PMT 2014-074b By Claudia Himmelreich / Berlin
The murderer dubbed the Phantom of Heilbronn had been baffling German investigators for two years. The criminal was a rarity, a female serial killer, and a very busy one: police had linked DNA evidence from 40 crimes — including the infamous homicide of a policewoman in the southern German town of Heilbronn — to the same woman.
Police had found her DNA on items ranging from a cookie to a heroin syringe to a stolen car. They had put a $400,000 reward on her head. Profilers from around Europe were called in to help hunt her down. The police even consulted diviners and fortune-tellers in hopes of discovering her identity. The papers declared the case “the most mysterious serial crime of the past century.” (See pictures of fighting crime.)
The police thought they’d been looking everywhere. But it turns out they should have been looking down — at the cotton swabs they were using to collect DNA samples. On March 26, German police revealed that the cotton swabs they use may have all been contaminated by the same worker at a factory in Austria — and that the Phantom of Heilbronn never existed.
For the second time in a week, DNA evidence has led German police down a dead end. “Are the heads of our police stuffed with cotton wool?” asked a headline in this week’s Bild newspaper. The Phantom is now considered the most embarrassing lapse in German DNA analysis yet.
The Phantom became a national celebrity in 2007, after the murder of 22-year-old policewoman Michele Kiesewetter. All of Germany watched the case unfold, and Heilbronn police alone racked up 16,000 hours of overtime pursuing the culprit. Police announced they’d found DNA traces matching that of the Phantom on several cold cases, including a murder dating back to 1993.
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