The Phantom of Heilbronn otherwise known as The Woman Without a Face, was a mysterious serial killer who for a number of years was believed to have been responsible for at least six murders in Germany.
It all began at Heilbronn in Germany in May 1993 when a sixty-two year old woman named Lieslotte Schlenger was discovered strangled in her home with a length of wire taken from a bunch of flowers. The only clue to the identity of the killer was a DNA profile extracted from the rim of a teacup found at the murder scene. Some years later in March 2001 a sixty-one year old antiques dealer named Joseph Walzenbach was similarly found strangled with a length of garden twine at his home in Freiburg. The only clue to his killer was a DNA profile extracted from a door handle that matched that of the earlier murder.
Then a few months later in October 2001 a seven-year-old boy named Juergen Bueller trod on a discarded syringe whilst walking home in Gerolstein. His concerned parents insisted that a full analysis was carried out on the contents of the syringe which revealed a DNA profile that matched that of the killer of both Lieslotte Schlenger and Joseph Walzenbach. Based on this evidence the German police concluded that the killer was female and that they were dealing with a homicidal junkie who was willing to do almost anything to feed her habit.
In the following years the same DNA profile cropped up in a string of other, more minor offences, which were scattered across Germany, Austria and France. But despite the number of offences committed by this individual the authorities appeared powerless to progress the case. In fact other than having identified her DNA profile they knew nothing about her at all, and thus she was christened the 'Phantom of Heilbronn' and 'The Woman Without a Face'. The police launched a public appeal for information in April 2005, without any apparent success, and the Phantom remained as elusive as ever.
Then in April 2007 two police officers were taking a lunch break in their parked BMW patrol car in Heilbronn when two people climbed into the back seat and shot the officers from behind. One officer was seriously injured whilst the other, twenty-two year-old Michele Kiesewetter, was killed outright. The only clues to the identity of the assailants were microscopic traces of DNA found on the centre console and the rear passenger seat of the BMW, which matched the mysterious Phantom. The murder of one of their own naturally made the case more of a priority from the point of view of German law enforcement, and the hunt for the Phantom received widespread publicity in the Garman media and elsewhere.
It became even more serious in February 2008 when the bodies of three Georgian car dealers were fished out of the Rhine near Heppenheim. The police subsequently arrested a suspect who was (rather ironically) a police informant driving around in a car they had provided him with, and discovered DNA traces of the mysterious woman in the car, and therefore suspected her of being responsible for the killings.
By this time the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) or German Federal Police had something like a hundred police officers involved in the investigation whilst there was a reward of 300,000 euro on offer for information leading to the apprehension of the elusive Phantom. Nevertheless the German police believed that eventually they would crack the case; the police chief of Baden-Wuerttemberg, one Erwin Hetger, went so far as to announce in April 2008 that "We're closing in on her", as the authorities engaged the services of Kurt Kletzer, the man who profiled Josef Fritzl, and now offered the opinion that the Phantom was someone who was "compelled to murder to feed her habit, thus reducing the victim to the status of a worthless object", and that she was "someone from a damaged home life" who had either been "abused or whose carers were addicts".
However at around the same time as Erwin Hetger was insisting that they were closing in on the elusive Phantom, the French discovered the charred body of an illegal immigrant and took a DNA sample in an effort to identify the corpse. They were surprised to discover it matched that of the Phantom, if only because the body in question was clearly that of the male sex. A second DNA test was ordered which failed to find any DNA that matched that of the Phantom.
This caused a certain amount of bemused head scratching until the penny finally dropped. DNA samples are commonly collected using cotton swabs, and it seemed perfectly clear that these cotton swabs had somehow been contaminated, and the reason why the same female DNA kept cropping up at crime scenes across Europe, was simply that it was already present on the swabs. It was suggested that the source of the problem was that police forces had all used the same cotton swabs manufactured by the one German medical company, and that some careless employee had left their DNA on the swabs during the manufacturing or packaging process. However whilst this might have been the obvious solution to the conundrum, no one had yet succeeded in identifying traces of the phantom DNA on any unused swabs, and the theoretical source factory remained unidentified.
Nevertheless it was clear that there was no mysterious serial killer. There was no Phantom of Heilbronn or a Woman Without a Face. There was nothing more than one rather embarassed German police force that had spent at least eight years chasing a true phantom.
- Roger Boyes, Junkie's needle may lead to woman serial killer they call the Phantom, The Times June 29, 2007
- Foreign Staff, DNA clues in hunt for 'faceless' serial killer, Daily Telegraph, 14 Apr 2008
- Allan Hall, Police nearing end of 15-year-search for The Woman Without A Face, Daily Mirror, 22/11/2008
- Ned Temko, Germany's hunt for the murderer known as 'the woman without a face', The Observer, 9 November 2008
- Police Fear 'Serial Killer' Was Just DNA Contamination, Spiegel Online International, 03/26/2009
- Tony Paterson, DNA blunder creates phantom serial killer, The Independent, 27 March 2009
- Fran Yeoman, The Phantom of Heilbronn, the tainted DNA and an eight-year goose chase, The Times, March 27, 2009