For 16 years, German police have been hunting a fiendish serial killer. Every time they have an unsolved crime, the DNA of an unknown woman has been found at the scene. This phantom killer baffled police with her ability to commit totally unrelated murders without any evidence (apart from traces of her DNA) tying them together.
And when we say “unrelated,” we mean it. The DNA was found on documents at an arson scene, a cop killing, and dozens of other kinds of murders unconnected by geography, motive, means or victim.
Dubbing her “the phantom of Heilbronn,” the cops focused at least 40 investigations in Germany and Austria on identifying this “woman without a face.” When her DNA was found at the scene of a murdered policewoman, a 300,000 (about $375,000) reward was offered for information leading to her arrest.
It turns out, however, that all those unrelated crime scenes DID have something in common, apart from the mystery woman’s DNA. But in all those 16 years, nobody put two and two together.
What did they have in common? The DNA kits used by the cops themselves.
Yup, the swabs used to collect the DNA samples were contaminated. A female worker at the manufacturer apparently wasn’t working under completely sterile conditions, and her DNA was getting on the Q-Tips. As usual, the evidence that made no sense was wrong, and the simplest explanation was the right one.
So the police spent 16 years thinking that her DNA was the DNA of the killer. And instead of focusing on evidence that would have solved these crimes, they followed a wild goose chase that has left nothing but injustice. DNA is the wonder evidence of our time, so when it pointed the way the cops jumped at that conclusion.
Yet another reason why DNA evidence isn’t necessarily as damning as people might think.