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Phantom of Heilbronn

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Commemorative marker near the site of Officer Kiesewetter's murder

Phantom of Heilbronn, or "Woman Without a Face" is the name of a suspected female serial killer. The killer is only known from DNA evidence. This evidence was present at different crime scenes in Austria, France, and Germany. The crimes were committed (or happened) between 1993 and 2009. Six of the crimes were murders. One of the murders was that of Michèle Kieswetter, a police officer. She was killed in Heilbronn on 25 April 2007.

The DNA had been found in 40 different crime scenes. There were many types of crimes committed - from burglaries to killings. In late March 2009, investigators concluded that the "Phantom" criminal did not exist. The DNA recovered at the crime scenes had already been present on the cotton swabs used for collecting DNA samples. The DNA belonged to a woman who worked at the factory where they were made.

The events were fictionalized in different serial episodes.

Investigation[change | change source]

An analysis of the mitochondrial DNA from the samples collected in Austria showed that it was most often found among people in Eastern Europe and neighboring Russia. This was not discovered in the German investigations. The analysis of mitochondrial DNA done in criminal proceedings is limited. The analysis could only determine a few other personal attributes of a suspect apart from sex. The killer existence was disputed,[1][2] but is now said to be untrue.

The investigations focused on a special task force "parking lot" at the Heilbronn police department. In January 2009, the reward for clues regarding the whereabouts of the person was increased to €300,000.[1][3]

The existence of the Phantom had been doubted earlier, but in March 2009, the case took a new turn. Investigators discovered the DNA profile on the burned body of a male asylum-seeker in France. This was an anomaly, since the profile was of a female. They subsequently came to the conclusion that the mysterious criminal did not exist. They found that the laboratory results were the due to the cotton buds used for DNA collection being contaminated. Although sterile, the swabs are not certified for human DNA collection.[4]

The cotton swabs used by many state police departments were found to have been contaminated before shipping. It was found that the contaminated swabs all came from the same factory, which employs several Eastern European women who fit the type the DNA was assumed to match. Bavaria, although a region central to the crimes, obtained their swabs from a different factory. They had no reports of crimes committed by the Phantom.[2]

Associated crimes[change | change source]

The DNA attributed to the "Phantom" was found at the scene, as well as purportedly at the sites of the following crimes:[5][6]

  • 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)
  • on a kitchen drawer after the killing of a 61-year-old man on 21 March 2001 in Freiburg, Germany
  • on a syringe containing heroin in October 2001 in a wooded area near Gerolstein, Germany
  • on the leftovers of a cookie in a trailer that was forcefully opened on the night of 24 October 2001 in Budenheim, Germany
  • on a toy pistol after the 2004 robbery of Vietnamese gemstone traders in Arbois, France
  • on a projectile after a fight between two brothers on May 6, 2005 in Worms, Germany
  • 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)
  • after a March 2007 burglary at an optometrist’s store in Gallneukirchen, Upper Austria
  • 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
  • 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)
  • after a burglary on the night of 22 March 2008 in a disused public swimming pool in Niederstetten, Germany
  • after four cases of home invasion in Quierschied (twice), Tholey and Riol, Germany in March and April 2008;
  • after an apartment break-in in Oberstenfeld-Gronau during the night of 9 April 2008
  • after the robbery of a woman on 9 May 2008 in a club house in Saarhölzbach
  • in the car of an auxiliary nurse who was found dead at the end of October 2008 near Weinsberg, Germany

Conclusion[change | change source]

As a consequence of this severe case of contamination with human DNA in a series of forensic investigations, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the standard ISO 18385 in 2016. ISO 18385 defines the requirements for producing consumables free of human DNA contamination for collecting biological evidence at crime scenes. The requirement reads: "Minimizing the risk of human DNA contamination in products used to collect, store and analyse biological material for forensic purposes".[7]

Literature[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Q-Tip-Off: Police Fear 'Serial Killer' Was Just DNA Contamination". Spiegel Online. 2009-03-26. Archived from the original on 2018-08-22. Retrieved 2019-08-19.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Berlin, Fran Yeoman in (2009-03-27). "The Phantom of Heilbronn, the tainted DNA and an eight year goose chase". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Archived from the original on 2019-08-19. Retrieved 2019-08-19.
  3. ""Phantom von Heilbronn" hat es nie gegeben" (in German). News von Morgen. 2009-03-26. Archived from the original on 2009-04-01. Retrieved 2009-03-28.
  4. Himmelreich, Claudia (2009-03-27). "Germany's Phantom Serial Killer: A DNA Blunder". TIME. Archived from the original on 2013-09-24. Retrieved 2009-03-28.
  5. "Orte, an denen die DNA bisher gefunden wurde - STIMME.de". www.stimme.de (in German). Archived from the original on 2021-05-04. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  6. SPIEGEL, DER (27 March 2009). "Ermittlungspanne: "Phantom-Mörderin" ist ein Phantom - DER SPIEGEL - Panorama". Der Spiegel (in German). Archived from the original on 2020-11-01. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  7. Gasiorowski-Denis, Elizabeth (2016-07-06). "The mystery of the Phantom of Heilbronn". ISO. Archived from the original on 2018-07-25. Retrieved 2020-04-18.