Forensic Scientist Jane Taupin discusses the infamous female serial killer case in Germany, the “Phantom of Heilbronn” – also known as “the woman without a face” – which eventually fell apart with forensic DNA. The resolution triggered the creation of an international standard for DNA tools used in collecting traces of DNA from crime exhibits, Jane writes.
Jane will present on the topic, The Forensic Scientist’s Perspective: DNA Evidence and Crime: Current Debates in the Forensic Community and at Trial, at the 11th Annual Saturday Criminal Conference on 23 March. She previously presented on DNA and Crime: Current Issues at Trial.
The increasing sensitivity of DNA tests means that it is now possible to obtain DNA profiles from non-visible deposits of biological material, and from just a few human cells. Consequences from this increasing sensitivity have sometimes been unforeseen, as the following bizarre matter demonstrates.
The “Phantom of Heilbronn” – also known as “the woman without a face” – was believed to be Germany’s most dangerous woman. The eventual resolution triggered the creation of an international standard for DNA tools used in collecting traces of DNA from crime exhibits.
The “Phantom” was believed not only responsible for at least six murders but also a common thief. Forty unsolved crimes over 15 years (from 1993) in Germany and Austria were linked by DNA only. These included the high profile murder of a young policewoman Michele Kiesewetter in Heilbronn, a town in southern Germany, in 2007. The Phantom’s female DNA was found at a car dealership burglary as well as a school break and enter but in both cases her convicted ‘accomplices’ denied her existence. Her DNA (from non-visible deposits known as trace DNA) was found on items as various as a tea cup, a cookie, a syringe and inside a car. No security camera had ever captured her image.
More than 100 police in Germany and Austria were involved in the investigation, spending 8 years and an estimated 2 million Euros. The high level of publicity and devotion of police resources was socially alarming. Some of the cases were ‘cold cases’ that had been re-investigated using the more sensitive DNA technology. Trace DNA may often be collected from an exhibit with ‘swabs’ typically composed of small wooden sticks with a wad of cotton wool at the end (similar to cosmetic ‘cotton buds’). The swab ends are moistened with water and then wiped along the suspected surface that may have the deposit of DNA to collect any material; thus this is a speculative search.
The real Phantom was discovered when officials were trying to establish the identity of a burned corpse at the German French border – neither fingerprints nor DNA could be obtained from the body. A swab taken from an associated application form from a male asylum seeker who disappeared in 2002 was found to contain the female Phantom’s DNA (Diehl and Juttner, 2009). This was thought impossible as the form was supposedly from a male person, so examiners repeated the analysis with another cotton swab – to find that the DNA was not there. It was ultimately discovered that the cotton swabs used to collect the crime scene samples were contaminated. The origin of the DNA was eventually traced back to an innocent woman working in a cotton swab packaging factory in Bavaria (Spiegel online, 2009). It led the German newspaper ‘Bild’ to headline “Are the heads of our police stuffed with cotton wool?” (Himmelreich, 2009).
Police had for years believed that the traces of DNA taken from very different crime scenes belonged to a single female offender. However, investigators had brought the DNA to the crime scene, or at least the exhibits taken from them, by using contaminated swabs. The concern this prompted led to an international scientific standard in 2016 that describes DNA collection tools should be ‘DNA free’ rather than just ‘sterile’ as denoted by the manufacturer (ISO Standard 18385:2016, available at www.iso.org).
The murder of the policewoman was eventually, in 2012, attributed to a neo-Nazi terrorist cell believed to have also committed another 9 murders known as the “Bosphorus murders” (Spiegel online, 2012).
The ‘Phantom’ highlights that the use of sensitive DNA technology has accompanying assumptions and limitations, and requires recognition and mitigation of potential contamination at each step of the process between collection, analysis and interpretation. Indeed, sometimes the question is not “whose DNA is this?” but “how did the DNA get here?”
Jane Moira Taupin has been a forensic scientist for over 30 years and is currently an independent forensic science consultant. She has reported forensic biology evidence for police agencies in Australia and the United Kingdom, including scene attendance and trials. She has performed review and defence work for Australian States, the United Kingdom, the United States and Thailand. Jane has published many articles in peer reviewed forensic journals on biological evidence and three text books, two on DNA evidence. She has also won national and international forensic science awards.
Diehl, J., and Juttner, J., 2009, Suddenly the DNA was no longer there, 26 March, available online at www.spiegel.de
Himmelreich, C., 2009, Germany’s phantom serial killer: A DNA blunder, Time Magazine, 27 March
Spiegel online, 2009, Phantom killer is a phantom, 27 March, available online at www.speigel.de
Spiegel online, 2012, DNA tests solidify suspicions in police killing case, August 13, available online at www.speigel.de