13 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 2

Last week, I wrote about a 1997 case of where a victim appeared to have committed a murder after she was killed. Impossible, it seemed, and so it was.

This week, we move to a crime wave that plagued parts of western Europe for a decade and a half. In 2009, authorities offered an reward of €300 000 ($415 000) to bring the perpetrator– a woman– to justice.

German police, and later French and Austrian investigators, captured the DNA of a woman with few clues to her identity other than she came from a Slavic bloodline. Female serial killers are not yet as common as male killers, but this one was criminally prolific, engaging in burglary, robbery, car theft, home invasion, drug dealing, and murder– including the slaying of a police woman, which ramped up the manhunt, or woman-hunt, if you will. European news media began to call her the Heilbronner Phantom– the Woman Without a Face.

Silver Blaze

Profilers from across Europe were asked to imagine the suspect. Heilbronn police estimate 16 000 hours of overtime went into tracking the elusive woman. Concern heightened again when German investigators found the same DNA in a car used to transport three corpses, followed by the execution of a policewoman, Michèle Kiesewetter, and the nearly fatal attack upon her partner.

One clue was like the Sherlock Holmes’ dog in the night-time: Although DNA cropped up in crime scenes surrounding the German state of Bavaria, none was discovered in Bavaria itself, a sign of omission. Whether that raised eyebrows of detectives isn’t known, but two subsequent crimes cast doubt on the Phantom’s identity.

The first flag came from a fire when officers sampled a male corpse… and turned up female DNA, that of their long-running suspect. Eye-witnesses had occasionally reported seeing a man at crime scenes– not a woman– but eye-witnesses are notoriously prone to errors of identification. Investigators resampled the deceased using different cotton swabs and came up with a different result– no female DNA.

The final nail in the theory followed a shootout with a neo-Nazi terror cadre that killed two men. At the death scene, detectives found police handcuffs belonging to Michèle Kiesewetter. The Phantom DNA did not match the only woman in the terrorist cell, Beate Zschäpe, which raised doubts that the attack on police woman and her partner was committed by the Phantom of Heilbronn.

System Reset

While German tabloids like Bild ridiculed police by asking if their heads were stuffed with cotton wool, investigators quietly reexamined their methodology and the source of their instruments and test materials. They identified the real culprit– the departments’ miserly buyer of cotton swabs.

As Dr Mike Silverman discovered in last week's article, sterile doesn’t mean DNA-free. Sterilization might kill viruses and bacteria, but it doesn’t necessarily eradicate DNA strands. Police departments throughout Germany– except Bavaria– were buying inexpensive cotton buds from an Austrian company, Greiner. The company certified their Bio-One swabs sterile but not suitable for human DNA collection.

The mysterious ‘Phantom’ was none other than one of Greiner's assembly line employees. She'd accidentally contaminated countless cotton buds with her own DNA.

Credit Due

Several readers and SleuthSayers suggested further reading. Thanks to C.J. Dowse, Peter DiChellis, Fran, Eve, and Dixon.

Further reading:


  1. I'm German and remember this first mysterious case and the debate in the newspapers very well. An impressive simple sobering solution, isn't it? ;)

  2. Even after reading last week's case and knowing you were writing about forensics, I was considering all kinds of ideas before reading the solution to the DNA problem. Do you have another of these cases for your next blog?

  3. Your blogs on DNA are great. I hope you are planning another post on this fascinating subject.

  4. D, it was, as you say, an impressive simple sobering solution. I thought the tabloids unfairly blamed police investigators, who'd trusted the materials they'd been given. By implication, it seems they were expected to test the cotton swabs before they used them!

    Fran and Louis, I'll keep digging! Wish me luck and thank you!.

  5. I have to say, as a biology professor I find your pieces on forensic DNA evidence really refreshing. It's too bad the courts don't make certain jurors have such an education. Alas, the issues "probability" (versus "proof") and "rigor" (versus "standard practice") that comprise good science seem to be getting left behind as molecular biology becomes a tool of manual technicians and part of a larger cultural rhetoric. Good work!

  6. Anon, thank you. Part of my problem is the Hollywood notion that crime scene investigators and lab workers are scientists. I don't know what percentage have degrees, particularly in the sciences, but clearly not every worker can be a Lincoln Rhyme, but of course that's the viewpoint of many in the jury pool.

  7. A Broad Abroad13 July, 2014 15:14

    It would appear only the Bavarians read the small print saying the swabs were not suitable for human DNA collection.

    Another fascinating look at one branch of the forensic sciences – thank you.

  8. ABA, thank you and thank you for the tips as well. Although investigators occasionally raised questions, it's a wonder someone didn't probe beyond the obvious.

  9. I suspect they were probing, Leigh. Unfortunately, however, they were probably probing with contaminated swabs. LOL


  10. Keep those DNA articles coming!


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