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True crime. Casually done.

The Phantom of Heilbronn

All the greatest detectives in fiction have their ‘White Whale’ — the Moriarty to their Sherlock: a master criminal who slips their grasp time and time again. But these kinds of diabolical masterminds aren’t always confined to the realms of fiction. Sometimes a real-life criminal emerges that leaves even the best detectives in the land mystified.

The police in Germany found that out to their dismay back in the early 2000s. That’s when they came up against a criminal so prolific, so proficient, they were able to run rings around the authorities for years, leaving nothing but a microscopic calling card behind. The German papers dubbed her fifteen-year-long crime spree “the most mysterious serial crime of the past century.”

By far the most intriguing character ever to make their most-wanted list, Germany’s very own Keyser Söze went by the suitably poetic moniker ‘The Phantom of Heilbronn’. And just like her fictional counterpart, this crime lord held a terrifying power over her fellow crooks.

But even the very best criminals can’t escape the long arm of the law forever. So just how were the authorities finally able to track down the Phantom of Heilbronn and bring her to justice? 

Spoiler alert: the answer is much dumber than you could ever imagine…

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Death of an Officer

April 25th, 2007. Two police officers are taking a break from their patrol in the town of Heilbronn, southwest Germany. They decide to park their squad car at a spot off the Theresienwiese, an area of town near the canal, set aside for festivals. It’s quiet for now, but preparations are already underway for the May Festival nearby.

Michèle Kiesewetter is the rookie cop behind the wheel, just 22 at the time. Her partner, 24 year-old Martin A, is the passenger. The two spend a few minutes smoking and talking, before someone walks up behind their vehicle. Michèle and Martin assume that their visitor is looking for directions, so they start to roll down the windows. 

Within seconds, both officers are shot in the head. Kiesewetter dies instantly — Martin A is knocked unconscious. With both of the young officers slumped over in the front seats, someone reaches through the window and wrenches Kiesewetter’s gun from her holster, ripping out the studs from the leather as they do so. They then loot three magazines of ammunition from the lifeless officers, before making their escape.

It’s weeks before Martin finally recovers from his coma. Miraculously, the gunshot to the side of his face wasn’t fatal. He has little information for the detectives when he awakes; it had all happened so fast that he didn’t get a chance to look at his attacker, or even figure out how many were involved.

While the motive and circumstances of the murder remained a mystery, the forensic investigators were able to offer up a major break — the killer had left a trace of their DNA on the patrol car…

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A Break in the Case

Samples from the scene were transported to the Institute for Forensic Medicine at the Medical University of Innsbruck. Analysts there managed to extract a full DNA profile from one of the culprits, presumably the one who had reached through the car window to steal Kiesewetter’s service weapon.

Analysis of the sample yielded some surprising revelations about their identity. For one, they were female. And by cross referencing the sample with data from the Austrian DNA Central Laboratory, the analysts were able to say with reasonable certainty that their suspect was Eastern European, perhaps Russian.

Most important of all though, was the discovery that this mystery Slavic cop-killer had struck before, multiple times. She was implicated in crimes stretching all the way back to a murder in the early 90s. Since then, she had been terrorizing the continent with a string of home invasions and thefts.

All of these details were released to the papers, who dubbed the culprit the Phantom of Heilbronn. This signaled the start of one of Germany’s most mysterious manhunts, which would end up consuming 16,000 hours of police overtime, and millions of euros in expenses.

All of that went towards building a profile of one of the worst criminals in modern European history…

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A Crime Spree for the Ages

It was a colorful biography to say the least. To list all of the crimes the Phantom was implicated in would take a fair while, so we’ll just give you a best-of compilation.

The first time the Phantom’s DNA was discovered was on a teacup found at the murder scene of a 62 year-old woman in Idar-Obrstein, way back in 1993. The elderly lady had been strangled to death with the wire which she used for flower arrangement.

Advances in forensic testing meant the authorities could extract the Phantom’s DNA from the warehoused mug in 2001. This happened to be he very same year that she committed her second murder: another elderly victim, killed in Freiburg im Breisgau in March. He was also strangled, this time with gardening twine.

According to the cold case records, not only was the Phantom of Heilbronn a cold-blooded killer, she also had a penchant for theft and home invasion. For example, in October 2001 she carelessly smeared her DNA on a biscuit left in a caravan which she had burgled. 

Robbing caravans isn’t usually a very profitable crime, unless your fence gives a good price for travel kettles. So in 2004 the female crime lord graduated to stealing gemstones. 

Her genetic calling card was found on a fake gun left behind after a jewel store robbery in Arbois, France in 2004. Then, in 2006, she broke into an electronics store in Austria; then a residential building in Burbach later that year; then an optician’s in Gallneukirchen a year later. 

Throughout that period, she had also been implicated in around 20 car and bike thefts as well, across both Germany and Austria. Apparently she was using the funds from these robberies to fund a drug habit, as her DNA was found on an abandoned heroin needle back in 2001. 

You might think the Phantom had made a positive change in her life, moving from strangling pensioners to a bit of harmless robbery, but it wasn’t long before she returned to her murderous ways. Her next crime was the killing of the officer in Heilbronn — the act which finally brought the authorities onto her scent. 

Rather than lay low after incurring the wrath of the law, the Woman Without a Face doubled down, committing a bunch more homicides in a short period. In January 2008, her DNA was found on car which had been used to move the bodies of three murder victims: Georgian nationals murdered in Heppenheim.

As we all know, it’s very difficult to kill three Georgian men singlehandedly, so our phantom femme fatale had some backup for this one. The same was true for many of her other crimes. In fact, some of her helping hands had even been caught in the act over the years. The Phantom was apparently quite careful in picking her accomplices, never working with the same crew twice.

Her captured partners were from a range of different backgrounds: Serbs, Slovaks, Iraqis, Romanians, and Albanians. What’s impressive is that a female criminal was able to command such loyalty and fear from all of these hardened criminals, that none of them dared rat her out — they refused to tell the cops anything about her.

The Phantom was especially active during the months of March and April 2008, when she and her gang broke into four different homes across Germany, holding the owners hostage while they looted their belongings. After leaving behind traces of her DNA at six crime scenes in just four months, the Phantom was clearly becoming either cocky or careless. It wouldn’t be long now before the authorities finally cracked the case.

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But not before one last gruesome murder to add to her rap sheet. The final victim of the Phantom of Heilbronn was a nursing assistant, murdered in Weinsberg in October 2008. This was the 40th crime scene where the Phantom’s DNA was found, and the sixth murder she was implicated in. 

Despite having caught the scent of her at all those crimes, the authorities were no closer to putting a face to the name. The Phantom — in keeping with her title — always managed to avoid showing up on security cameras, meaning she must have planned her crimes meticulously. 

In fact, apart from trace DNA evidence, she left no other puzzle pieces behind for the cops — not even as much as a footprint. Had our mystery killer been operating before the days of complex DNA analysis, nobody would even have known she existed. That’s just how good she was.

Witnesses rarely caught sight of her, but those few who did reported that they mistook her for a man. Was she deliberately disguising herself to throw her pursuers off the scent? Or perhaps to pass as a man among the hard-boiled criminal underworld of Germany?

Whatever the intention, it worked like a charm, and no witness nor accomplice ever managed to successfully identify the mystery woman. So by the time the authorities finally tracked her down, there was a 300,000 euro bounty on offer for anyone with information which could lead to her arrest.

No matter how many crimes they linked her to, the Phantom remained a phantom. They had plenty of information about her: she was a heroin-addled gangster with world-class heist skills, who couldn’t stand elderly horticulturists. Still, nothing which could actually help them track her down. In their desperation, the police even enlisted the help of self-proclaimed psychics to point them in the direction of the elusive serial killer. 

But it was the good folk at the forensics lab who finally nabbed her in the end…

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The Phantom Strikes Again

In 2009, the Phantom would be implicated in a violent death one last time. This time it was a body found burned in 2002, which still hadn’t been identified by the police. 

The forensic techs were pursuing a new lead, attempting to match DNA from the corpse with that found on an asylum application form from the 1990s. The man who filled out the form had to provide his fingerprints, meaning a trace amount of DNA could be lifted from the forms.

When they ran the sample, they made a shocking discovery: the DNA on the form belonged to none other than the Phantom of Heilbronn! So not only had she been breaking into homes and murdering gangsters, she had also been… filling out forms on behalf of asylum seekers? Disguising herself as a male asylum seeker?

Hold on, this story is starting to get a bit ridiculous, is it not? That’s exactly what the lab technicians thought as they tried to explain why the DNA of someone who was a completely different race and sex was showing up in their results. They tried repeating the tests and, curiously, the Phantom’s DNA was nowhere to be found. Had she snuck in and wiped down the papers right under their noses? 

Of course not, that’s ridiculous… but not half as ridiculous as the revelations yet to come…

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The Comic Conclusion

See, this bit of confusion in the lab turned out to be the undoing of the whole thing. It meant that the police could finally track the dastardly Phantom down to her hideout, which was… a packaging warehouse in Bavaria. Bit of a strange lair for one of Europe’s most wanted, no?

The packaging facility belonged to the Böhm Kunststofftechnik company, who had a contract with Greiner Bio-One — a major supplier of cotton swabs to forensic labs around Germany. Curiously, labs in the state of Bavaria itself used a different supplier, and the Phantom had never decided to strike there.

On top of that, the packaging facility just so happened to employ several Eastern European women on its assembly line… If you still haven’t figured out where I’m going with this, don’t feel bad, it took the entire German police force 2 years to cotton on. (I make no apology for the pun)

Slowly but surely, an embarrassing reality was starting to materialize: the Phantom of Heilbronn never actually existed! Or rather, she did exist, but she was no criminal — she was just a middle-aged factory worker, whose only crime was a lax attitude towards contamination protocol. 

The German police chased their tails for two years, blew 2 million euros, whipped the public up into a panic, and presumably let dozens of real criminals walk, all for the sake of this one world-class forensics blunder. Take a second to appreciate the majesty of it: 40 different crimes across three countries pinned on some random woman.

The supplier actually had to release a statement on their website, reminding everyone that at no point did they say their swabs were suitable for DNA testing. They sterilized them before shipping, sure, but this doesn’t destroy any microscopic bits of human that might have been sprinkled onto the product.

So all this time, the blood, skin, sweat, and saliva cells they had been testing belonged to the woman packing the swabs (keep that in mind next time you put one of those things in your ear).

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If you’re amazed at how this whole escapade managed to reach such comic proportions, you’re not alone. The papers and public were appalled that the police never worked it out sooner. For one, so many of the crimes which the Phantom was implicated in just didn’t fit the profile. 

She had seemingly taken a break from murder and mayhem to break into a high school in 2007, alongside some teenaged accomplices. Apparently between murdering old women and gangsters, you sometimes need a night off to go smoke weed with some 15-year-olds.

And the rest of her alleged accomplices had been telling the police the truth for years! Imagine it from their perspective for a second. The police track you down and arrest you for a robbery which you committed all on your lonesome, but instead of demanding to know where the diamonds are stashed, the detective slams his fist on the table and shouts “Wo ist das Phantom!?” 

No matter how much you try to explain the situation to them, they won’t hear it — maybe they even offer you a deal for turning in a woman who simply doesn’t exist. It’s like something out of Kafka.

To be fair to the police though, they weren’t completely dense. They did suspect from time to time that something wasn’t quite right about the picture their evidence was painting. They even identified DNA contamination as a potential problem early on, but tests on the swabs never turned up any results back then, so they discarded the idea. As one detective quoted in the German tabloid Bild said: “The things were double-packaged; we thought they were the Mercedes of cotton swabs.”

And so the myth of the Phantom was allowed to snowball on, leading to one of the most embarrassing, expensive blunders in the history of policing.

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Wrap-up

So what did everyone learn from this little catastrophe? Well, clearly stricter quality standards were needed for products used in forensic labs. Nowadays the German police only order swabs which have been sterilized with ethylene oxide, which scrubs off all biological material.

We also learned that, despite the fantasy CSI shows have sold us, forensics is far from a perfect science. While in some cases DNA is the smoking gun which brings a criminal to justice, in others it can point the finger at someone completely innocent, like our Eastern European factory worker. 

But there’s one last possibility to consider. What if this was all just the perfect cover story? Stick with me for a moment, because I’m about to outline the best new conspiracy theory you’ve heard all year.

After arriving in Germany to embark on her career as an underground hitman, little old Svetlana takes a job at a packaging plant for forensic cotton swabs. She sprinkles her DNA all over the product, rendering any tests against her null and void. By day, she works the factory floor, so that by night, she can murder and rob with impunity, becoming the greatest crime lord Germany has ever known.

In the words of Keyser Söze himself: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Well played Phantom. Well played.

Dismembered Appendix

1. As for the crime which kickstarted the manhunt, it turned out that Officer Kiesewetter was actually murdered by the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground. Her suspected killers took their own lives in 2011, so we’ll never know for sure. We do however, have DNA evidence linking them to the crime, and we all know how reliable that is…

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