The Mystery of the Phantom of Heilbronn
In May 1993, Lieselotte Schlenger, a 62-year-old resident of the town of Idar-Obelstein in Germany, was found strangled to death with wire used to hold together a bouquet of summer flowers. Few clues remained as to the identity of her attacker, except for a small amount of DNA left on one of Schlenger’s teacups by the supposed killer.
She was the first victim of the supposed serial killer and apparently master criminal who would come to be known as “The Phantom of Heilbronn”, or “The Woman Without a Face” – a prolific career criminal who was connected, via DNA signatures, to more than forty crime scenes between 1993 and 2009 across Germany, France and Austria. Serial murder, muggings, and robbery made up her impressive resume of criminality, but yet she left no more than the barest touch of herself at these crime scenes. No-one could describe her, no-one seemed to have seen her, and a hunt began in 2001 for what would have one of the most prolific female serial killers of all time.
Though her DNA was later connected to the crime scene of Schlenger, the search for this mysterious killer began in earnest in 2001, after the murder of antiques dealer Joseph Walzenbach. There were a few similarities between his case and that of Schlenger; a small amount of money stolen from the scene, along with the use of garden twine to kill the victim, but would stood out to police most were the matching DNA samples taken from both crime scenes, both indicating a female perpetrator, probably from Eastern Europe. Once the murder of Walzenbach was connected with the 1993 case of Schlenger, German police believed that they may have, if not a serial killer on their hands, then possibly a career criminal who was likely to strike again.
And she did. On New Year’s Day, 2003, an office building near Frankfurt was broken in to, with a tin of loose change being stolen as a result. DNA, once again, tied the case to the so-called Woman Without a Face. Guenter Horn, a prosecutor working with the police on the case, said that the robbery was “a professional job”. Whoever police were dealing with, she seemed to know what she was doing.
Her DNA continued to appear in what seemed like disparate crime scenes: on a toy pistol found after a robbery of a Vietnamese gemstone trader in Arbois, France, on a syringe containing heroin on the outskirts of a forest in Germany, at an Austrian optometrists shop after a burglary, on a bullet fired from one brother at another during a violent disagreement in the city of Worms, Germany, and on more than twenty vehicles burglaries and thefts across Germany and Upper Austria. in 2005, police made a televised appeal for information on this mysterious and prolific female criminal, but to no avail.
For the police in Germany, though, things got a lot more personal when the killer apparently struck again – and, this time, took one of their own. In April 2007, Michèle Kiesewetter, a twenty-two year old German police officer who was working in an undercover drug squad at the time, was shot dead in Heilbronn, a small city in Germany. Her partner, another officer assigned to the squad, was also shot, but remained in a coma for several months afterwards and could not remember anything of the attack when he woke again. DNA found at the scene implicated the Woman Without a Face – who, thanks to this attack, became known as the Phantom of Heilbronn – and police launched into action to find her.
A task force, called Parkplatz (parking lot), was formed to track down this notorious killer once and for all. Now connected to dozens of violent crimes over the course of more than a decade, capturing her was even more urgent than ever. Investigators noted that the Phantom’s DNA rarely appeared solo, and theorized that she collected and discarded different accomplices for every crime she committed. How was she doing this, and staying under the radar? How could she be careless enough to leave DNA across tens of burglaries, robberies, and murders, but not so much that anyone could give a good description of her? Even when her supposed accomplices were caught and charged, they denied her existence – who were they protecting? Chief Superintendent Horst Haug of the Parkplatz investigation said of the Phantom’s attack on Kiesewetter – “It was brutal, apparently random and with no apparent motive. What are we dealing with here?”.
Despite increased police interest in finding her, the Phantom did not stop. Her DNA was found at a number of violent crime scenes over the following eighteen months – four home invasions, the robbery of a woman in Saarland, the car of a nurse found dead in her vehicle, and, most notably, in the vehicle used to transport the corpses of three murdered Georgian men at the beginning of 2008. With the increased focus on finding her, and the continuing escalation of her apparent crimes, it almost seemed like the Phantom was mocking German authorities as they failed to find any new information on her. Heilbronn police alone counted 16,000 hours of overtime in the search for the Phantom. At the start of 2009, the reward for information leading to the whereabouts of the Woman Without a Face was increased to €300,000, to no avail.
In March 2009, though, there was a major break in the investigation. Just not the kind the police were expecting.
Early in 2009, Germany, authorities were trying to identify the body of a burned corpse found in 2002, and compared the body’s fingerprints to those of a male asylum seeker taken as part of his asylum application years earlier. And, to their surprise, his fingerprints contained the DNA of the supposedly female Phantom of Heilbronn.
Around the same time, Austrian authorities announced that they were decommissioning the use of all cotton swabs from Greiner Bio-One International AG as part of their investigative toolkit. The reason? Though the swabs made by this company were sterilized, which served to destroy bacteria and viruses, traces of DNA from those who had handled the swabs during their creation and packaging were still present, and it was leading to the contamination of samples taken using those swabs.
On 26th March, 2009, police finally announced that they believed they had located the Phantom. And that she was most likely an employee at the Greiner Bio-One International factory where the swabs used by the police in the areas that she had struck were packaged. Everything pointed to that conclusion: police municipalities that did not use swabs from that company had never reported an attack from the Phantom, whereas she apparently struck across a variety of locations that just so happened to use these contaminated cotton swabs. The DNA found on the swabs had shown up across dozens of crime scenes for more than a decade and a half by the time that police conceded their mistake – that the DNA was not found at the scene, but rather brought there on the unknowingly-contaminated swabs (for their part, Greiner Bio-One stated that they had never intended or advertised the swabs as suitable for investigative purposes).
Despite the sterilization and double-packaging of the swabs, which served to convince many that they must be safe for investigative use, they still contained DNA from the people who had picked the cotton used in them and packaged the swabs before they were shipped out. The Austrian factory where most of the swabs used in Phantom cases came from employed a large number of Eastern European women, matching the generic profile that had been formed based on the DNA found at the scenes of the Phantom’s crimes.
The Phantom of Heilbronn, police conceded, was just that – a phantom. She’d never existed. The murder of police officer Michèle Kiesewetter was later connected to a neo-Nazi group operating in the country, and many of the Phantom’s other cases were resolved, the people assumed to be her ever-changing accomplices actually the only perpetrators of the crimes.
The police had been led on a wild goose chase across Europe, trying to locate a woman who apparently lived in the shadows and operated at a level far above almost any other criminal of her standing – but who, in fact, only existed in the fantasy created around the DNA contamination on the packaged swabs used in those investigations. One of Europe’s most dangerous and elusive criminals was nothing more than a few DNA strands of a factory worker from Eastern Europe, who likely still doesn’t know that she was implicated across so many burglaries, robberies, break-ins, and murders – the police declined to name anyone in relation to the DNA. She’s out there, for sure – but she’s not the criminal we thought she was.
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(header image vie Tenderstream)