A Dead Girl Buried in a Box in the Woods: Crowdsourcing the Ursula Herrmann Cold Case

This is part two of a five part investigative series on Bavaria, transnational organized crime, and the Ursula Herrmann case.

We call for help to crowdsource a number of unresolved matters surrounding this case. Any additional information on the background of the abductors would help us to refine their profile. The information we have retrieved through a linguistic analysis of the ransom notes paints a disturbing picture – the abductor was well educated and wrote broken German pretending to be a foreigner, he was controlling and demanding, keen on observing, with no experience with real life administrative or business-related correspondence, and, most tellingly, he was also suffering from a thought disorder or taking drugs, or both. He was a man, and there is nothing to suggest that he was a middle aged or older person.

Other details in the ransom notes are puzzling. For instance, the car the abductor demanded for the transfer of the ransom was a Fiat 600, rare in Germany at the time. Why would he ask for a highly unusual car that Ursula’s parents would only be able to find with the help of the police, if he also states directly that the police must not get involved? Very recently, a member of the public provided a conclusive explanation: the car was actually the same make as the car of the comic book characters Mort and Phil. And a volume of Mort and Phil comics was found inside the box.

Below we present some unresolved matters that appear to have been copied from another source, either a handbook, possibly from outside Germany, or from movies, comics or novels. The abductors were by no means pragmatic. They often used very complex, time consuming techniques where easier solutions were widely available. For instance, they installed a wired communication line rather than just using walkie-talkies, which were widely available and inexpensive.

The mask

About a year after the abduction, a passer by found a plastic bag that had been stuffed into a hollow tree stump in the forest halfway between the crime scene and the village of Schondorf. It had two holes cut into it, and it looked very much like a mask. The bag had a very distinctive pictures of lightbulbs on it. At the time, this type of bag was being distributed by Tungsram as advertising in only a few major hardware stores. We need to know whether a mask fashioned from a bag has been featured in movies, novels, comics or similar sources prior to September 1981. Moreover, we would like to know what the significance of the light bulbs could have been.

The two triangles were added by the police. They point at the holes that were cut out.

The cause of death

Ursula did not touch anything inside the box, and the abductor put an item on her leg that was still in place when she was recovered. All this suggests that she was either unconscious or dead during her time inside the box. According to the postmortem, she did not have any external injuries. She died of hypoxia, and she had severe cerebral edema. The toxicology was clear; by exclusion, the pathologist stated that she could have been sedated with nitrous oxide. At the time, it was not possible to detect nitrous oxide in a postmortem. This opinion raises several questions. Nitrous oxide is volatile and would have to be administered via a mask. Once the mask is removed, it would stop working very rapidly after a few gasps of air. Depending on her respiratory rate and volume, Ursula would have been able to live for 30 to 60 minutes, had she just continued to breath inside the airtight box – the ventilation system was not thought through and could not work by design. Therefore, had the abductors sedated her with nitrous oxide to carry her to the box and place her inside, she would have woken up after a few minutes after the box had been closed.

Moreover, nitrous oxide would have been a rather unusual choice in Germany at the time. While it was widely used as a pain killer or sedative in the Anglo-Saxon world, only very few doctors trialled it in Germany, mostly in the contexts of paediatric surgery, dentistry and obstetrics. There is also another problem with the assumption that she suffocated inside the box. The pathologist stated that she died of hypoxia “like in altitude sickness”, however, in such a scenario the rise in CO2 would cause severe problems quickly, such as panic, and it would ultimately kill a person before the drop in O2 could do so, which is not compatible with the fact that she did not move inside the box. We request the assistance of anyone with an expertise in nitrous oxide or air quality in confined spaces, for instance divers, dentists or anaesthetists. In particular we would like to hear about the symptoms of CO2 poisoning. Moreover, we would like to know what other methods could have been used to kill Ursula. She had two discoloured stains on either side of her larynx, but this had not been followed up. There were no needle marks. The stomach content was as expected. The pathologist performed the standard drug tests, which included specific tests for ether and chloroform, all of which came back clear. Which other drug could have been used?

This matter is of extreme importance. At present, the case is not classified as murder as the cause of death was believed to be suffocation because of a technical fault in the ventilation. The abductors modelled the ventilation pipes on a chimney system, with one pipe being connected to the bottom and another to the top of the box, which could only work – without a fan –  if the inside temperature was significantly higher than the outside temperature. If Ursula died from nitrous oxide or another drug, the case could realistically be classified as murder, which does not have a statute of limitations, which would allow for the case to be reopened.

The paint

The lid of the box had several layers of paint on it, two of which were highly unusual by themselves and also as a combination. They seem to have been either prototypes or products that were produced for an unusual, highly specialised purpose. All paint outlets and producers in the wider area were contacted by the police, as were all businesses that used paint in any context, without avail. One layer was professionally spray painted at a pressure of over 5 bar, which indicates that it was done on business premises rather than at a residential address.

The top layer of the lid was spray painted with silver bronze that contained aluminium pigments in a solvent of pure polystyrene. The plasticiser is chlorinated paraffin. The middle layer of the lid is red nitrocellulose paint with BBP. The bottom layer of the lid was painted with bitumen. It consisted of oxidised bitumen with 22% added bulking material, which included high end diatomaceous earth that was probably imported from the USA or possibly Algeria. There would have been cheaper German diatomaceous earth available. The bitumen also contained some fibre, but this was not followed up.

We are reaching out to all those familiar with the composition and use of such types of paint. The case files briefly mention that a combination of bitumen and silver bronze would be used in road marking, but this was not followed up. The abductors also used chlorinated rubber (swimming pool paint) as rust proofing.

The wire

The abductors connected the crime scene to a lookout via a bell wire that was strung between the trees. The bell wire consisted of several components that were connected in an unusual manner. We would like to hear from anybody who has seen this technique before. It is not commonly used in Germany.

The text on the radio

The abductors put a cheap radio inside the box. The aerial had been removed, and a wire was attached instead. On either side of the display, the letters PA and MA were scratched into the transparent plastic.

Across the speakers, the letters XIX. We have a good idea what PA MA could stand for, but not XIX. We are calling on anybody who could assist us in this matter. What could XIX refer to? Does it feature in comic strips or other popular fiction? What else could it stand for?

The rolled up belt

When the box was discovered, a part of a leather belt was found next to it. The abductor had punched holes in it. When rolled up, one could put a skewer through it, and what is more, such a skewer would fit precisely through two holes in a dead end of the piping. Why would someone want to roll up a piece of a leather belt, skewer it and place it inside a dead end of a pipe that is covered by a lid? Could this be a shock absorber? We are calling on engineers and anybody with an expertise in ventilation.

The Geographic Profile

The abductors left a number of clues behind that could help us to track them down, and perhaps the biggest clue is their intimate knowledge of the location at which the abduction played out.

The Weingarten is about one by one and a half kilometres large, at most. To the South, it was bordered by the village of Schondorf, to the West by a highway, to the North by the village of Eching, and to the East by the Ammersee lake. This small stretch of forest was, and is, in private ownership. Back in the day, the forest looked mostly wild and dense, with a lot of undergrowth. According to Ursula’s brother, the local children would not enter the forest. When asked why, he wouldn’t know – they just didn’t go there. Perhaps the directly adjacent lake was more appealing, with all its opportunities for water sports. The forest was also regarded as the “territory” of an exclusive boarding school that lies on the eastern boundaries of Schondorf.

So in essence, this as a relatively small, enclosed, dense stretch of woods. The path Ursula took was regularly used by pedestrians and cyclists to travel between the villages or to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the lake shore. The forest itself was only populated by a small and select group of people. There was the hunter, a retired dentist with a Nazi past, some assistant hunters, forest workers, a handful of die-hard joggers who used another path that crossed the forest lengthwise, and during term time, also the pupils from the boarding school. Only very few residents from the surrounding villages would forage for mushrooms in the autumn.

We know a lot about the crime scene and the chronology of the preparations. The abductors were mostly active during the summer months when the Landheim Schondorf boarding school was closed and the forestry workers were on annual leave. They would have had the forest almost entirely to themselves. They cut paths into the undergrowth that connected the crime scene to the location of the box. They dug a deep hole for the box and concealed the soil by sowing grass seeds on it. They chopped off a fir tree, which they stuck in the ground to conceal the entrance to the path system. They strung a wired communication line across trees.

Some of these preparations took place right under the noses of the hunters. Whoever the abductors were, they knew when and where to expect them. The preparations were extensive, and would have required a lot of time, and often more than one person. Cutting back shrubbery, stringing wire and digging a hole requires planning and strategic thinking, and in the case of the hole also physical strength. Transporting the box would require a car, unless one would want to assume that it was brought to its final resting place at the dead of night on a cart from one of the houses bordering the forest, which seems rather unlikely.

If the abductors had access to a car at some point, why didn’t they transport the victim to an entirely different location, a derelict structure of some description, or even a buried box in an entirely different area? They seem to have been particularly comfortable with this specific part of the world.

Other aspects of the crime, on the other hand, show mobility. One ransom note was posted in Landsberg and the other in the greater Munich area, 20km to the West and East of the crime scene respectively. The police conducted very extensive investigations on the items that were left behind by the abductors. Some were available in a number of department stores in the area. One could be traced to a specific department store in Munich. One likely came from Bad Wörishofen, to the West of Landsberg, and some others reflected what was on sale at a shop in Germering on the outer outskirts of Greater Munich. We don’t have reliable data on the origin of the phone calls, but they appear to have come from pay phones a few miles from the crime scene.

The newspapers used to cut out letters and syllables for the ransom notes were widely available in the area. Some were national newspapers, some Munich based tabloids. Within weeks, once Ursula’s friends, family and other associates had been vetted and cleared of any involvement, the police began extensive door to door investigations in the villages adjacent to the crime scene. The local residents were fingerprinted, alibis were recorded and checked, but no match to the fingerprint on the box was found. There are conflicting accounts on the investigations at the boarding school: former pupils do not remember any police presence at all, except for one brief visit to the school in January 1983, a year and four months after the abduction. This is also what the case files reflect. When this was recently reported in the press, a former pupil, Alex Dorow, today a Conservative MP and radio presenter, stated that the fingerprints of all teenage male students were indeed taken and checked, but not recorded in the case files, because a father of a pupil complained through his lawyer.

Interview with Alex Dorow

He also stated that the police visited the school multiple times, and that the carpentry workshops of the school were also searched. The pupils were required to take arts and craft lessons in the afternoon, and the school has several very well equipped workshops. All this leaves us rather baffled. We are dealing with a crime with a clear local connection. The abductors knew this forest, and they knew it well. Yet the fingerprint from the box could not be matched, and to date, it did not resurface. Perhaps one of the persons who built the box lived outside the catchment area of the police investigation? 

We are calling on anyone with a knowledge of geographic profiling to provide insights into the mobility of the killers. It is imperative to solve this puzzle, not only to bring closure to Ursula’s family, but also to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Feedback / Information on the Ursula Herrmann case can be submitted via https://ursulaherrmann.org/en-gb/home.

This is part two of a five part investigative series on Bavaria, transnational organized crime, and the Ursula Herrmann case.

We need to reach a goal of $30000 USD in order to stay online after October, 29th, 2020.

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