On the 15th of September 1981 at 19:25, Ursula Herrmann, a ten year old girl from the Southern Bavarian Ammersee area, was cycling home from the end of an exciting day. She had just started secondary school in Landsberg, some 20km from home. This would be her first and last day at her new school.
This is part one of a five part investigative series on Bavaria, transnational organized crime, and the Ursula Herrmann case.
On the 15th of September 1981 at 19:25, Ursula Herrmann, a ten year old girl from the Southern Bavarian Ammersee area, was cycling home from her uncle’s house in Schondorf. It was the end of an exciting day. She had just started secondary school in Landsberg, some 20km from home. This would be her first and last day at her new school.
She had had an uneventful afternoon, playing the piano with her older brother Michael. At 17:00, she left her home in Eching for Schondorf, the neighbour village, to go to a gymnastics class with her cousin. She was supposed to return home straight after the class, but decided to go to her uncle’s house with her cousin instead. The two girls chatted away and had dinner with the family, until Ursula’s father called and told her to return home directly as it was getting dark soon. She left immediately, cycling through a stretch of wood called Weingarten, the easiest and fastest way home. What happened next, we cannot reconstruct.
By some means, Ursula was abducted at around 19:25. At 23:15, a police dog, an ordinary one rather than a highly trained sniffer dog, traced her bicycle. It was lying on the ground, some 20m from the path she would have taken. The dog did not pick up any further trail, which suggests that she was carried from this point onwards. Along a system of paths that had been cut into the undergrowth, she was brought to a box that had been buried in the ground 800m away. It was in an upright position, like a phone box, just smaller, and it contained a board with a hole cut out in the middle that was supposed to be a seat, and a toilet seat, since there was a bucket with water underneath it.
In front of her was another board to serve as a desk, with a small portable radio on it with the letters PA MA written on it. The abductor also left her some reading, comic books and a range of novels, including love novels, horror, crime and Western. As for provisions, the box contained bottled water, apple juice, chewing gum, chocolate and biscuits.
Everything was very neatly arranged, including a bag with a track suit that was resting on her leg. Her head was tilted backwards at an unnatural angle, and her eyes were closed. No fingerprints were found inside the box, and there was no sign of a struggle or attempt to break free. The walls were lined with fabric and the ceiling was painted with a varnish that would have been easy to scratch, but no fibres or paint from the inside of the box were found under her fingernails. Everything gave the impression that she was either dead or unconscious when she was placed inside the box. When the box was finally recovered almost three weeks later, the police initially assumed that they had uncovered an underground arms depot, as they had been used at the time by right wing paramilitary groups.
The impression they got once they opened the two lids of the box, one stacked over the other, must have been startling. The lids were decorated as were the inside walls.
A system of drainage pipes wrapped in cloth meandered next to the box. And inside sat an obviously dead girl, with her face tilted upwards and her back resting on another bag, which, as they would find out later, contained a warm blanket. Ursula was lifted out of the box and transported to Munich, where an autopsy was performed. A few days later, she was buried in her home village.
Her parents and her younger brother were at home the evening Ursula was abducted. When she did not arrive – after all the father knew precisely when she would have left, as he had made a phone call – a search party was formed. Her father drove down the forest path in his car from the Eching side of the Weingarten, and Ursula’s uncle from the other, the Schondorf side. They met in the middle shortly after 20:00, almost precisely the spot where she would have been abducted, as it would later emerge. They then went home, and another search party was formed, involving a boat that searched the lake shore running alongside the path, the police, the fire brigade and friends and family. Ursula’s older brother, who was visiting a friend this evening, was informed over the phone that his sister was missing. He joined the search with his mother. When the bike was found, in the forest rather than in the lake, it quickly became clear that this was a crime and not an accident.
By breakfast time the next morning, the radio broadcast appealed for information on the fate of Ursula Herrmann from Eching, the daughter of a local high school teacher. Two days later, her parents received a number of strange phone calls. Sometimes, there was just silence, sometimes a recording of a radio jingle was played, twice in a row. But the person on the other end of the telephone line did not say a word. It took some time for the police to install recording equipment, so that not all calls were captured. The same pattern of calls reoccurred two days later. By then, the parents had received a ransom note pasted together from newspaper clippings. The abductor asked the parents to confirm whether they were willing to pay over the phone when prompted by a “beep”. During a final phone call, Ursula’s mother asked the abductor for a sign that her daughter was still alive. They did not get in touch after this.
The police became involved very early on, at 20:35, just over one hour after the abduction. While most of the officers on duty seem to have done a good job, and worked hard under difficult and depressing circumstances, there were a number of serious blunders in the investigation – not strategic ones, in this respect everything went as it should have done in the early days. It was basic investigative technique at the crime scene that was lacking. To begin with, the direct vicinity of the bicycle was not surveyed, documented and processed accordingly. The police officers seem to overlooked crucial infrastructure that had been installed by the abductors. When the box was recovered, the area was not cordoned off, so that press and members of the public could walk up to the box before evidence could be secured. Perhaps the most blatant mistake was that a blanket that had been found in the box was handed over to a junior officer who took it home and put it in the dryer since it was damp. But apart from this, the initial investigation went as it should have done. As it is standard protocol, the family of the victim was interrogated and their alibis were checked. The investigators were so desperate to help find Ursula that they deployed a Tornado fighter jet with heat sensors a few days after she went missing. Even at this point, they were hoping to find her alive. Ultimately, the forest was searched in its entirety, with officers piercing the ground with probes to detect anything that had been buried underground.
Despite the numerous clues the abductors left behind, the crime remained unsolved until 2009, when a former local, Werner Mazurek, was convicted. There had been suspicions about him early on. An alcoholic, Klaus Pfaffinger, confessed to the police that he had dug a hole in the forest for this man. But when he was brought to the Weingarten, he could not find the location of the box, and he retracted his confession soon after.
Pfaffinger died in 1992, and Ursula’s case went cold. When DNA analysis became widely available in the mid 2000s, various items from the crime scene and the ransom notes were tested, which yielded a number of DNA profiles. These were then tested against the DNA of a number of people who had been of interest before, mostly small business owners and low qualified workers from the local area. In 2007, the case was suddenly reopened, and a judge imposed extensive surveillance measures on Mazurek, which included an undercover police officer. This haste was somewhat surprising, and probably had to do with the fact that the 30 year statute of limitations was about to expire. Perhaps it also had to do with the fact that one of the DNA samples resurfaced in a particularly brutal murder some 20 miles away in central Munich in 2006.
A wealthy lady, Charlotte Boehringer, was beaten to death in the hallway of her flat. Mazurek’s house was raided, and the police recovered an old tape recorder, which had a technical defect that led to sound being distorted. The suspect said that he purchased the recorder a few weeks earlier at a flea market. The recorder was handed over to Bavarian state police, where it was determined that it was likely used to record the radio jingle that had been played over the phone to Ursula’s parents, an expertise that was subsequently widely criticised. Yet it was sufficient to convict the suspect, who always insisted that he was innocent. His DNA profile did not match the profiles found at the crime scene, and it was not his fingerprint that was found inside the drainage pipe contraption on a piece of duct tape. Some months later, Ursula’s older brother used a legal loophole to have the case reopened by suing the convict for damages.
This civil case is still ongoing. In the meantime, a group of people, some experts in a specific field, some interested public, joined the brother and assembled new evidence, which was then submitted to the Augsburg state prosecutor’s office. After some months of deliberation, it was decided that it was not sufficient to reopen the case. Werner Mazurek has now been in jail for abducting and killing a child, a crime that he has always vehemently denied. His DNA was not found on the crime scene, and the fingerprint that was left behind by one of the abductors was not his.
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