Murder in Frankfurt The Struggle to Find Answers to Random Crime

On Monday, an eight-year-old boy got pushed in front of a train in Frankfurt and died. The crime has horrified the entire country and right-wing populists have sought to instrumentalize it. But can such acts of violence really be prevented? By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Flowers laid at the site where an 8-year-old boy was pushed in front of a train on Monday.
imago images / Patrick Scheiber

Flowers laid at the site where an 8-year-old boy was pushed in front of a train on Monday.

It is Friday evening in Frankfurt, three days before an 8-year-old boy will die at the city's central station after a stranger suddenly shoves him in front of an incoming ICE long-distance train. A 42-year-old Eritrean who has lived in Frankfurt for 30 years stops his Peugeot in front of a hotel at the convention center. An aunt of his is staying there and his girlfriend accompanies the aunt to her room. He says that in the time that his girlfriend was in the hotel, he got out of his car to make a phone call.

At exactly that moment, he says, a man ran up to him from the direction of the train station and jumped into the passenger seat. He spoke Tigrinya, one of the languages spoken in Eritrea. He told me: "Drive! The police are following me!" Then, the 42-year-old continues, "he tried to convince me to drive him to the Swiss border." When the Peugeot driver refused and waved the hotel porter over for help, the man got out of his car and disappeared into the darkness.

The Eritrean immigrant is convinced that the man was Habte A., the suspect who is thought to have killed the boy at Frankfurt central station on Monday morning. He claims he recognized the man from the pictures that were published in the press. On that Friday in front of the hotel, the 42-year-old says during a meeting at a restaurant in Frankfurt, the man didn't seem confused or aggressive, just afraid.

The man he describes, the 40-year-old Habte A., who was born in Eritrea, has been in investigative custody since Tuesday. State prosecutors have accused him of murder and two counts of attempted murder. He has so far remained silent about the crime, merely saying that he had arrived by train a few days previously from Basel and that he had slept on the streets.

It remains unclear what exactly Habte A. did in Frankfurt in the days preceding the murder. There are also no answers to the question as to why he, the father of three young children, would shove an eight-year-old to his death. Testimony would seem to indicate that he suffers from mental illness and prosecutors now intend to have him psychologically examined.

The shock from Frankfurt has hit Germany in the middle of summer vacation, with millions passing through the country's train stations and their overcrowded platforms to head out to their holiday destinations. Frankfurt central station alone sees up to 500,000 passengers pass through each day. Many people were shocked and horrified by the crime.

Visceral Fears

It could have been anybody. Evidence thus far collected indicates that the man chose the boy and the woman completely at random. The death was just as random as that of the 149 passengers aboard the Germanwings plane that pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed into a mountainside in March 2015. The crime in Frankfurt has once again shown just how disturbing it can be when someone kills a person for no reason, someone he didn't even know. It is a crime that triggers the most visceral of fears because they come out of nowhere, without warning or cause. And because there can be no complete protection against them, no measures that can prevent them.

The fact that the suspect is from Eritrea has struck a particularly sensitive nerve in German society. The 2015 refugee crisis intensified the fear of foreigners that many feel has strengthened the right-wing populists. Every crime is examined to see who was behind it, with many in the country fearing that the large number of refugees has led to an uptick in crime. It is a fear that has been deepened by violent acts committed by asylum-seekers, such as the case of Ali B. from Iraq, who allegedly raped and murdered the 14-year-old Susanna in Wiesbaden in May 2018.

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Politicians from the right-wing fringe seek to take advantage of and intensify such fears to turn society against the refugees and further divide the electorate. Just hours after the crime in Frankfurt, Alice Weidel, parliamentary floor leader of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), blamed the "unbridled open-door policy," even if the Eritrean, as it soon became clear, didn't live as a refugee in Germany.

Statistically, not a day goes by in Germany without a murder or manslaughter, and many of the crimes hardly even make it into the papers. So, what made the crime on Track 7 in Frankfurt different?

"Such unforeseeable episodes of violence triggered by a person show us just how unstable and fragile our world is," says Andreas Zick, a professor of conflict research at the University of Bielefeld. "Plus, the victim was a child, which should enjoy special protection."

Established Paradigms

Thomas Feltes, a criminologist and professor at Ruhr University Bochum, says: "The act violates everything that makes us human. For sexual or domestic violence, we have explanatory frameworks. Those are crimes that somehow fit into established paradigms, but the crime in Frankfurt does not." In most instances of violence, he adds, the victim knows the perpetrator.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer promised increased security in the wake of the crime. But how is it possible to provide complete protection from potentially psychologically ill perpetrators who don't even need a weapon?

On the day after the murder in Frankfurt, many concerned parents asked German rail employees to accompany them to the train platforms to help keep their children safe. A loud noise in the train station had everyone looking around fearfully.

Train stations, though, have likely become safer. According to a 2018 German rail report, the number of reported crimes at German rail facilities has "dropped slightly." The police have registered significantly fewer thefts, though drug and sexual offenses have risen.

Statistics and probabilities, though, tend to influence our feelings of security much less than horrific isolated cases or cases that seem to confirm extant fears and prejudices. And one factor could also be the fact that our society has become safer and less violent. Since 2007, the number of violent crimes committed in Germany has dropped, as have the number of accidents on our roads and elsewhere. As a society, we have an expectation that risk can be completely eliminated, and we thus react all the more emotionally when reality shows us that such a thing isn't always possible.

It was 9:59 a.m. on Monday when the high-speed ICE 529 train from Düsseldorf arrived on Track 7 at Frankfurt central station. Vacationers, many of them families with children, were waiting for the high-speed train to Munich. Comments from officials seem to indicate that surveillance cameras recorded what happened next. In section E of the platform, Habte A. stood hidden behind a pillar. As the ICE was approaching, he shoved a 40-year-old woman into the track bed and then did the same to her eight-year-old son. The mother was able to get out of the way in time, but the boy was hit by the ICE. He died at the scene of the crime.

The suspect Habte A., as he was led out of court on Tuesday.
Christoph Reichwein/ DPA

The suspect Habte A., as he was led out of court on Tuesday.

Habte A. tried to shove another woman in front of the train, but the 78-year-old fended him off, suffering a shoulder injury and shock in the process. In the ICE, passengers heard the conductor say: "For the love of God, he shoved her in front of the train!" The train braked suddenly and an announcement told the passengers that there had been an injury, according to the later accounts of those in the train. On the platform, the suspect fled, followed by passersby and an off-duty policeman. Habte A. was captured not far from the station.

'Hanging Around the Train Station'

At Track 7, witnesses to the horrific deed began crying, with some sinking to the ground. Police and first responders hurried to the site as did emergency pastors. Security personnel closed off tracks 4-9 for several hours. Temporary white barricades were set up to prevent people from filming the site with their mobile phones. The first responders set up a station in the railway mission, with many requiring psychological treatment.

Habte A. had only arrived in Frankfurt, a city that is home to 177 different nationalities, a few days earlier from Switzerland. At the time of the crime, he was neither on drugs nor was he under the influence of alcohol; and when he was arrested, he wasn't carrying a mobile phone or identity papers. An Eritrean who works in a shop at the Frankfurt train station believes he saw the perpetrator shortly before the crime. "He was hanging around in the train station," he says, adding that he saw him from behind the counter where he was working. He says he noticed the man because he was a compatriot who walked back and forth several times and seemed confused.

The account and the crime are diametrically opposed to the seemingly successful life in Europe that Habte A. had thus far lived. He arrived in Switzerland in 2006 and was granted asylum in 2008 and given a status that allowed him to travel anywhere in Europe. He ended up in the town of Wädenswil and found a job as a metal worker. He was briefly unemployed, but in January 2017, he was accepted into a Swiss program for the jobless and assigned to a job coach who began looking for suitable employment for him. He found one in Zürich, working for the city's public transportation system.

Laetitia Hardegger, who heads up the communications department of the job agency that assisted Habte A., still remembers the Eritrean. She interviewed him in January 2018 for the 2017 annual report, in which he was presented as a shining example. In the ensuing brochure, his boss praised his work ethic and that he didn't "just stand around idly chatting."

"He was a friendly, calm and open man and we found him to be reliable and upright. He really was an example of successful integration," says Hardegger. She says that not everyone is able to find regular employment but that Habte A. was simply good at his job.

She says that he was intent on getting a regular job and had to wait quite a while until one came open when an older employee retired. He was, she says, extremely excited to get a permanent position. "This has hit us all really hard and we are extremely sad," Hardegger says.

There seems to be no connection between the two realities -- that of an exemplary refugee in the Alpine foothills of Switzerland and the brutal murder on Track 7 at Frankfurt central station. He lived with his wife and his three children, aged one, three and four, in a pink-hued house on the outskirts of Wädenswil in a development above town. There are around a dozen homes in the neighborhood, a few farmhouses, a restaurant and a nursery. From his balcony, Habte A. could look out on green meadows and Lake Zürich.

No Criminal Record

The family lived above an Italian restaurant. None of the neighbors wanted to talk about Habte A. The apartment where the suspect lived is now empty. At 10 p.m. on Monday, the police searched his home and the next day, authorities took his wife and children to another site where they are receiving psychological care.

Habte A. has no criminal record and the Zürich police found no indications of radicalization or any ideological motive for the crime. He belongs to a Christian Orthodox church in Switzerland. But according to Swiss investigators, he recently began experiencing serious psychological problems and in January, he was unable to go to work for a time because of it.

Last Thursday, it became clear just how serious his problems had become and that he might present a danger to others. Habte A.'s wife called the Zürich police to report that her husband had threatened her and the children and locked them in the apartment. He also allegedly threatened a neighbor with a knife and also locked her in her apartment. According to investigators, both women said that Habte A. had never before displayed such behavior. By the time officers arrived, he had disappeared and had taken the knife with him.

The police sent out a warrant for the 40-year-old, but it was limited to Switzerland. And the search was never made public because the authorities didn't believe he was dangerous.

A close friend of the suspect, with whom a DER SPIEGEL reporter met with on Wednesday in Wädenswil, says that Habte A. had begun to suffer from severe psychological problems. A few months ago, reports the 30-year-old -- whose name is known to DER SPIEGEL and who also comes from Eritrea -- Habte A. began complaining of people talking about him. The 30-year-old says he has been friends with Habte A. for 10 years and describes him as a quiet man who avoided large groups of people. "He felt like he was being followed and that someone was coming after him."

In recent months, the friend says, he began suffering from clear delusions. "On one occasion, I brought him to the fitness studio and he immediately began pointing at others and complaining that they were talking about him." To reassure his friend, the 30-year-old approached the people Habte A. had pointed to and said: "See, nobody's talking about you. They don't even know you." His friend, he says, appeared calm but it was clear that he was extremely unsettled.

The friend urged Habte A. to go to the doctor, which he ultimately did. The doctor sent him to a hospital in Horgen for further examinations and treatment. The daily newspaper Zürcher Tagesanzeiger reported that the doctor had diagnosed symptoms of paranoia.

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