Regular readers of the blog might remember my post Elusive Serial killer, The Woman Without a Face. Well, today’s guest was involved with the case — undercover as a birdwatcher to catch the Phantom of Heilbronn. Please welcome, Ann Marie Ackermann.
The man next to the red car stood watching me. I knew exactly what he was thinking, too.
She could be the serial killer.
I was picking my way through waist-high weeds on an overgrown country lane, holding a clipboard in one hand and my binoculars in another. Every spring I collect data for a breeding bird survey. Four times a year, at daybreak, I follow a prescribed route and record every bird on a topographical map. My route boasts a variety of habitats in an undulating landscape of just north of the Black Forest in Germany. But from 2007 to 2009, my route also took me into the preferred habitat of a serial killer.
The man stood in a strip of orchard at the foot of a vineyard. My jeans were getting wet from the dew as I picked my way towards him.
Two hundred meters.
He was still watching me. He probably couldn’t tell, but I was as nervous as he was.
This wasn’t the first time I’d lived in the hunting grounds of a serial killer, but none of the others scared me as much as this one, the female serial killer called the Phantom of Heilbronn. I had moved to Seattle in 1983 when the fear from Ted Bundy’s reign of terror was still quite palpable. My hairdresser claimed to have escaped from him and probably had an easier time trimming my hair while she told her story. My hair stood on end. The Green River Killer still actively prowled the region then. But it didn’t scare me much. Bundy was behind bars, and I didn’t belong to the GRK’s class of preferred victim.
DNA showed this German murderer was the rarest of the rare: a female serial killer. But police thought she appeared like a man. When I watch birds, I often wear hunter’s clothing and a man’s black felt hat, with its broad brim pulled deep over my eyes. It helps camouflage me. But that’s what worried the man in the orchard. I looked the part.
A triumphant jumble of notes rose suddenly from the field from my left – a skylark lifting off for its display flight. I didn’t even need my binoculars for this one; I knew the song. A quick notation of symbols on my map preserved the lark’s territorial behavior for later statistical evaluation.
The man was still watching me. I just hoped he wouldn’t do anything rash to protect himself.
What scared me the most about the Phantom of Heilbronn? Her unpredictability. She was everywhere, seemingly at once, and active in the area I lived. She killed a police officer in broad daylight in the city of Heilbronn in April 2007 and stole the officer’s gun. No one witnessed the murder. Police set up a roadblock as soon as they could, stopping every car and train to search for weapons and take down the names of everyone who had been traveling through Heilbronn at the time. But the Phantom of Heilbronn had slipped through.
DNA from the scene pointed to the killer. Investigators had found that same DNA at other murder scenes, at burglary sites, on drug paraphernalia in a school yard, and in garden huts, where she had broken in, stolen food and drink, and apparently spent the night. Over the past 15 years, her DNA showed up at 40 crimes scenes and 14 murders throughout Germany, Austria, and France.
In August 2007, the police conducted a huge search of orchards and garden cabins just south of Heilbronn, not too far away from where I count my birds. The police thought the garden cabins could offer good leads and the headlines of our local German newspaper screamed weekly reminders:
She’s in our area. She breaks into garden cabins. Local citizens have to help solve this case. Report every burglary, every crime, every stranger who doesn’t belong there. Report break-ins of garden cabins especially. She likes to use them.
The orchards I now approached were full of such garden cabins, and any one of them could have contained the coiled cobra, ready to strike. Germans like to spend their weekends in their orchards. They stock their cabins with food and drink; they decorate them with cots, beds, and curtains so they can camp out. An unused cabin offered a perfect hiding place for a serial killer.
Movement in an apple tree caught my eye. I trained my binoculars on it and could make out a blue tit with nesting material in its beak. I scratched the symbols on my map and then looked back at the man. He must have decided I posed no threat; he had gone back to cutting his hedge. Maybe there’s some unwritten rule that serial killers don’t watch birds.
But there’s another unwritten rule that serial killers don’t take well to binocular-toting visitors who walk past their lair in the wee hours of the morning. All those garden cabins on my route made me nervous. I mentioned it to a lawyer friend of mine who worked for the Heilbronn prosecutor’s office. “If you’re going to take the risk and count your birds anyway,” he said, “you might as well be our eyes and ears. We want the license plate numbers of every car in the countryside that doesn’t belong there.”
And with that, I now had my small, unofficial role in the Phantom of Heilbronn investigation. Each German license plate begins with a code for the car’s Landkreis, or county. I needed to note all the license plate numbers on my bird survey route that didn’t start with LB for Ludwigsburg or HN for Heilbronn.
Eurasian cuckoos sound amazingly like the clocks – two exuberant wooden flute notes with a perfect drop of a third. But this was no clock. It was coming out of the orchard. Ku+, I jotted on my map. One singing cuckoo.
I wound my way around the orchard and entered the vineyards. A car passed me on a narrow access road but I didn’t want to look too interested in it.
This could be her. Don’t call attention to yourself.
Once the car passed, it was easy to raise my binoculars from behind a row of vines and read off the license plate number. HD for Heidelberg. That didn’t belong here. German country roads are closed to all cars except for property owners’. Heidelberg was too far away. I noted the number on the back side of my map and would report it later. Had anyone asked me what I was doing, using my binoculars and making notes in the field, I could innocently show them the front page of my map and explain the research project.
In the end, the license plate numbers never offered much of a lead because the Phantom of Heilbronn turned out to be just that: a phantom. It was a textbook case of evidence contamination. In 2009, the police discovered the woman they were searching for worked for the company supplying cotton swabs to the police for DNA collection. The police cried foul because the swabs weren’t DNA-free, but the company pointed out it only guaranteed the sterility of its swabs. Sterility means free from germs, not DNA.
There was no female serial killer. The police had to start all over again and the garden cabins lost their terror. It had probably been teens or small-time burglars who’d broken in, and they must have been shocked when the police traced their burglary back to the Phantom of Heilbronn. After 2009, I could count my birds again without fear.
The case broke in 2011 when police found the firearms stolen from the murdered and injured police officers. Two neo-Nazis in East Germany had them. They committed suicide after a botched bank robbery and police found the firearms by their dead bodies.
They too were serial killers, at least as scary as the Phantom of Heilbronn. They were terrorists. Uwe Bönhardt and Uwe Mundlos specialized in killing foreigners. They shot the two police officers as a crime of opportunity: They wanted the cops’ superior firearms.
One cold spring morning in 2012, after watching thrushes and flycatchers in a park with my prosecutor friend and his wife, we gathered in a café to warm our toes and sip hot chocolate and espressos. I asked him about the case. He said the German feds were handling the investigation into the terrorist ring and he was glad.
A memorial to Michèle Kiesewetter, the murdered police officer, stands near the spot where the neo-Nazis gunned her down in Heilbronn. They’ve changed it
recently to add the names of all the known victims. There are ten in all.
Chaffinches sing in the trees above the memorial. The Neckar River flows only a few yards away, and if you step out onto the pedestrian bridge, you can sometimes see a swan family slicing the water with graceful arched necks.
In my mind, the birds will always be a memorial too.
Literature on point:
Claudia Himmelreich, “Germany’s Phantom Serial Killer: A DNA Blunder,” Time. March 27, 2009.
Bernd Dörries, “Trügerische Fährte,” Süddeutsche Zeitung. May 17, 2010.
“Die Jagd auf das Phantom von Heilbronn,” Die Welt. April 19, 2008.
Barbara A. Cepielik, “‘Phantom’-Ermittler Huber: ‘Das war ein herber Rückschlag,’” Frankfurter Rundschau. April 1, 2009.
Carsten Friese and Helmut Buchholz, “Polizistenmord: Was hat das Phantom mit der Pflegehelferin zu tun?” Heilbronner Stimme. December 20, 2008.
Ann Marie Ackermann is a former prosecuting attorney from Seattle Washington. Bird watching has been her hobby since childhood and she’s counted birds since moving to Germany 20 years ago. Her forthcoming book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, 2017) combines research in German and American archives. It tells the story of Robert E. Lee’s first battle against the back drop of 19th century Germany’s record-breaking cold case – and the German assassin who died at Lee’s feet. Ann Marie Ackermann also blogs about historical true crime.
Connect with Ann on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Ann_M_Ackermann
Old memorial pic attrib.: By p.schmelzle (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.