarden, or Walzenbach, the antiques dealer, but if I invite anyone for tea in Germany, I will make sure to have nothing but plastic flowers on hand.
Image credit to https://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zq98wmn
As in most articles on the subject, the period in which the ‘Phantom of Heilbronn’ kept the police busy is largely exaggerated. It is true that ‘her’ first crime happened in 1993, but note that her DNA was only found in 2001 when researchers benefitted from the largely increased sensitivity of DNA labwork. The hunt was therefore from 2001 to 2009, or during 8 years, instead of 1993 to 2009, which would have been 16 years.
A certain tendency to hype up things is very common in the whole of this affair which probably was a criminal cover-up after all.
It is a fascinating case. You are right, while the crimes that were investigated started in 1993, the DNA that linked all the cases was not made available until much later. I am interested in your comment about a criminal cover up. Do you think that something more than an accidental contamination of swabs was involved?
The mysterious murder of a young policewoman and the almost lethal head injury of her male colleague in Heilbronn which gave the phantom its name happened on April 25th 2007. The phantom blunder was finally and after months of denial admitted on March 25th 2009. This means, the policewoman’s murderers gained almost two years while the phantom track was being investigated.
The case was always full of drug crime and secret service rumours. The surviving policeman’s testimonies have been talked down as much as possible. The ways by which the dead woman had been called back from holiday to service for that day remained a mystery as much as her activities immediately before her death. Several colleagues of hers were seen on the site of her death although they were supposed to be off service. The DNA traces on her uniform which fitted to colleagues (according to leaked investigation records) in contrast to the phantom’s were not investigated until 2010/11.
When in 2011 these new investigations looked very promising, in Nov. 2011 a spectacular case of a right-wing terrorist group ended with the fishy suicide of its two assumed killing agents:
By multiple red herings, among them the missing weapon of the dead policewoman found in their caravan, her murder and 9 cases of murder (8 Turkish/Kurdish and 1 Greek) of small business owners were suddenly linked together. Before that moment the murderers of the 8 Turkish/Kurdish victims had always been investigated in a PKK/mafia/secret service context.
(same handwriting as here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_murder_of_Kurds_activists_in_Paris)
Hard evidence which would link the two dead rightwingers to the victims is missing from all sites. Their secret lifes undercover from 1998 to 2011 look like they had been protected by secret services. In the last of these murder cases in 2006 a German secret service agent handler was even caught to have been present on the site of murder!
Well, in short, that’s the amazing story. It sounds just as unbelievable as the phantom DNA hunt, doesn’t it?
In this blog article, I have made the case that the phantom DNA investigation operated way below the scientific knowledge of the time. In particular, no evidence could have existed which linked the DNA trace to some reasonable part or activity in the murder. In fact, the woman trace producer was found in the end without any part in the murder left. There are well-known phenomena like secondary transfer in DNA forensics, all ignored to keep the phantom alive. Even before the Heilbronn murder there had been convicted male perpetrators in cases where the phantom DNA had shown up. They had denied any woman’s involvement in burglary, rape and similar ‘male’ crime.