Elusive Serial Killer: The Woman Without a Face

file0001550124934The sleepy town of Bad Kreuznach, Germany found itself at the center of one of the most bizarre, high-profile murder mysteries in the country’s history — the search for a serial killer the police called “The Woman Without a Face.” They had no fingerprints. No witnesses. No description. But they did have a trail of DNA that stretched back 15 years and across three countries. A case so bizarre that the mystery woman, dubbed by the media, The Phantom of Heilbronn, wasn’t only an elusive female serial killer, but a cop-killer, as well.

On May 23, 1993 in the quite town of Idar-Oberstein, Germany, a neighbor knocked at the door of Lieselotte Schlenger. No answer. She knocked again, and again. No answer. Finally, she phoned the police. When they arrived, they found Lieselotte on the living room floor. Someone strangled her to death using wire from a bouquet of flowers. Dozens of potential witnesses were interviewed at the time, but no one heard or saw a thing. The only clue to the killer’s identity were trace amounts of DNA found on the lip of a teacup. Police couldn’t match it to anyone in particular, but they did determine it came from a woman.

Fast forward eight years.

In March 2001, in Freiburg, a southwestern town in Germany miles away from Idar-Oberstein, 61 year-old antique dealer, Jozef Walzenbach, was found strangled to death. Where they found his body, isn’t clear. However, the police found identical DNA to the first crime scene. It seemed Germany had a budding serial killer in their midst. The Woman Without a Face had struck again.

Seven months later in October 2001, at a public playground in the quaint German town of Gerolstein, miles from the previous scene, a seven-year-old boy stepped The Woman Without a Faceon a discarded heroine needle. His frantic mother turned the syringe into police, which set off a chain of events that no one saw coming. Identical DNA from the first two murders was now found on the syringe. A serial killer with a drug problem is even more unpredictable.

The BKA — German equivalent to the FBI — retested all the samples, resulting in a bizarre turn of events. Not only was this mysterious woman a murderer, she was also a thief.

In 2004, she went to Austria and broke into garden sheds along the road. She discarded the bottoms of a tracksuit, a hooded cardigan, and other items. The Woman Without a Face broke into a caravan, stole items, and took a bite out of a biscuit. Her DNA was found in the saliva on the bite impression. Next, she stopped in France and committed burglaries there, too.

A real menace to society!

The mysterious DNA didn’t turn up again for four years.

May 6, 2005, a member of the local gypsy community was shot and nearly killed. Shortly thereafter, someone from that community turned over his brother’s 7.65 caliber pistol. Guess whose DNA was on the handle? The Woman Without a Face.

Police were baffled. The Phantom was running ramped. Nowhere in Europe seemed safe.

The Woman Without a FaceThen, in April, 2007, German officer, Michele Kiesewetter, 22 years old, presumably approached the mystery woman in a car park. At close range she was shot in the face, killing her instantly. Her male partner was also shot, and he slipped into a coma. When he woke he had no memory of the killer. However, police found The Phantom’s DNA in the patrol car.

In 2008, German police arrested a former informant who was suspected of killing three Georgian car dealers who’d visited Germany to buy used vehicles — their bodies dumped in the river. The informant denied all claims that he was involved or that he knew The Woman Without a Face. Rather, he said an Islamic radical from Somalia killed the car dealers. Because the Islamic radical was already in police custody, they questioned him. But he denied any wrongdoing.

Left with little options, police stripped the informant’s car, analyzed the upholstery, carpet, and lint. And guess whose DNA showed up? You got it. The Phantom had struck again. This triggered police to concoct a new theory of the case, a theory that pointed the finger of the law at The Woman Without a Face. Tirelessly they worked to track down the previous owners of this motor vehicle in the hopes that it once belonged to her. But oddly enough, the police had loaned this informant the car for his cooperation in a number of cases. No matter. Police Chief, Erwin Hetger, was thrilled, calling it a “down payment” to solve the case of the mysterious and elusive Phantom of Heilbronn. “We’re closing in on her,” he told reporters.

Was he?

Over the course of 15 years The Woman Without a Face baffled police. She became wanted in connection with 30 crimes, including six murders and dozens of burglaries and robberies (robberies involve people; burglaries are when the owner of the property isn’t there at the time).

In a stunning new twist, German police released a photo-fit picture of a man who was either the suspect or an accomplice. Could the Phantom be transgender?

The Woman Without a Face

Police released this photo.

Eyewitnesses reported to have seen this “man” at the scene of an attempted break-in at a flat in Saarbruecken (another German city) in 2006. At the crime scene, police found traces of the Phantom’s DNA on a stone.

“We can’t rule out that our suspect is a man now, or that she looks like a man. We just don’t know,” said Rainer Koeller, a police spokesman. “This is a unique case. We have 30 crime scenes where we have found traces of her DNA, but we have no face. It’s a huge mystery and it’s incredible that the suspect has managed to hide herself for so long.”

Can you guess the outcome?

Much like my post, The CSI Effect, police and BKA relied heavily, if not solely, on trace DNA evidence. The startling truth is, there was no serial killer. A woman who worked at the factory that made the cotton swabs used in DNA testing and medicinal uses infected dozens of samples. So you see? Although DNA can be used as a strong backing for other circumstantial evidence, that evidence alone is not always a sure sign of guilt.

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is a multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

56 Comments

  1. Absolutely loved your article. Thank you. I also would like to take this opportunity to alert other writers about using scrivener: it deleted all my edited files, a work of a lifetime. So, if any writer here wants to use scrivener, please make sure to print everything you write.

  2. I live near Heilbronn and remember the shooting of the police officer well. Some of the cases attributed to the Phantom occurred only miles from my house, and that was unnerving. I’m glad it wasn’t a serial killer, although the real solution was bad enough.

  3. What a twist!! I enjoyed the story, Sue. You always have something interesting to share with the rest of us. Thank you.

  4. That’s amazing! Quite the twist there 🙂
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  5. I didn’t see that coming!

  6. Well told. And here I was, awaiting the revelation of some diabolical genius.
    Joel D Canfield recently posted…Help Me Succeed as an AuthorMy Profile

  7. Wow!, No, I didn’t believe it. So interesting!!
    Joycelin Leahy recently posted…A Lei For MarcelleMy Profile

  8. Oh my gosh! Never expected that! Great lesson in the truth being stranger than fiction, Sue and in relying solely on DNA evidence alone. Thanks. 🙂
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  9. Wow! I sure didn’t see that coming. Very clever. I really enjoyed the anticipation along the way. Thanks, Sue!
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  10. Great stuff, Sue! Well written. Did not see that coming at all 🙂

  11. Wow! Great and a fascinating ending!
    MJ Brodeck recently posted…Book Review: The GossipsMy Profile

  12. Hey Sue. Bizarre story but I love strange stuff. Thanks for telling it well, too!

  13. wow, great article. I didn’t see that coming.

  14. Good post Sue.. not one Yikes in the whole story ! That is if you don’t think about Q-tip contamination !

  15. Wow, totally amazing outcome. Left me with my mouth hanging open. Great post, Sue. And I agree with Craig on the urban legend spin!
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  16. What a cliffhanger of a story – and then the denouement! Crazy coincidences, and by the end you just have to laugh at the way the DNA trail has led you along all those paths … One of your most fascinating posts, Sue. Thank you.

  17. Fabulous story, pure Agatha Christie, loved it…
    You had me hooked from the start and who would have believed the outcome?
    Looking forward to the next of your ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ series, this one was a real belter….
    Love this blog, best thing since sliced bread…… xxx

  18. Fabulous story Sue, thanks for posting
    It will surely speak to investigators who get their villains the old fashioned way of knocking on doors and pulling the puzzle pieces together.
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  19. Fascinating! Who finally made the connection?
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    • I’m glad you asked, Colette. The connection was made when the police swabbed a piece of evidence at a crime scene that seemed way too coincidental for the perp to be the Phantom. A second swab was done, and the results didn’t match. So they had two tests: one showed the Phantom, one didn’t. It was then that alarm bells went off. Maybe the DNA came from the factory. They then tested everyone in the factory, and sure enough, they found their mysterious woman.

  20. Just goes to show that no technology is perfect. And truth really is stranger than fiction. Unlike life, fiction has to make sense. 🙂
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  21. I’ve thought so many times about the ways DNA testing can go wrong. I wonder how many have gone to the electric chair on DNA evidence that shouldn’t have and how many criminals have gone free. Investigators are quick to use it nowadays, but it needs to directly connect to murders not necessarily murder scenes.

    • In the UK alone (that’s where my forensics classes are based out of, which is why I only have those statistics) more than 200 men have been freed by retesting the DNA. The problem is, DNA evidence is only as good as the scientist interrupting the results. And even then, something like what happened here can occur.

  22. That is just outstanding. Awesome post, and would make a great short story. It could even make a great urban legend like Bloody Mary.

  23. Wow! What a story, Sue! Honestly, if it weren’t you sharing this, I would find it hard to believe it’s a real story. And it does go to show that DNA isn’t entirely foolproof. It also says something important about tracing that DNA…

    • It’s a tough story to believe, isn’t it, Margot. The Woman Without a Face case was brought to my attention during my forensic psychology class. Otherwise, I might not have believed it, either. Truth really is stranger than fiction. 🙂 My instructors have raised so many reasons why DNA evidence fails. It’s shocking.

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