In 1993, the existence of a brutal murderer came to light when an elderly woman was strangled with a length of wire and left for dead in Germany, the perpetrator leaving behind nothing more than DNA on a teacup. The criminal did not stop there, and over the next decade and a half a sequence of crimes ensued, ranging from murders to car thefts to household burglaries. What did this string of ruthless attacks and petty crime have in common? Very little, with the exception of DNA from one individual recovered at each scene. A total of around 40 crime scenes all pointed to the same culprit.
Analysis of the DNA revealed the serial killer to be, somewhat surprisingly, a woman. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA indicated that the sinister suspect was most likely of Eastern European or Russian descent, narrowing down the list of suspects but not nearly enough. A bizarre picture of this woman began to form. The notorious killer became known as the Phantom of Heilbronn, a fiendish criminal with a 300,000 euro reward on her head. Also known as the Woman Without a Face, Germany’s most dangerous woman was responsible for the murder of half a dozen people… but also had a soft spot for theft?
It sounds like a baffling crime fiction novel in which the killer is never brought to justice, slipping through the net and always staying one step ahead of the perplexed police. However there is one slightly twist to this tale… the Phantom of Heilbronn was indeed never found, and a few years ago German police made a somewhat embarrassing confession… they had been pursuing a non-existent serial killer for 16 years. The Phantom of Heilbronn did not exist.
But how could this be? A series of vicious crimes and evidence of a single perpetrator at every scene, it seems like a reasonable assumption that this was the work of the same person. And this is just what investigators believed for a rather long time.
However suspicions were raised during the investigation of a person who had died in a fire, at which point the DNA of the “serial killer” was found on the body when attempting to identify the victim. The victim transpired to be a male asylum-seeker, so why had female DNA been recovered from the scene? This was bizarre enough, but even more so when subsequent tests (presumably using different swabs) failed to find the DNA again.
It soon came to light that police had been following the wrong scent, and suspicion soon fell elsewhere… cotton swabs. It eventually emerged that the DNA recovered from all of these crime scenes belonged to none other than an unsuspecting woman working in a swab factory in Bavaria, a factory which happened to have numerous Eastern European women on its staff (at least part of the serial killer profile was right). And so the mystery of the Phantom of Heilbronn was solved. Investigators had been collecting samples from numerous crime scenes using cotton swabs inadvertently contaminated with the DNA of a slightly careless factory worker. No doubt there were some red faces the day this little tidbit of information came to light!
So how could something quite so farcical occur in the first place? Let’s review the facts. We have a female serial killer, unusual in itself (women account for about 9% of serial killers, according to research carried out by Radford University), but not unheard of so no suspicions were raised there. The crimes appeared to cover all manner of sins, from murder to drugs to burglaries. Perhaps a little unusual, but theories began floating that the suspect was a drug addict or homeless person who would stop at nothing to steal some quick cash to get their next fix. This criminal’s DNA was found in all sorts of bizarre places, including on the remains of a cookie and on a toy gun. The wrongdoings spread over a decade and across three different countries, never leaving behind anything else that might point to the identity of the culprit. One would assume this took the homeless woman theory out of play – there are probably not many people living on the streets who have the funds to hop from country to country on a crime spree. In short, this phantom was one busy woman who liked to travel and mix up her wrongdoings!
Sounds somewhat ridiculous in hindsight. So why did it never occur to anyone that perhaps something else was afoot? After spending so many years tracking this villain, perhaps the concept of her not actually existing was impossible to comprehend. Investigators had spent years trying to get inside this woman’s head and figure out her motives, and the evidence was there to support their (slightly farfetched) theories. If nothing else, this highlights the dangers of being too committed to one line of evidence. It’s a very real problem for investigators and scientists. Once a hypothesis has been developed and a person genuinely believes in this theory, it is very easy to ignore subtle (or not so subtle!) indicators that the precious theory might be wrong. Suddenly, all evidence and results can be twisted to fit the theory, whether ludicrous or not. Not great scientific analysis, but it happens.
The case shed light on the fallacies of forensic evidence, even those which we tend to place great faith in. DNA evidence is perhaps viewed as one of the more reliable practices in forensic science, provided the appropriate procedures are followed (did these investigators even run control samples?). But at the time DNA analysis was something of a forensic holy grail, certainly not a technique which would draw investigators down the wrong path for over a decade. Yet from this incident, and many others since then, it is clear that even the best of techniques and practices must be accompanied with sound logic and an open mind.
As embarrassing (if slightly amusing) as this case might be, it highlighted some very real issues. To be sent back to some laboratory basics – know your equipment, always run controls and follow the results, not your hypothesis!
Putting aside the shame-faced investigators, the millions spent, the dozens of investigations affected and the police hours wasted, it at least makes for an interesting cautionary tale to tell budding forensic scientists for years to come.
BBC News. ‘DNA bungle’ haunts German police. [online][Accessed 23 Mar 2015] Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7966641.stm
The Guardian. DNA analysis: far from an open-and-shut case. [online][Accessed 23 Mar 2015] Available: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/oct/14/vaughan-bell-on-science-forensics
Time. Germany’s Phantom Serial Killer: A DNA Blunder. [online][Accessed 23 Mar 2015] Available: http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1888126,00.html
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