The rights of the woman without a face

The Age today caught Melbournians up with a crime mystery that’s been circulating for a year now. It concerns an alleged  serial killer, linked to dozens of crimes, big and small, by her DNA. Sometimes called the “Phantom of Heilbronn”, the Age uses her other nickname:

On New Year’s Day in 2003 at Dietzenbach, near Frankfurt, an office was broken into and a coffee tin of loose change stolen. “It was a professional job,” said Guenter Horn, another high-profile prosecutor liaising with police. “She left no fingerprints. But she did leave a scraping of skin, and that was enough to pin the job on (the Woman Without a Face).” In all there have been 30 break-ins and hold-ups that have yielded her DNA identity, in addition to the murders.

On May 2005, in the city of Worms, a local gypsy turned a gun on his brother. Police later found the phantom’s DNA on one of the bullets. Police went on television in April 2005 with an appeal to the public for tips, but to no avail. Then came the killing of officer Michele Kiesewetter. She and a colleague who has never been named were assigned to an undercover drugs squad in Heilbronn when at least two people climbed into the back of the car and shot them both in the head at point-blank range. Ms Kiesewetter died instantly, her partner lingered on in a coma for months, before the bullet lodged behind his right eye was removed. He remembers nothing of the incident. Nothing was taken from them save their handcuffs. Chief Superintendent Horst Haug of Special Commission Parkplatz said: “It was brutal, apparently random and with no apparent motive. What are we dealing with here? And who is the accomplice?”

Police revealed that other DNA traces were found at crime scenes indicating she sometimes operated in tandem with another. But no two crime scenes yielded the same DNA, indicating she picks up and discards helpers with the same casual abandon with which she kills. Kurt Kletzer, a noted Viennese psychiatrist, says the Woman Without a Face is “intriguing and disturbing” in equal measure.

To me, the case has an intriguing and disturbing resemblance to a hypothetical I once raised with a Victorian Parliamentary Committee on 2003, back in my earlier incarnation as a researcher on mass DNA screenings. As it happens, Germany is the world’s leader in ginormous mass DNA screenings, some literally of 100,000 and many in the tens of thousands. Soko Parkplatz is a relatively small one, with only a couple of thousand samples taken from Germany women to date. The thousands of samples are either from Germany’s DNA database of convicted offenders or a so-called voluntary mass screening of some other usual suspects. But that screening assumes that the Woman Without a Face is a criminal! The real woman may be a lot closer than the Germany police seem to think.

Right before I testified, a representative from Victoria Police was asked what he thought of the idea of creating a database of police DNA for elimination purposes. DI Cowlishaw of Victoria Police’ DNA implementation unit said:

The database has been set up for the purpose of finding out who has committed crimes and putting criminals on it. Police officers have very strict rules as to who they can get a DNA sample from. What a lot of police officers say, and have objection to, is that they have committed no offence themselves, apart from being a police officer, and they have been asked to go on a database, where people who have committed crimes such as thefts, theft of motor cars and those sorts of offences, which by community standards are considered to be serious offences, do not have to go on a database. A lot of them object on those grounds.

These are, of course, all claims that would now been framed in terms of the Charter. Indeed, the government has taken a broad and enlightened view of the scope of all sorts of criminal process rights, but only when they apply to police officers. Cowlishaw went on to make a dubious claim that Victoria’s current legislation doesn’t even permit police officers (as opposed to ‘third party volunteers’) from being asked for their DNA.

So, rights vary depending on whether the volunteer is a second party or a third party. But which party is the woman without a face? In my 2003 testimony, I commented:

I am sure you were all alarmed when the police just gave evidence now that in their view the legislation for volunteer provisions prevents or makes totally impracticable the police giving their samples for elimination purposes. The idea that there could be samples at a crime scene which are mystery samples, which the police have to assume could be perpetrator or involved person samples but actually turn out to be from Officer Plod, and the possibility that they will do a crime-scene-to-crime-scene match, get a match, think it is due to a common criminal performing both crimes when in fact it is the same Officer Plod in each crime is just insane: the fact that the legislation is a bar to doing that kind of elimination sampling is just insane. Equally insane, I would argue, is the police’s objection to providing those samples for elimination purposes.

And what if, instead of a just one crime-scene-to-crime-scene match, the police got thirty odd? Then they will mistakenly think that Officer Plod is a serial criminal.

DNA is a tricky thing, in part because it’s tiny. But when you add to oddity of a female serial criminal (the German police point out, bizarrely, that she ‘could be visibly perceived as a man’!), the mixture of crimes, the absence of any other links at all, and the apparent ubiquity of ‘skin flakes’ as the source of the DNA (often in a random spot not necessarily connected with the crime), you’ve gotta wonder if there’s another explanaiton for the mystery matches found by Soko Parkplatz. Checkout these details from an article in the Guardian:

And it was here, 15 years ago, that the search for the Woman Without a Face began – with a DNA sample on the rim of a brightly painted teacup. The cup belonged to a 62-year-old woman in the nearby town of Idar-Oberstein, favoured by tourists for the Church of the Rock perched on the hills outside and by businessmen as one of the leading gem-cutting centres in Europe. On 23 May 1993, a neighbour who had knocked on her door and got no answer phoned the police. When they arrived, they found Lieselotte Schlenger dead, strangled by a strand of wire taken from a bouquet of flowers in her sitting room. ‘The only clue was the DNA,’ recalls Günter Horn, the boyish-looking 44-year-old prosecutor in charge of unravelling a mystery that has since reached far beyond that first killing….

But eight years later, in 2001, Horn says as he thumbs through two now-bulging pink cardboard files on the case, came a much more alarming match. In Freiburg, in the far southwestern corner of Germany, a 61-year-old antiques dealer was found dead – again, strangled. The DNA at the scene was identical to that at the Idar-Oberstein murder. It next appeared five months later, just a few dozen miles from Bad Kreuznach, on a discarded heroin syringe. The soiled needle was turned in to police by a distraught woman whose seven-year-old son had unsuspectingly stepped on it in a playground in the town of Gerolstein, not far from the border with Belgium….

On the night of 24 October 2001, two weeks after the syringe was found, a caravan was burgled on the outskirts of Mainz, not far from Bad Kreuznach. DNA taken from an abandoned biscuit outside matched the Woman Without a Face. On New Year’s Day in 2003, there was a break-in at an office in Dietzenbach, seven miles outside of Frankfurt. Her DNA was there, too. In December 2003, a car was stolen in Heilbronn. It was later abandoned, and when it was tested, her DNA was found on the petrol cap. In Karlsruhe in 2005, there was a late-night robbery at a bar. Her DNA was found on two beer bottles and an empty wine glass….

The most recent, he says with a resigned sigh, came ‘just a few months ago – from a fishing lodge in a little town called Saarhölzbach, in Saarland, near the Luxembourg border. Someone came in at night and sneaked up behind the woman who was in charge of the cleaning staff, struck her hard on the back of the head, stole 300 euros, and left. ‘Our suspect’s DNA was found in the room – not on the woman who was robbed, and who never saw the attacker, but in the room … Another clue, I guess. But to be honest, we’re still no nearer to knowing who she is.’

The Age article says that the DNA from the police officer killing was found on the car’s central console. DNA from another murder was found on small items in an antique shop and on a door handle…

Given the disparate nature of the crime scenes in the German case – some of them in Austria – it’s unlikely that they are being left by a German Officer Plod. But a contact of mine – one of Australia’s sharpest commentators on forensics – has suggested a couple of real possibilities: that the DNA is all from a worker in one of Germany’s DNA labs. Or if the cases were sourced from separate labs, a worker – quality control, perhaps? – in a factory that makes equipment for those labs. 

Indeed, what is strange is that this wondering hasn’t emerged in any of the news reports or, indeed, from the forensic or police community. A case like this makes the argument in favour of the mandatory databasing of the DNA of all people involved in any degree in crime scene investigation overwhelming, doesn’t it? The Law Reform Committee certainly thought so:

Recommendation 9.4 That police members be required to provide a DNA reference sample for elimination purposes, and that the profiles obtained be stored along with profiles of Victoria Forensic Science Centre laboratory staff, on the internal VFSC staff elimination database.

The Government gave this recommendation ‘in principle support.’ But, five years later, the section of the Crimes Act in issue remains unchanged. New DNA laws are coming sometime in the next twelve months. Will the Charter be cited as a reason to continue to eschew a mandatory elimination database for police and forensic workers?

One thought on “The rights of the woman without a face

  1. Hi
    My name is Wilma Koeppen and I am from Cape Town South Africa. I have just read an article about The woman without a face in a South African magazine. An interesting thought that came up was the following: Could this “woman” be a person born with both female and male genitalia. Would the female DNA be more prevalent and therefore the police suspects a woman. What if this person is a man with female DNA, because he/she is a hermaphrodite?
    I wonder if the police have looked into this. I do not know enough about DNA but it would be interesting to find out if the DNA of a hermaphrodite has got the characteristics of a male or female.

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