The Phantom of Heilbronn, often alternatively referred to as the “Woman Without a Face”, was a hypothesized unknown female serial killer whose existence was inferred from DNA evidence found at numerous crime scenes in Austria, France and Germany from 1993 to 2009. The six murders among these included that of police officer Michèle Kiesewetter, in Heilbronn, Germany on 25 April 2007.
The only connection between the crimes was DNA, which as of March 2009 had been recovered from 40 crime scenes, ranging from murders to burglaries. In late March 2009, investigators concluded that the “Phantom” criminal did not exist, and the DNA recovered at the crime scenes had already been present on the cotton swabs used for collecting DNA samples.
The events were fictionalized in the 6th season episode “Dead Reckoning” of CSI: NY and the 15th season episode “Death Has No Dominion” of Silent Witness.
Commemorative marker near the site of Officer Kiesewetter’s murder
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 neighbouring Russia. This was not discovered in the German investigations as the analysis of DNA may not be used in criminal proceedings to determine personal attributes of a suspect other than sex.
The investigations were concentrated in 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.
The existence of the Phantom had been doubted earlier, but in March 2009, the case took a new turn. Investigators discovered the DNA sequence on the burned body of a male asylum-seeker in France – an anomaly, since the sequence was of a female. They subsequently came to the conclusion that the mysterious criminal did not exist and that the laboratory results were due to contamination of the cotton buds used for DNA probing. Although sterile, the swabs are not certified for human DNA collection.
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.
The DNA attributed to the “Phantom” was found at the scene, as well as purportedly at the sites of the following crimes:
- 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