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The Phantom of Heilbronn blunder – “Woman Without a Face” named Germany’s most dangerous woman

The Phantom of Heilbronn murder victim

The Phantom of Heilbronn crime wave

Police investigate the scene of a Phantom of Heilbronn crimeDNA evidence linked her to over forty crimes including a string of six murders over sixteen years, dozens of high-profile thefts, and a deadly arson case. After DNA evidence linked her to the murder of a policewoman from Heilbronn, a $400,000 bounty was placed on her head but the female serial killer dubbed the “Phantom of Heilbronn”, described by German police as “the country’s most dangerous woman”, cleverly evaded an extensive police manhunt for over 15 years despite her sloppy criminal work and evidence left behind. When her DNA was found on documents belonging to a person who had died in a fire, police took a step back, reevaluated the cases, and determined that the mysterious Phantom was the last person they would have ever suspected – and she was “hiding” in plain sight.

The Phantom of Heilbronn, also known as the “Woman Without a Face”, was implicated by DNA evidence in crimes across Austria, France, and Germany during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The earliest DNA evidence was discovered in 2001 on the cup of a 62-year-old woman who had been murdered on May 26, 1993 in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. Police recognized that a serial killer was on the loose after DNA evidence was found at another murder scene that same year – on the kitchen drawer of a 61-year-old man who was stabbed to death on March 21, 2001 in Freiburg, Germany. When police found her DNA on a syringe containing heroin in October 2001 and on the leftovers of a cookie found in a trailer that had been burglarized that same month, police surmised their serial killer had drug problem which she supported through theft of other persons’ property.

During the early 2000’s, evidence against the Phantom continued to pile up.  Her DNA was found on a toy pistol used in the 2004 robbery of a Vietnamese gemstone trader, on a stone used to smash a window during a burglary in 2006, and on the window sill of an optometrist’s store that had been robbed that same year. When police found her DNA evidence at the scenes of over 20 car thefts between 2003 and 2007, they figured their drug-addled criminal had shifted from burglary to car theft in an effort to support her escalating drug addiction.  Profilers from around Europe were called in to help hunt her down and police racked up 16,000 hours of overtime pursuing the illusive criminal.

The Phantom’s Modus operandi mysteriously changes once again

During 2007 and 2008, the Phantom’s Modus operandi changed once again. The Phantom’s DNA was found on the scene of a burglarized swimming pool and at four different home invasion scenes in Riol, Germany. When a woman was violently accosted and robbed at a club house in Germany, the tide appeared to be turning violent once again. That year, the Phantom of Heilbronn’s DNA was found in the car of a nurse who was found dead near her home in Weinsberg, on handcuffs of a 22-year-old murdered German police officer, and on a car used to transport the bodies of three dead Georgians near Heppenheim, Germany.  Curiously, witnesses to the crimes sometimes said she looked like a man.  Newspapers across the area called her “the most mysterious serial killer of the past century” and authorities scratched their heads – how could a single woman commit so many crimes, using various methods of operation, and always manage to leave DNA evidence behind?

A special task force was formed in January 2009 in an effort to capture the clever criminal whose varying methods of operation greatly concerned, and confused, the authorities. Three months later the task force was quickly shut down amongst a sea of red-faced policemen.

In March of that year, police sought a DNA profile for an unidentified man that had died in a fire in France. To the police’s surprise, the profile returned was that of a female. They immediately suspected that the equipment used to gather the DNA evidence had somehow been contaminated and retested with a different swab.  This time the results were as expected – the burned corpse was indeed a man.  Could the Phantom of Heilbronn be just that – a ghost that existed only in the minds of the police?

Contaminated cotton swabs throw off DNA evidenceAre the heads of our police stuffed with cotton wool?

After the embarrassing DNA-testing fiasco, a in-depth investigation of the equipment revealed that the Greiner Bio-One cotton swabs used to collect DNA had been contaminated accidentally by a single woman working at a cotton swab factory in Austria. The factory explained that although sterile, the cotton swabs are not certified for human DNA collection (sterilization kills bacteria and viruses but does not destroy DNA).  Newspapers asked, “Are the heads of our police stuffed with cotton wool?”  and the Phantom gained legendary status as the most embarrassing lapse in German DNA analysis to date.

Additional information

List of crimes associated with the “Phantom”

The DNA attributed to the “Phantom” was found at the scene, as well as purportedly on evidence at the sites of the following crimes:

  1. on a cup after the killing of a 62-year-old woman on 25–26 May 1993 in Idar-Oberstein, Germany (the DNA was analysed in 2001)
  2. on a kitchen drawer after the killing of a 61-year-old man on 21 March 2001 in Freiburg, Germany
  3. on a syringe containing heroin in October 2001 in a wooded area near Gerolstein, Germany
  4. on the leftovers of a cookie in a trailer that was forcefully opened on the night of 24 October 2001 in Budenheim, Germany
  5. on a toy pistol after the 2004 robbery of Vietnamese gemstone traders in Arbois, France
  6. on a projectile after a fight between two brothers on May 6, 2005 in Worms, Germany
  7. on a stone used for smashing a window, after a burglary on 3 October 2006 in Saarbrücken, Germany (DNA was discovered and analysed only 2008)
  8. after a March 2007 burglary at an optometrist’s store in Gallneukirchen, Upper Austria
  9. after 20 burglaries and thefts of cars and motorbikes between 2003 and 2007 in Hesse, Baden-Württemberg and Saarland, Germany; Tyrol, Austria; and Upper Austria
  10. on a car used to transport the bodies of three Georgians killed on 30 January 2008 in Heppenheim, Germany (the DNA was analysed on 10 March 2008)
  11. after a burglary on the night of 22 March 2008 in a disused public swimming pool in Niederstetten, Germany
  12. after four cases of home invasion in Quierschied (twice), Tholey and Riol, Germany in March and April 2008;
  13. after an apartment break-in in Oberstenfeld-Gronau during the night of 9 April 2008
  14. after the robbery of a woman on 9 May 2008 in a club house in Saarhölzbach
  15. in the car of an auxiliary nurse who was found dead at the end of October 2008 near Weinsberg, Germany
Sources: Time Magazine, BBC, Wikipedia, Science Blogs, Fox News, The Guardian