The Great German Forensics Fiasco

Main headline of my local paper today: “Wattestäbchen ist überführt” (“Guilt of Cotton Swab Established”).

German police in several states (mostly in my own Baden-Württemberg) have poured tens of thousands of man-hours in the hunt for a mystery woman (referred to as UwP (Unbekannte weibliche Person) by the police and “Phantom of Heilbronn” or “Woman without a Face” by the press).

DNA from this woman was found on scenes/objects related to 40 crimes in Austria, Germany and France, among them 6 homicides. The most prominent was the murder, on 25 April 2007, of a police officer in Heilbronn, Baden-Württemberg. (her partner was also shot in the head but survived, with (it seems from press reports) some brain damage and no recollection of the attack).

The forty crimes were very disparate, ranging from minor burglary and assault to murder. The crimes were committed between 1993 and 2008. Where perpetrators were found, they belonged to a number of different ethnicities and criminal scenes, and they did not recollect a woman being involved. The profile that the police made was of a woman who did not look like a woman, who was a homeless drug addict ranging over parts of France, Germany and Austria.

On Friday this week the source of the DNA was finally identified: it was a woman working in packaging at the supplier of the cotton swabs that the DNA evidence was picked up with.

The prosecutors say that there is “a high probability” (now they are playing it safe) that the lady did not commit the crimes.

Apparently the supplying company is not to blame: their catalog clearly stated the swabs were sterile and suitable for taking “non-human bacteriological, serological and cytological samples”. So, police purchasing departments in three countries did not understand the difference between “sterile” and “free of human DNA”. (the swabs were sterilized with radiation that destroys microorganisms but not DNA)

Red faces all around.

Hee hee!

Of course, let’s not jump the gun here. Sure, there’s a theoretical possibility that the woman had nothing to do with this wide variety of crimes over a broad area of Germany, or … maybe this is all part of her clever plan to be the ultimate criminal mastermind of all time!

In any case, I think one thing we can all agree upon is that something like this could only happen in Baden-Württemberg, and never in a sensible state like Hessen.


Over the last while in Ontario they’ve been dealing with a rash of wrongful convictions, largely of parents believed to have murdered their children; the cases were traced back to one severely incompetent forensic pathologist.

Man. So many lives ruined, and in many of the cases, as I understand it, no hope of finding the real killer as the evidence has deteriorated.


That made me laugh.

The woman is a genius. She has found the perfect job for a serial criminal – as a provider of forensic testing equipment for police labs.