Uwe M. and Uwe B. robbed a bank in Eisenach a few days ago and then shot each other in a trailer, where investigators later found a police-issue pistol that linked them to a cop killing in eastern Germany that dated back to 2007. Their roommate and accomplice, Beate Z., is now in jail, accused of blowing up the house where they lived in Zwickau. The trio is a well-known band of fugitive neo-Nazis, and they're at the center of a spectacular investigation in Germany into a series of crimes in the eastern part of the country so odd they would be difficult to invent.
In the rubble of the home which the 36-year-old Beate Z. allegedly blew up, investigators have found nine handguns, a repeater pistol, and a machine gun -- including a gun of the same make used to kill young police officer Michèle Kiesewetter in 2007. The trio, however, has been known to German authorities longer than that. A German far-right band called "Eichenlaub" mentions them in a song penned in 1998 -- a time when they supposedly disappeared underground, suspected of building several bombs, the subject of police arrest warrants.
On Tuesday, Beate Z. turned herself in to police in the city of Jena. It was the end of a long, bizarre story that has yet to be fully told.
Bombs and the Far Right
Uwe M., Uwe B. and Beate Z. belonged to the "Thüringer Heimschutz," loosely translated as the "Thuringian Homeland Protection," a group that has served as a catch-all for the neo-Nazi scene in the eastern state of Thuringia. The Thüringer Heimatschutz grew out of another group, the "Anti-Antifa Ostthüringen" -- a right-wing extremist group that made headlines in the 1990s for bomb threats and attacks. Uwe B., Uwe M. and Beate Z. are among the suspected perpetrators.
In January 1997, police launched an investigation after the trio allegedly sent dummy letter bombs to the Thüringische Landeszeitung newspaper, and to city offices and police headquarters in Jena. In September of the same year they allegedly left a dummy bomb in a swastika-sprayed suitcase in front of the Jena Theater; they were arrested and quickly freed. The following January, officials searched their homes and garages and found pipe bombs, 1.4 kilograms of TNT, and right-wing propaganda material.
Arrest warrants were issued, but none of the suspects were detained. Although they had already been under observation prior to the house searches, Uwe B., Uwe M. and Beate Z. were able to evade capture.
But how, some are now asking? In Thuringia's left-wing, anti-fascist (or "antifa") scene, the trio became known as "the Bomb Makers of Jena." The neo-Nazi pop band Eichenlaub released a song called "Why" that amounted to an homage to the three fugitives.
Some believe they had organized support during their 13 years underground. But from whom? Perhaps the far-right scene, perhaps organized crime; perhaps -- most controversially -- from Thuringia's state Office for the Protection of the Constitution (which should be fighting neo-Nazis). Some investigators claim the three were in possession of several fake passports.
In any case, investigators claim to have lost all trace of them after 1998 -- that is, until last Saturday, when the bodies of both men were found in a trailer in Eisenach. It appears that Uwe B. and Uwe M. robbed a bank together and then shot each other to death.
Not Quite Underground
The aim of the Thüringer Heimatschutz -- an illegal underground group -- is to fight political and social opponents. Its propaganda is directed largely at state-run institutions. It has tried to align itself with the National Democratic Party (NPD), a legal far-right party that remains under observation by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, where officials believe it glorifies the Third Reich and espouses neo-Nazi sentiments (which would be illegal acts in Germany).
By 1999, Heimatschutz had gained considerable clout within regional chapters of the NPD, according to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Four out of 12 NPD district chairmen were members. Out of a total of 12 seats on the board of the party's state chapter, seven were held by members of the group.
The German domestic intelligence agency claims that supporters shared a "common national revolutionary understanding and a national socialistic body of thought." The Thüringer Heimatschutz's website declares that "the creation of a multicultural society is one of the greatest crimes that has ever been perpetrated against humanity. It is the systematic eradication of cultural identity and, thus, entire peoples."
'A Very Close Trio'
After they disappeared in 1998, Uwe B., Uwe M. and Beate Z. seem to have found a home among local neo-Nazis. In Jena they were evidently easy to find. Uwe M. drove a red Ford Escort with a license plate "J - AH 41" for Jena and Adolf Hitler. Once he tried to ram a left-wing punk riding a bicycle. Beate Z. reportedly broke the arm of another woman in a fight.
They were spotted at neo-Nazi demonstrations in Saalfeld, a town south of Jena, and at the trial of a Holocaust denier named Manfred Roeder in Erfurt. They didn't always live together, as they did near the end. "I had the feeling that Beate Z. was together with one for a while, and then the other," said a former neighbor.
"They were a very close trio, but it seemed to be more of a friendship than any sort of sexual relationship," said Katharina König, a Left Party member of the Thuringia state legislature who has been an anti-far-right activist since 1999.
A onetime punk remembers meeting Beate Z. and Uwe B. in a tunnel in Jena, after they left a bar. The punk was with four of his friends, and Uwe B., he says, pulled out a long dagger to watch the group go by. "I had the feeling that he was afraid of us, because we were older and bigger than him," says the former punk.
The manhunt for the "Bombmakers of Jena" led to new headlines in 2003 -- because the statute of limitations for their late-'90s crimes was up. The investigation was being abandoned.
Nevertheless, they evidently survived -- from 1999 till last weekend -- on bank robberies. They're suspected of 13 holdups around eastern Germany in that timespan, according to a federal prosecutor. And in 2007, a 22-year-old police officer in Heilbronn, near Stuttgart, was killed execution-style during a lunchbreak by several shots to the head. Michèle Kiesewetter died on the scene. Her 25-year-old partner, Martin A., spent several weeks in a coma. His service pistol and Kiesewetter's were among the weapons found in the Zwickau house and the bloody trailer on Saturday.
How can three people under the observation of Germany's domestic intelligence agency just disappear -- and commit crimes -- for such a long period? Especially given that domestic intelligence has no small number of informants in the far-right scene?
Take, for example, Timo Brandt, the leading figure in "Heimatschutz Thuringia" as well as its forerunner group, the "Anti-Antifa Ostthüringen." It was revealed in 2001 that Brandt had been an informant for Thuringia's state Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Under the codename "Otto," he worked as an informant for several years and earned a handsome 200,000 deutsche marks (about $100,000 at the time) for his services. He would later claim that he re-invested the money into political activities and propaganda.
On Tuesday, the Thuringia state Office for the Protection of the Constitution released a statement that there was "no evidence (the suspects) received help in their flight from government authorities." The same went for "intelligence cooperation between the suspects and Thuringia state Office for the Protection of the Constitution." Thuringia's state interior minister, Jörg Geibert, said, "There's no evidence they had any more contact with the far-right scene in Thuringia, or that they were provided with money or weapons."
Martina Renner, a ranking Left Party member in the state parliament, doubts these findings. "I think it's quite unlikely that those three lived for 10 years in Germany without having their cover blown." Even in 1998, she alleged -- when the manhunt began -- there were hints that the state's constitutional protection office had helped them disappear.
Renner says their alleged crimes even before 1998 were not just "petty crimes," but could have involved "explosions" of a "life-threatening magnitude." She says it's important to clarify just how deeply the state domestic intelligence office may have been involved. If a regional intelligence agency like that is prepared to "work with" such dangerous criminals, she says, the question arises whether the agency functions as an instrument to protect a democracy.
When Beate Z. resurfaced over the weekend, she presented herself to Jena police in the presence of a lawyer -- not someone who operates in the neo-Nazi scene, though, but rather a specialist in paternity cases. It creates the impression that she's settled for whatever legal advice she could find.
Now she's in pre-trial custody, on charges of arson. "I'm the one you're looking for," she reportedly said at the station in Jena. Police add that she hasn't said much else in the meantime.