Spotted at Crime Scenes: Police Were on the Trail of Zwickau Terrorists

By Hubert Gude and Sven Röbel

A series of murders of small business owners across Germany stumped police for years, until the Zwickau terrorist cell was uncovered in November 2011. Now SPIEGEL has learned that investigators were closer to solving the crimes than was previously known. A confidential police report reveals that witnesses saw two men on bicycles at several of the crime scenes.

A screenshot from video footage made near the scene of a 2004 bombing in Cologne which is believed to have been committed by the NSU. Zoom
DPA

A screenshot from video footage made near the scene of a 2004 bombing in Cologne which is believed to have been committed by the NSU.

It was one of the most mysterious murder series in postwar German history. Nine men, mostly small business owners, were shot dead in broad daylight on busy streets in cities across Germany between 2000 and 2006. The crimes always followed the same pattern: The victims -- eight Turkish Germans and one person of Greek origin -- were shot in the head with a Ceska 83 pistol with a 7.65 millimeter caliber.

Despite a massive police operation, the authorities were unable to solve the crimes until November 2011, when the Ceska was found in the rubble of the house in Zwickau where a trio of neo-Nazis had lived. Two members of the group, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, are believed to have carried out the murder series. The third suspected terrorist, Beate Zschäpe, blew up the Zwickau flat after police closed in on Böhnhardt and Mundlos.

Now, SPIEGEL has learned that investigators were much closer to catching the neo-Nazis, who called themselves the National Socialist Underground (NSU), than was previously known. According to a confidential report by the special task force, codenamed Bosporus, that was set up to investigate the murders, police noticed an unusual pattern in the behavior of the perpetrators at an early stage of the investigation. In four of the nine murders, witnesses had observed two men on bicycles near the scene of the crime.

According to the task force report, some of the witnesses' physical descriptions of the men exactly matched the NSU members Böhnhardt and Mundlos, who were found dead in their camper van on Nov. 4, 2011 after a bank robbery in Eisenach. Mundlos is believed to have shot Böhnhardt before shooting himself. The two men, who also carried out a series of bank robberies, are believed to have used bicycles to flee after committing their crimes, before taking refuge in rented camper vans that were parked nearby.

The confidential report reveals that the two men on bicycles were first spotted in September 2000 following the murder of a Turkish florist in Nuremberg, the first killing in the series. They were also seen at the scene of the murders in Munich in 2001, again in Nuremberg in 2005 and in Dortmund in 2006.

Bavarian police also investigated a possible connection between the murder series and a bombing in Cologne in June 2004, where 22 people were injured, some seriously. That bombing is now believed to also have been carried out by the NSU, after the terrorist group appeared to take responsibility for the attack in a DVD that was discovered in the rubble of the Zwickau house. In this case, too, two men were seen on mountain bikes near the scene of the crime, and were even caught on a video camera. The investigators later showed the footage to a witness in the third Nuremberg murder case. The woman recognized similarities between the cyclists in the video and the ones she had seen.

According to the report, which is dated May 2008, the Bosporus task force appeared to believe there was a connection between the cyclists seen at the crime scenes. Due to the "choice of victims (Turks)" and "the use of bicycles," a "connection could not be ruled out," the report reads.

Concealed Camera in Graveyard

Evidence related to two cyclists also turned up in connection with the case of Michèle Kiesewetter, a policewoman who was murdered in Heilbronn on April 25, 2007, apparently by the NSU. At the time, employees of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway, had observed two men on mountain bikes together in the immediate vicinity of the crime scene shortly before shots were fired. It is unclear why the police did not attach more importance to the evidence relating to the two cyclists at the time. The crime was not solved until the murder weapon was found in the rubble of the Zwickau house.

According to a separate police report dated April 29, 2010, which SPIEGEL has also obtained, investigators even went as far as keeping Kiesewetter's grave under video surveillance in the months following her death. They installed a concealed video camera in the cemetery in her hometown of Oberweissbach in the eastern German state of Thuringia in case the murderer decided to visit her grave. Police kept track of everyone who visited the grave up until July 4, 2007.

The document reveals the lengths that investigators went to in their search for clues. They hypnotized Kiesewetter's colleague Martin A., who was sitting in the same car as Kiesewetter at the time of the attack and was seriously injured, in the hope that he might remember more details.

This report also reveals that police had drawn up a profile of the suspects that closely matched Böhnhardt and Mundlos. They wrote that the perpetrators were two men, probably at least 1.75 meters tall (5 feet 9 inches) who were "used to handling firearms." The suspects, police wrote, probably had no regular employment and had a very close relationship of trust, "in the sense of a 'secret society,'" even before committing the crime. The two men had probably also committed crimes together previously, the report reads.

But in some respects the police were off the mark. The investigators believed that the perpetrators must belong to the "local criminal milieu" because of their geographical knowledge of the town. They also ruled out a political motive for the murder, as nobody took responsibility for the act.

SPIEGEL has also learned that a member of the Bavarian conservative Christian Social Union party was also apparently on the NSU's hit list. Hans-Peter Uhl, a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, was told after the cell was uncovered that Mundlos and Böhnhardt had apparently been spying on him. "Very good location, access through the garden," they had noted. The address of Uhl's constituency office is one of those on an extensive list of public figures, politicians and associations that investigators found at the terrorists' residence in Zwickau. Police consider the document to be a possible hit list.

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