• A Dead Girl Buried in a Box in the Woods: a Rusty Wire and a Showdown before Midnight

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

    One of the most perplexing episodes in this investigation centres around an unassuming length of wire. When the crime scene technicians arrived early in the morning after the discovery of Ursula’s bicycle, they spotted a wire hanging from a tree. A discussion followed as to whether this could be connected to the crime, and a fireman who took part in the search for Ursula said that this part of the forest was used by children as a playground. It was then decided not to secure the wire. The wire then resurfaced sixteen months later at an exclusive boarding school a few hundred meters away, when police visited the school. Two pupils, one twenty and one nineteen years old, stated that they had found the wire in the forest in the spring of 1982, probably some seven months after the abduction. They said that they were following an owl near the crime scene one afternoon, when they spotted the wire hanging from a tree. They then went on to describe how they removed the wire and rolled it up. One of the pupils then kept the wire in a lockable box in his room at the school. When the police visited, they decided to hand it in. They were also happy to provide a statement, and visited the crime scene with the police the following day to show them the exact location.

    When they found the wire, either end was hanging down to the ground, and it spanned a considerable distance strung from one tree to the next, almost parallel to the path Ursula had taken. No devices were connected to it, a statement that is also supported by the crime scene technicians who saw it in September 1981. Looking at the location, it could only have served as a signalling device, perhaps with a switch and a buzzer or light bulb connected to it. Did the abductors start to clear up the crime scene and fled once the search had started? If so, there would only have been two very brief windows of opportunity during which they could have done so, the first half hour after the abduction before Ursula’s father and uncle arrived, and then again a brief period of time before the police, the fire brigade, friends and family arrived. The timing would have been tight, given that the box was 800m away. They would have to transport a dead or unconscious child through a system of paths they had cut into the forest, carefully checking for potential witnesses when crossing two forestry paths where they would be completely exposed. They would have to place the child into the box, lock it, pile 5cm of soil on it, plant young trees on top and make their way back. It seems unlikely they would have been able to make it within just half an hour. But perhaps one of the abductors stayed behind at the crime scene to clear up? Or alternatively, perhaps they ran back and arrived shortly before the police.

    One of these pupils made a witness statement in the criminal proceedings against Werner Mazurek, in which he described their find again. The matter was all but forgotten until just over a year ago, when some startling new facts came to light. The father of one of the pupils owned a company that developed and produced paint similar to the highly unusual paint found on the outer lid of the box.

    Whatever the matter, the removal of the end devices of the bell wire between the time of the abduction at 19:25 and the discovery of the bicycle at 23:19 was not the only activity that happened this night in the forest. At 23:00 an old lady who lived near the edge of the forest on the Schondorf side heard seven shots fired directly one after the other, “like in the war”. This lead remains unresolved. We know that it was not a hunter. Why should someone decide to fire shots in the forest in the dark?

    Even stranger still is another witness statement. At 23:30, two witnesses spotted two cars parked on separate locations alongside the forest, one by the highway and one on a parking lot only a few meters from the location of the box. A few moments after the witnesses passed this second car, it suddenly drove away at excessive speed. The witnesses reported the sighting including the number plate of the car to the police, who traced the driver. He provided an explanation for his actions this night. However, the police refused to reveal the identity of the driver and the reason behind his actions to Ursula’s brother, who is entitled to view the case files. We know the make and colour of the car and the number plate, and we know in which village he lived.

    The statute of limitations has now expired for all crimes with the exception of murder. While there is no suggestion that the driver of the speeding car was engaged in any illegal activity, except for the speeding, of course, firing shots in the dark without a hunting license may indeed have been in conflict with the law. It is therefore imperative to trace these persons who may have seen something. New insights have come to light and perhaps they witnessed something without realising its significance.

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

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

  • A Dead Girl Buried in a Box in the Woods: More than One Abductor

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

    The crime scene of the Ursula Herrmann abduction is unique in a number of ways, and strongly suggests that more than one person was involved. The path leading through the Weingarten forest along the Ammersee shore was frequently used by cyclists or pedestrians, as it was the fastest connection between the villages of Eching and Schondorf, and because of the beautiful lake scenery. Towards dusk, though, this activity suddenly ceased. The abduction took place precisely at this cut off time, when one could still expect to find a girl on her own, but only a limited number of others. Unlike today, the forest was very thick with undergrowth in many places, for instance at the crime scene, which provided an ideal cover for the abductors.

    Ursula’s direction of travel. Path “O” not visible, fir tree on left margin
    Entrance to the path that had been cut into the forest, fir tree on left margin

    Directly where Ursula was snatched, a path had been cut into the forest. Before the attack, the entrance to this path was concealed by a large fir tree that had been cut off just above the ground. When Ursula approached, one or several of the abductors removed the tree and walked out of the forest onto the main path. We are not certain what happened next, whether Ursula was forced to push her bike into the forest by herself, or whether she was sedated directly on the path. In any case, the abductors would have been visible for some seconds, and would need to make sure that they were not disturbed by passers by. Directly next to the crime scene, the main path takes a turn, and then it continues in an almost straight line until it reaches the first houses of the next village a few hundred meters further on. The abductors installed a wired connection between the crime scene and a lookout who was positioned on the other side of this bend, to signal whether anybody was approaching from the other direction.

    Police sketch of the crime scene and the wire.

    Directly next to the crime scene were two groups of young fir trees standing closely next to each other. The abductors cut the branches at the inside of these groups of trees so that they could stand in the middle without being seen. They were already there some weeks before the abduction. Presumably, they used these hideouts to observe the traffic on the road. Perhaps they also used it on the day of the abduction, to observe the other end of the path.

    Location of the groups of fir trees, paths, bicycle at crime scene.

    The paths that had been cut into the forest ultimately led almost all the way to the location of the box. But because of the poor initial crime scene work they were only discovered some months after the abduction. All these factors suggest that at least two, probably three or four people were involved in the abduction. This assumption is also supported by the fact that it would have been very difficult for one person to carry a 65kg box with pipes attached to it to the location where it was buried, which would have involved crawling through dense shrubbery.

    Approach to the box, walking from lake shore, ladder found near arrow
    Approach to box walking from highway
    Entrance to box location
    Entrance to box location close up
    This ladder was probably used to dig the hole.

    But also the box itself seems to have been built by more than one person. Some of the drainage pipes that were once supposed to serve as a ventilation system were drilled more than 2000 times and later wrapped with a bed sheet and duct tape to create a silencer effect. In some locations, these holes are very precisely positioned, in others the work looks somewhat careless, which also suggests that it was done by more than one person.

    Holes drilled by two persons

    Altogether, this supports the assumption that more than one person was involved. These persons would have been reasonably physically fit as they had to carry a 30kg child through 800m forest terrain. They would also have been fit enough to carry the 65kg box and the supplies, and to dig the hole for the box. They would have had some disposable time in the preceding months and weeks and also experience with DIY, even though not at a professional level. And most importantly, they would have had an intimate knowledge of the Weingarten and the work pattern of the foresters and hunters. Moreover, their mobility would be somewhat restricted on the day of the abduction, since they did not take the victim to another location, as it was done in all other abduction cases at the time.

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

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

  • A Dead Girl Buried in a Box in the Woods: a DNA Match

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

    When DNA analysis became widely available, Ursula’s case was reopened, like many other cold cases, in the hope that these newly developed investigative techniques could produce fresh leads. The items secured from the crime scene were tested, and in 2005, her family was asked to provide DNA samples. Klaus Pfaffinger, the witness who said that he dug a hole in the forest for Werner Mazurek, was exhumed in 2008 to extract DNA from his remains. Other persons of interest from 1980s were tested as well, but again, the police drew a blank. None of those who had been in the focus of the investigation in the initial phase were a match to the unknown male and female DNA traces from the crime scene. But one particular DNA profile had in the meantime resurfaced in a seemingly unconnected context, a brutal 2006 murder of a Munich socialite, Charlotte Boehringer.

    The 59 year-old, who lived alone in a penthouse on top of a prime-location multi-storey car park she had inherited from her husband Oskar, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of her luxury flat. The walls and the marble stairs were stained with blood and Charlotte had extensive head injuries that were consistent with being repeatedly beaten with a heavy object with sharp edges such as a large hammer. The murderer continued to hit her, using his right hand, when she was already lying on the floor. Her expensive memory ring was missing, a substantial amount of cash she had withdrawn was unaccounted for, and her upstairs office gave the impression that it had been raided. Or were these signs of a struggle?

    Charlotte did not have children; her nephew Benedikt Toth, known as Bence, to whom she was particularly close, was her main heir. Bence initially planned to become an actor, but then enrolled in law school at the request of his aunt. She did not have any higher education, and she often struggled with the day to day management of her business. She had to rely on an accountant and a lawyer, and she wanted Bence to be in charge of the financial affairs himself. Shortly before his final exams, Bence dropped out of law school, but did not initially tell anybody. He even threw a party celebrating his “graduation”. He continued to work in the car park part time, as he had done when he was a student.

    What happened next is not entirely clear. There seems to have been an argument with his aunt. On the day Charlotte was murdered, Bence was at home alone. He would have had a very brief window of time in which he could have cycled to the car park to murder his aunt, but the timing would have been extremely tight. And he would have had a motive – the inheritance. But did he do it? Bence vehemently denies any involvement to this day. He was convicted of murder based on weak circumstantial evidence, even though he is left handed. Some key findings of the initial crime scene investigation have recently been questioned, including her time of death and the backspatter on the walls. An appeal was lodged, which is still ongoing.

    On the day she was killed, Charlotte had a visitor, a female friend, with whom she had a glass of wine. Charlotte opened the bottle for the occasion, and her friend remembers precisely how much they had to drink. It does not add up with the blood alcohol level measured after Charlotte’s death and the amount of wine that was left in the bottle in the fridge. Either Charlotte had another visitor that day, or she drank the wine herself and died much later than assumed. In any case, her friend was under the impression that Charlotte was expecting someone else. In the evening, she had planned to meet up with a group of friends as she always did on this time and day of the week. She did not arrive. When the crime scene technicians processed her penthouse, they also took swabs from glasses in her dishwasher, and on one of these glasses they recovered male DNA, the same as from the box that was used to imprison Ursula. The DNA was also found on a chest of drawers in Charlotte’s flat, but it didn’t resurface anywhere else. Given that the evidence from Ursula’s murder had not been secured to modern standards – DNA analysis was not in use in forensics in 1981 – one of the first suggestions was that this could be a case of contamination. This has since been excluded. But how else could the DNA have come to be on two separate locations in Charlotte’s flat? We are left with two possibilities, either it belongs to her murderer, or to a visitor who in otherwise not connected to the crime, and who did not come forward. Unfortunately, an important piece of evidence, Charlotte’s mailbox, was not evaluated by the police in a timely manner.

    see video at 10:30

    When they eventually tried to listen to her voice mail, the data had already been automatically deleted. Other telephone contacts were secured, and they read like a who-is-who of Bavarian high society.

    But assuming that the DNA on both Ursula’s and Charlotte’s crime scene has not been caused by a contamination of some description, how could these two cases be related? The person who left the DNA behind  would have assembled a large wooden box in 1981. 25 Years later, he would have appeared in Charlotte’s luxury flat, visiting a 59 year old, outgoing, wealthy lady. This question is closely connected to the motive of either crime. In Ursula’s case, the abductor was after the money. And in Charlotte’s case? An expensive ring was missing, as was some cash. Her office was raided, with drawers left open, but on the other hand, other valuables were left behind. In the former case, the victim did not have any external injuries, in the latter, extreme and sustained violence was used. Ursula’s murder was planned months ahead. We are uncertain about Charlotte. This could have been both an opportunistic and a planned crime. According to the verdict, Bence waited outside Charlotte’s front door wearing gloves and with a heavy object in hand, pushed the door open when she was about to leave and then attacked her straight away. All evidence supporting this assumption has recently been questioned – the imprints of gloves on the outside of the door and on the back of Charlotte’s jacket now appear to be something else entirely, and Bence’s DNA next to a blood stain on Charlotte’s jacket could in fact have come from anywhere on her jacket rather than from the area directly next to the stain of blood. Moreover, a new analysis of the backspatter suggests that Charlotte was actually first attacked further inside the hallway, directly by the stairs.

    There are only two possibilities. Either the murderer knew that Charlotte used to leave her flat at this specific time and day each week to meet her friends at a nearby restaurant, observed the flat to make sure that she was on her own, attacked her and then ran upstairs to search her office, or, alternatively, he was inside her flat beforehand. In the latter scenario, the office could have been the location where she was initially attacked. Here, a rumour that was recently reported in the press could come into play; Charlotte was said to have kept substantial amounts of cash in her flat, about one million Euros in total. Given that the evidence against Bence now appears even thinner than before, and because of the new analysis of the backspatter that places the attack further inside Charlotte’s flat, it would be of importance to start from scratch by establishing a profile of the attacker. Who could Charlotte have known well enough to let him into her flat, potentially offer him a glass of wine, who would also have had a connection to Ursula’s abduction and murder? Who could have known about her alleged hoard of cash in her flat? Such as list would not be too extensive, and surely it would be in the interest of all those who were connected to either case to provide DNA to exclude themselves from the investigation.

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

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

  • 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.

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

    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.

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

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