The Mystery of Ursula Herrmann’s Death

The Mystery of Ursula Herrmann’s Death

The Mystery of Ursula Herrmann’s Death

The mystery of Ursula Herrmann’s death occurred at the foot of the Alps at the southern tip of Germany, there is a large lake called Ammersee. The coast is dotted with centuries-old villages, many wealthy families from Munich buy houses there and tourists drink beer in seaside restaurants. At the northern end of the lake are a pair of villages, the villages of Eching am Ammersee and Schondorf, less than two miles apart. Separating the two villages is an evergreen forest that attracts hunters, runners, mountain bikers and late last summer of 1981, kidnappers prepared to commit what would become one of the country’s most notorious post-war crimes.

After leaving school on Tuesday 15 September 1981, the first day of the new school year, a 10 year old girl named Ursula Herrmann returned to her home in Eching. Ursula, the youngest of four children, practices piano with her eldest brother Michael and then goes to afternoon gymnastics classes in Schondorf, cycling through the woods along a lakeside path. When gym class was over, she went to her cousin’s house in Schondorf, where she had dinner. At 7:20 p.m., Ursula’s mother called her aunt to say her daughter needed to come home. Her mother called her aunt to send her daughter home which is only 10 minutes by bike.

The Mystery of Ursula Herrmann's Death
Lake Schondor shore

Half an hour later, she still had not come home. Her mother called her aunt again, who said Ursula had left 25 minutes earlier. The two immediately knew something was wrong. Ursula’s father rushed into the woods from Eching, and her uncle did the same from Schondorf. They met in the middle, along the way. Ursula’s name was called over and over in the darkness of the forest but there was no answer.

Within an hour neighbours, police and firefighters had joined the search, torchlight wading through the thick undergrowth. Just before midnight, and it was raining, a bloodhound led her handler away from the lake, into the bushes. There, 20 meters from the path, is Ursula’s little red bicycle but she is nowhere to be seen. Search intensified. Dozens of officers in raincoats and rubber boots dispersed through the dense forest, at the forest’s border stands the Landheim Schondorf school, an expensive private school founded in 1905 and favored by Bavaria’s political and business elite.

As a helicopter hovered above, a police boat and divers surveyed the shallows of the lake. Local radio broadcast shocking news about the missing girl in this beautiful part of the country: 1.43m (4ft 7in) tall with short blonde hair, wearing dark green thongs, a gray wool cardigan and red-brown sandals; the daughter of a teacher and a housewife.

Misteri Kematian Ursula Herrmann
Search by helicopter over the lake

On Thursday morning, while Ursula had been missing for more than 36 hours, the phone rang at Herrmann’s house. When Ursula’s parents picked up, there was silence, and then a short, familiar jingle, which they recognized from the traffic bulletin on radio station Bavaria 3. More silence ensued, and then the jingle played again before the caller hung up. Three other similar calls – confusing and creepy – followed for several hours. A team from the local police department, now stationed at Herrmann’s home, began recording the call.

The next afternoon, the postman delivered an envelope addressed to Ursula’s father, marked urgent. Inside was a ransom note composed using letters and words cut from tabloid newspapers. “We kidnapped your daughter,” the note began, in broken German. “If you want to see your daughter come back to life then pay a ransom of 2 million deutschmarks [£450,000].” The kidnappers, expecting the letter to arrive the day before – before the call started – explained that they would call Herrmanns using the jingle as their callsign. “Just tell me whether you will pay or not pay… if you call the police or don’t pay, we will kill your daughter.”

When the phone rang that afternoon, and the jingle rang, Ursula’s mother agreed to pay the ransom. She also asked for proof of life: what was his daughter’s nickname for her two stuffed toys? When the kidnappers didn’t answer, she panicked. “Talk to me, say something, something from Ursula!” That same night, the kidnappers sent a second letter, which arrived on Monday September 21, with strange specific instructions regarding the ransom. The kidnappers wanted the money to be paid in used 100-deutschmark notes, which were packed in a suitcase. Which will be delivered to an as yet unnamed location by Ursula’s father, who drives alone in a yellow Fiat 600 that goes no faster than 90km/h.

Unlike some of the other residents of Eching, and parents of pupils at the boarding school in Schondorf, the Herrmanns were not wealthy. They had only been able to build a house near the lake because Ursula’s great-grandfather had purchased some grazing land there decades earlier. A neighbor collected part of the ransom, and the state agreed to cover the rest.

Ursula Herrmann’s family house

The Herrmanns waited desperately for further instructions. But no more letters and no more calls. The police don’t have a solid lead either. Two weeks passed. The police decided to search the forest again. More than a hundred officers were rounded up, with 10 sniffer dogs. By the fourth day of the search, a gray Sunday, they had combed most of the forest. Ursula has been missing for 19 days. At 9:30 a.m., there was a loud scream. In a small swamp about 800m from the path of the lake, one of the officers hit something solid while checking the ground.

Another trooper rushed over and, after wiping off leaves and scraping off a layer of clay, found a brown blanket covering the wooden planks. He removed it only to find a second plank, which appeared to be a box lid. It measures 72cm by 60cm – about the size of a small coffee table – painted green and locked from the top with seven sliding bolts. Using a shovel, he forced the lid open, and peered inside. It’s Ursula. His body was cold, lifeless. The officer was crying as he lifted her out.

Two detectives were sent to break the news to Ursula’s parents at their home, which was not far away. While her mother was too confused to ask any questions, her father asked her repeatedly: had her daughter been hurt before her death? The correct answer is no. The autopsy concluded that Ursula died within 30 minutes to five hours of being buried. Since there was no sign of struggle, or even movement, in the box, the doctors thought she had been previously anesthetized, possibly with nitrous oxide.

The Mystery of Ursula Herrmann's Death
The planted wooden box where Ursula Herrmann’s body was found

It seems the kidnappers have planned to keep Ursula alive. The 1.40 m deep box is equipped with shelves and a seat that doubles as a toilet. It contained three bottles of water, 12 cans of Fanta, six large chocolate bars, four packs of biscuits and two packs of gum. It also contains a whimsical little library of 21 books, from Donald Duck comics to westerns, romance novels and thrillers with titles like The Horror Lurks Everywhere. There’s a lightweight, portable radio tuned to Bayern 3, the same station that broadcasts the traffic jingle.

To allow Ursula to breathe, the box has a ventilation system made of plastic tubing, which extends to ground level. But whoever designed it failed to realize that without an engine to circulate the air, oxygen would quickly run out.

Police believe they are hunting more than one kidnapper, due to the box’s size and weight. At 60kg, it might take at least two people to carry it into the forest. The perpetrators must have known the forest well, for they had chosen a remote location within it, and avoided attention when digging holes and making their way through the thick undergrowth. In Eching and the surrounding villages, parents who previously let their children roam are now afraid to let them out of sight.

The surprise was heightened by frenzied press coverage. On the day of the funeral, after much harassment from reporters, Ursula’s brother, Michael, a shy 18 year old, lost his temper with a photographer holding a camera right in front of her face, and knocked the camera to the ground.

Desperate to find the culprit, the police are offering a DM30,000 reward for information, and the leads are pouring in. One name that appears to be suspected based on information from residents is Werner Mazurek. He is 31 years old, lives with his wife and their two children just a few hundred meters from the Herrmann family. Trained auto mechanic who left school at 15 and now runs his own TV repair business. He was tall, with a beer belly – and quick-tempered, and disliked in Eching. He was also heavily in debt, owing the bank more than DM140,000, so he had motive.

The Mystery of Ursula Herrmann's Death
Suspect Werner Mazurek

Questioned by the police a week after Ursula’s body was found, Mazurek initially cannot remember his movements the night she went missing. It took him 24 hours to come up with an alibi: he had been playing the board game Risk with his wife and two friends. But a search of his home and workshop revealed nothing connecting him to the crime. Later that month, a forensic team examining the box found fingerprints on a piece of duct tape, raising hopes of a breakthrough. Thousands of local residents, including Mazurek, were fingerprinted, but no matches were found.

Police still suspect Mazurek was involved. In late January 1982, they arrested him, along with two of his friends, and interrogated them for several days before releasing them. A month later, another Mazurek acquaintance was interrogated. Klaus Pfaffinger is an unemployed mechanic with a drinking problem. The landlord, who owed rent, told police that in the weeks before the crime he had seen his tenant driving his moped with a shovel strapped to the side. Pfaffinger initially protested his innocence.

But on the second day of interrogation, when the interrogators were taking a break and he was alone with the police secretary, he said something shocking: “What if I know something?” When the interrogators returned, Pfaffinger told them that Mazurek had asked him to dig a hole in the woods in early September 1981, promising a payment of DM1,000 and a color television. Pfaffinger said he had dug a hole and then noticed a box embedded in it.

Convinced that they have solved the case, the detectives lead Pfaffinger into the forest that separates Eching and Schondorf. They asked him to lead them to the burial place. To their dismay, he couldn’t find her, or even get close to her. On his return to the police station, he announced: “I am withdrawing this confession, it is not true what I said.” During at least 10 subsequent interrogations in the months that followed, he refused to repeat his confession, and was eventually released without charge.

Ursula Herrmann’s Grave

Investigations against other suspects yielded no results. By the late 1980s, the investigation had been terminated. Across Germany, most people still remember the shocking unsolved case of a 10-year-old girl who was buried alive in a box.

Jeremy Jhordy

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