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A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
Wikimedia // Copyrighted free use

The Chilling Story of the Hinterkaifeck Killings, Germany's Most Famous Unsolved Crime

A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
Wikimedia // Copyrighted free use

The Hinterkaifeck farmstead was a lonesome place. Located near the woods outside the Bavarian town of Gröbern, about an hour's drive from Munich and a half-mile behind, or "hinter," the town of Kaifeck, it was the home of 35-year-old Viktoria Gabriel and her two children, 7-year-old Cäzilia and 2-year-old Josef, as well as her elderly parents Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber.

The family was known for keeping to themselves. Still, neighbors grew concerned on April 1, 1922, when young Cäzilia missed school and the entire family failed to show up to the church where Viktoria was a member of the choir. Cäzilia missed school again on April 3, and by then, mail for the family had begun to pile up at the local post office. On April 4, the family's neighbors decided to investigate. Lorenz Schlittenbauer, a farmer who lived nearby, led the search party.

What they discovered likely haunted them for the rest of their days.

In the barn, the search party found four brutally battered bodies covered with hay. Inside the house, they discovered the bodies of 2-year-old Josef and the maid, Maria Baumgartner. It had been Baumgartner's first day on the job—the previous maid had abandoned her position due to a fervent belief that the house and farm were haunted.

Nearly 100 years later, dozens of people have been arrested as suspects in the crimes, though no one has ever been found guilty. The Hinterkaifeck murders remain one of Germany’s eeriest—and most famous—unsolved crimes.

FOOTSTEPS IN THE SNOW

The reports from the family's autopsies, conducted by court physician Dr. Johann Baptist Aumüller, paint a horrifying picture of their injuries. The elder Cäzilia showed signs of strangulation and seven blows to the head, which left her with a cracked skull. The face of her husband, Andreas, was caked with blood, and his cheek bones protruded from shredded flesh. Viktoria’s skull was also smashed; her head showed nine “star-shaped” wounds and the right side of her face had been hit with a blunt object. The younger Cäzilia's lower jaw had been shattered and her face and neck covered in gaping, circular wounds.

While the elder Cäzilia, Andreas, and Viktoria likely died instantly from expertly delivered blows from a mattock—a pickax-like tool used for digging and chopping—the autopsy found that the younger Cäzilia likely remained alive and in shock for several hours after her attack. She had ripped her own hair out in clumps.

Inside the farmhouse, little Josef and the maid Maria Baumgartner had met a similar fate. Maria was killed by crosswise blows to the head in her chambers, and Josef by a heavy blow to the face in his cot in Viktoria’s room. Like the bodies in the barn, theirs were also covered: Maria’s with her sheets, and Josef’s with one of his mother’s dresses. The farm animals and a Pomeranian watchdog remained unharmed. Chillingly, they had even been taken care of and fed in the several days that passed between the murders and their terrible discovery.

Police initially suspected vagrants or other traveling men of ill-repute, but tossed out this theory after large sums of money were found within the house. Besides the bodies and the hay and bedsheets used to cover them, nothing had been disturbed—though the killer clearly remained at the farm for several days, feeding the animals, eating meals, and lighting fires in the hearth. When the police questioned the former maid about her belief that the property was haunted, she said she had come to that conclusion after constantly hearing sounds in the attic and experiencing an unsettling feeling of being watched.

Though Andreas did not believe her, he too had confided in neighbors about some strange happenings in the days before the murder: A newspaper he did not buy was found in his home, and a set of footsteps was discovered leading from the forest to the farmstead. The footsteps were set in pristine and unmarked snow, leading in only one direction. Nobody at Hinterkaifeck knew whom they belonged to.

To make matters even stranger, one of the family’s two keys disappeared shortly before the murder. Combined with the footsteps from the woods, sounds in the attic, and a smoking chimney in the days following the crime, these odd details paint a horrifying picture of a ruthless intruder who may have taken up residence in the house.

PRIVATE MYSTERIES

A black-and-white photo of the Hinterkaifeck farm a few days after the murders
The Hinterkaifeck farm a few days after the murders
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Suspicion eventually settled on several men connected to the family, in part because of some domestic turbulence at the farm.

Viktoria was a widow whose husband had died in WWI, and the parentage of her son Josef remains a mystery to this day. She had had a relationship with Lorenz Schlittenbauer—the man who had led the search party that discovered the bodies—and both had publicly referred to Josef as their child. They planned to get married—until Andreas interfered, and their relationship ended. Lorenz eventually married someone else; though he and his wife welcomed a baby, it tragically died a few weeks later.

Police zeroed in on Lorenz as a suspect. They theorized that—traumatized by the death of his baby and unwilling to pay child support for Josef—he had come to the farm (located only a few hundred yards from his own) and murdered Viktoria and her family. The theory was bolstered by the fact that those with him during the initial investigation had found his behavior suspicious; they said that he acted nonchalant, viewing and handling the bodies without signs of repulsion. He also knew his way around the farm.

The police questioned Lorenz extensively, but were unable to conclusively place him at the crime scene. His behavior could be explained by shock, they reasoned, and his knowledge of the farm by his relationship with Viktoria.

With Lorenz eliminated, police considered Viktoria’s husband, Karl Gabriel, a suspect, theorizing that he came back from the war and killed them. That theory didn't last long: They soon discovered that Karl had been reported slain in France almost a decade before, with many of his fellow soldiers attesting to seeing his body.

Another theory floated at the time was that Josef was actually the child of Viktoria and her own father, Andreas, and that one of them had killed the entire family before turning the mattock on themselves. Andreas's proclivities for incest and abuse were frequently discussed in the neighboring town; supposedly, Andreas had had other children with Cäzilia besides Viktoria, but she was the only one to survive his violent hands into adulthood. But none of the injuries to the bodies could be explained as self-inflicted, so it wasn't possible that the crimes were a murder-suicide perpetrated by Viktoria or Andreas.

The murderer had to be someone who didn't live at the farm. But who?

Only one thing could be stated with any degree of certainty: The crimes had been committed by someone who knew their way around a farm, as evidenced by the continued upkeep after the murders and by the expert wielding of the mattock. The brutality of the murders suggested that they had been committed by someone with a personal vendetta against one or several of the Grubers.

But police at the time failed to come up with answers and eventually closed the case—though it would not remain closed.

SILENT SKULLS

The Hinterkaifeck case has been reopened several times in the last 95 years. Even clairvoyants have been given a chance at it—in his book Hinterkaifeck: Spuren eines mysteriösen Verbrechens, author Peter Leuschner details how the bodies of the Gruber family and the maid were beheaded not long after the original autopsies and the skulls sent on to Munich, where they were examined for metaphysical clues. Sadly, the skulls did not speak.

In 1923, the farm was demolished, and the family lays buried—without their heads—in a plot in Waidhofen; the skulls were lost during WWII and never returned. Initial evidence gathered at the crime scene is either also lost or too ancient to give up any secrets, though in 2007 the Fürstenfeldbruck Police Academy took the Hinterkaifeck Murders on as a cold case. Because of the relatively basic forensic techniques employed during the original investigation, as well as missing evidence and the later deaths of some suspects, they were unable to conclusively identify the murderer—though they did all agree on a theory.

Out of respect for surviving family members of people related to the crime, however, that theory remains a secret. At this point, it seems unlikely the public will ever know who committed the murders, or why. Whatever secrets the Gruber family kept in life and death, they now slumber alongside them in the grave.

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A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
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The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

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A shrine to the victims of the Hinterkaifeck murders
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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