DNA Contamination that is amazing!

contamination in DNA
Contamination in DNA

This is the Phantom of Heilbronn.  The Phantom of Heilbronn was thought of as the most prolific murderer who was allegedly responsible for a whole rash of crimes from murder to burglary.  Quite a busy person.  So, busy that the Phantom was all across Europe doing what the Phantom does, I suppose, which is getting away with crime.  But was the Phantom all that successful?

Well it turns out, probably not, because the Phantom was leaving DNA at all of these diverse geographical area and diverse types of crimes.

DNA from the same person had been recovered at least 40 scenes as of March 2009.

The Phantom was active in France, Austria, Germany and other parts of Europe since 1993.  The crime spree was alarming including six murders, one of the victims being a female police officer from Heilbronn, Germany.  Hence, the etymology of the nickname for the unknown bad person “The Phantom of Heilbronn.”

The authorities were under increasing pressure to find the Phantom and stop the Phantom.

You may be thinking:

They have DNA, why can’t they find the Phantom?

The very common misconception that people have is that if you are able to recover and amplify DNA, then you can always get an identification.  The truth is that you can’t every time.  The DNA has to “match” (Blogger’s note:”What constitutes a match in forensic science?“) a previously collected, analyzed and inputted a reference stored in a library.  In other words, if they do not already have your DNA in their library, even with the best DNA sample collection and analysis, then they cannot identify or “match” you.

DNA swab
DNA swab

The case of the Phantom was cracked in March 2009.  The authorities took sought a DNA sample from a burned dead body of a male asylum-seeker in France.  Investigators discovered the DNA sequence was that of a female. Even to the most unqualified investigator this posed a great problem.

Investigators came to the conclusion that the “Phantom” criminal did not exist.  It appears as if it is now universally accepted that during the manufacturing of that company’s baccual swabs  contamination occurred that allowed worker’s and assembler’s DNA to be present on the swab itself.  They came to the conclusion that the mysterious criminal did not actually exist and that the laboratory results were due to contamination of the cotton buds used for DNA probing.  The DNA recovered at the crime scenes were in fact already present on the cotton swabs used for collecting DNA samples.

The cotton swabs used by many state police departments were found to have been contaminated before shipping. The swabs all came from the same factory, which employs several Eastern European women who “matched” the type of DNA that was thought to be recovered at the scenes. The clincher was that in Bavaria, a region central to these crimes, investigators got their swabs from a different factory and subsequently had no reports of crimes committed by the Phantom.

Go figure.

Just goes to show that even the certification of manufacturers can mean exactly nothing.

In forensic science, there is no such thing as “trust me”.

Keep being justifiably skeptical.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *