Most murder cases have a definitive conclusion. A body is found, an investigation takes place, and the culprit is eventually punished. Sometimes, one of these things remains absent. A suspect might be charged without a body, or indeed, the case may go cold, and no culprit is ever found. However, on rare occasions no body is ever found, nobody is caught, and somebody vanishes into thin air, likely murdered. For the families, not knowing what happened to their loved one will distress them for years and even decades, carrying out fruitless and heartbreaking searches for even the slightest trace for their son, daughter, siblings or parents.
However, as tragic as such scenarios are, even this pain cannot match the horror of missing children. And when those disappearances increase year on year, a serial killer stalking the land like a ghost, almost seemingly plucking children out of thin air, the tragedy multiplies tenfold. Such was the scenario faced by police in West Germany between 1960 and 1967 when three children simply vanished, never to be seen again, seemingly led away to their deaths. It is a case that remains unsolved to this day.
On Friday, November 25, 1960, Walter Broschat, 9, vanished in the West German town of Pirmasens. With a population of just over 50,000, the town sits close to the border with France and is noted for its famous shoe industry, its Christmas Markets and, in many respects being a typical German town. However, sleepy Pirmasens will forever be associated with Broschat’s disappearance, simply because it wouldn’t be the last. Four years later, on January 17, 1964, also a Friday, Klaus-Dieter Stark, 9, didn’t come home from school. Three years later, on September 8, 1967, Eveline Lübbert, 10, became the third child to disappear. It was another Friday. All three vanished near the busy Pirmasens Exhibition Centre, and police were unable to solve the case. The children simply disappeared without a trace and with barely a single piece of evidence.
In 1973, police in Pirmasens took a new look at the facts of the case and utilized newly developed techniques to analyze the evidence, creating an offender profile in the process. Under the new leadership of criminologist Ernst Fischer, thousands of men around the town were screened and eliminated from inquiries. The method, known as “check out,” had been successfully used by the West German security services in uncovering spies at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. The author Frederick Forsyth describes the procedure in his novel The Day of the Jackal.
The 15 strong team used a combination of confirmed crimes, assumed crimes, and criminal profile, identifying the perpetrator as an intelligent male between the ages of 15 and 45. They believed he had lived in the area at least since the 1960 disappearance of Walter Broschat and would blend in well with a crowd. He would be familiar with children and would likely be mentally unwell in some way. The suspect would be free on Friday afternoons and perhaps would have been seen talking with children around this time. While he might not necessarily have been convicted of sexual offences, he would have known the routine of all three children and been able to approach them as a friend. The likely killer held some sway over children and would show a strong charisma.
There were 24 characteristics in all on the profile, and police began the task of eliminating every name they possibly could. Fischer eliminated foreign nationals and servicemen first, liaising with the French and US military. The town played host to the US military base Husterhoeh Kaserne (Husterhoeh Barracks), with some suspecting an American serviceman may have been responsible. Next were guest workers and those travelling over the border to work. They checked death registers and hotel check-in forms. That done, the team concluded that they were looking for a local man who fit their age group, a list of 7,000 people. Using the characteristics they had developed, Fischer began to remove the names one by one.
Teachers and pastors came first, followed by others with easy access to children. Street by street, investigators went through the names, eventually taking the list down to around 70, eliminating them by confirming alibis. In the end, there were just two names that remained under suspicion, and one of them, a projectionist, had a solid alibi. Finally, there was just one, a man often referred to as the “Forest Man of Pirmasens.”
The Forest Man of Pirmasens
Günter Justus was an intriguing character. The son of a jeweller, he was an intelligent individual and had, for a while, studied philosophy and psychology in Freiburg. In 1954, he had begun treatment for schizophrenia, and after dropping out of his studies, he decided to break away from his parents. In 1963 he decided to live off the grid, living in caves and under a plastic sheet in the Palatinate Forest. Justus became a magnet for children in the area, helping them with their homework and teaching them to swim. He lived a hippie lifestyle while working casual jobs around Pirmasens, including work as a roofer and as a construction worker. He worked in a shoe factory, in a supermarket and at a farm. However, importantly, he didn’t work on a Friday. Sporting a long beard, his presence had disturbed some conservatives in the town, and there were numerous reports that he had been seen with all three missing children or was at least in the vague vicinity. Police believed he was a paedophile, despite not fitting the profile of a man who could have easily blended into a crowd and led children away from the town.
Investigators suspected that he had kidnapped all three missing children, dismembered the bodies and buried them in the forest where they would be unlikely to ever be found. During a six-hour interrogation, Justus began to contradict himself. The police took this as a sign of guilt, despite the suspect denying any involvement and the possibility that the lengthy questioning was harming his mental health. However, his statements made it clear that he had known all three victims, and a court in Zweibrücken ordered that he be detained in a mental health facility in October 1974, with prosecutors admitting that he was “always friendly,” and “a peacefully smiling person who was always shy and fearful”
During his incarceration at the facility, Fischer took Justus to the Palatinate Forest on several occasions to observe his reactions as investigators continued to hunt for the remains of the missing children, searching former World War Two bunkers, caves and potential burial spots. Justus said nothing else, and no trace of even a crime being committed was ever found.
The Pied Piper
In March of 1976, Justus was brought to trial for all three disappearances, charged with murder. There was circumstantial evidence presented. A boy said he had seen Justus carrying a sack near an ice pond that smelled, the suspect claiming it was a dead dog. A father said he observed the suspect staring into the pond for hours. Police observed his agitated state when presented with photos of the missing children. But it wasn’t enough, and without any real evidence, he was acquitted. Despite his previous status as an outsider, many in Pirmasens rallied around the suspect. The sympathy and solidarity would be noted in the press, with many feeling that Justus had been unfairly brought to trial on little more than his appearance and mannerisms, viewing him as childlike and incapable of murder.
Indeed, the reception that Günter Justus began to receive in Pirmasens was quite astonishing, with Fischer stating in court that he “walked through the city like a saint” and Prosecutor Norbert Dexheimer commenting on “an uncanny aura, an astonishing aura.” Others spoke of his mythic like quality, falling in love with the idea of the man who went back to nature and lived off berries.
However, this wouldn’t be the end of the matter for the “Forest Man of Pirmasens”, and later that year, he was back in court again for a security proceeding, that being a hearing to decide whether he should be recommitted to an asylum. At the hearing, Medical Councilor Hans Ulrich Gläsel would say that the suspect was sexually disturbed and a paedophile, desiring an “erotic relationship with children.” Gläsel would add, however, that despite his paedophilia, Justus had never acted on his impulses. Faced again with no actual evidence that Justus was involved and deciding he wasn’t a threat to society, he was freed.
There are two Günter Justus’. To some, he is a paedophile who conned an entire town into admiring him, a Pied Piper like character who led away three innocent children and then walked away from justice. To others, he is an innocent and simple man who simply wished to get away from society, his lifestyle and kindness drawing the ire of the authorities and conservatives in Pirmasens. Still alive today at an assisted living facility, the truth of Günter Justus is where the entire case rests. Police believed they had the right man, the public disagreed, and unless there is a miraculous break in the case after so long, who was truly responsible for the disappearances will forever remain unsolved, leaving three families still wondering just what happened to their children so long ago.
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