Police may be a step closer to solving one of the most mysterious murder series in German criminal history after a potentially crucial clue turned up in an investigation into another high-profile crime.
The murder series involved execution-style killings of nine shop owners, eight of them of Turkish descent and one Greek, in cities across Germany between 2000 and 2006. The press dubbed the murders the "doner killings" because the victims were all small businessmen and included two kebab shop owners, a grocer, a tailor, a flower seller and a key cutter. The only link that police found between the murders was the weapon used -- a Czech-made Ceska 83 pistol with a 7.65 millimeter caliber.
Now investigators suspect the killings may be connected to an ongoing case involving a trio of fugitive neo-Nazis in eastern Germany. Two of them, identified only as Uwe M. and Uwe B., robbed a bank in Eisenach a few days ago and then shot each other in a trailer. There, investigators later found a police-issue pistol that linked them to the murder of policewoman Michele Kiesewetter in 2007 in Heilbronn in eastern Germany.
Their roommate and accomplice, Beate Z., is now in jail after handing herself in to police earlier this week. She is accused of blowing up the house where they lived in Zwickau. The trio was known to police in Thuringia because of their suspected bomb-making activities in the 1990s and connections to a far-right group known as the Thüringer Heimschutz.
On Friday, investigators from Germany's Federal Prosecutor's Office, which has now taken over the case, announced that the Ceska pistol used in the doner killings had been found in the ruins of the house in Zwickau. During the search of the premises, investigators had also found evidence indicating a right-wing extremist motivation behind the killings, they said. There was "sufficient factual evidence" to suggest that the murders had been committed by a right-wing extremist group, prosecutors said, adding that Beate Z. was suspected of being a member of a terrorist group and having committed murder, attempted murder and arson. So far Beate Z. has declined to comment on the accusations. The investigators are now looking into the question of whether other individuals from the far-right scene are also involved in the crimes.
In the doner murder series, nine small businessmen were killed in their stores in Nuremberg, Munich, Rostock, Hamburg, Kassel and Dortmund between September 2000 and April 2006. The victims were shot at close range in the face in broad daylight in execution-style killings. The Ceska pistol was the only link that police could find between the victims.
The series had baffled police for years. Some 160 investigators organized into a number of task forces followed up 3,500 leads, checking 11,000 people and millions of phone and credit card records -- without success. There was no evidence connecting the victims to drugs, gambling or protection rackets. Investigators had speculated that the killings could be punishment for debts arising from criminal activities or revenge against defectors from criminal organizations.
But the victims appeared to be normal individuals who were well integrated into German society. No DNA evidence or fingerprints were found at the crime scene, nor was there usable testimony from witnesses. There also appeared to be no pattern to the chronology of the murders. Some of the killings were just days apart, while others were separated by years.
The Heilbronn murder was also a high-profile case in Germany, and the fact that a lead had appeared in that case has already made headlines in the country. If that murder now turns out to also be connected to the doner killings, it will be a spectacular development.