The Phantom of Heilbronn, also known as ‘The Woman Without A Face’, was a criminal linked via DNA to over forty crimes going back to 1993, including six murders one of whom was that of a police officer. Her numerous crimes covered Germany, France and Austria. The DNA was analysed and confirmed to be female, probably from Russian or Eastern European decent – not really narrowing down the possible suspects list. On top of this, she seemed to avoid CCTV, witnesses, or leaving any other evidence. Even when a crime was solved, and a suspect was charged, they denied her involvement or, indeed, any knowledge of her. So who was this mysterious woman?
What made it so challenging for police to find her was that none of the people involved in each crime had any connections to the next crime; there was no trail to follow. Her criminal activity was seemingly random. At one point, there was a €300,000 reward on her head.
The Phantom’s DNA appeared in all kinds of crimes: petty theft, drugs, on a heroin syringe, vehicle theft, robbery, even on a toy pistol connected to a robbery, and a cookie. The heroin syringe lead police to DNA test a lot of heroin addicts in an attempt to identify the Phantom; unfortunately, they were unsuccessful. The only thing the police could confidently say was that she was busy. The ongoing theory was that she was a heroin addict committing crimes for money for drugs.
In 2001, while Police were reviewing old unsolved cases with new technologies and scientific advancements, they matched the Phantom’s DNA to retired churchwarden Lieslotte Schlenger’s (62) unsolved murder in Germany, in 1993. She was recognised as the Phantom’s first victim. The second victim was Joseph Walzenbach (61) from Freiburg, near Germany’s Black Forest. He was an antiques dealer whose fate had been strangulation via garden twine; in addition cash was missing from the house. The next murder(s) she was linked to was a triple execution, a rather large step-up from the previous crimes, and is more professional than before. In 2009, in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany a dispute between two gypsy brothers lead to one killing the other with a gun. The Phantom’s DNA was subsequently found on one of the bullets. The final murder linked to the Phantom was in 2007, when German Police officer Michèle Kiesewetter was shot point-blank whilst on an undercover drugs case in Heilbronn.
In 2009, the mystery was finally solved – The Phantom of Heilbronn never existed. The swabs police used to take samples at crime scenes had been contaminated, and the DNA of the phantom was matched to one of the workers at the factory where the swabs were produced. Despite being sterilised, contamination had managed to get through. While this is one mystery solved, it means that many of these unsolved cases are still unsolved. The Phantom garnered national media attention throughout the investigation, which must have made it all the more embarrassing for the police when the truth was revealed.
Since 2009, and to avoid future Phantoms going on similar crime sprees, the process has been changed: ISO 18385 is the first worldwide standard on the manufacture of forensic consumables. It covers all aspects of the forensic collection process and so allows confidence that all results are uncontaminated.
All of this does raise other questions: do we rely too much on DNA? What if innocent people have been convicted because of a contaminated swab? What could the police be doing differently?