The 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 on 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.
Then, 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.
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?
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.