URSULA HERMANN was just 10 years old when she was kidnapped in September 1981, stuffed in a wooden box and buried alive in a Bavarian forest.
Almost 30 years after she suffocated to death, a 59-year-old former neighbour was found guilty of her murder yesterday and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“We simply cannot imagine the mortal fear this child felt in her last moments,” said trial Judge Wolfgang Rothermel, delivering his verdict after a mammoth 13-month trial in the Bavarian city of Augsburg.
The accused, a bulky bearded man identified only as Werner M, was found guilty of kidnapping the girl and burying her alive in the hope of extorting DM2 million from her parents. The ransom demands, made in night-time calls to her parents, ended in tragedy for the Hermann family.
After 19 days, police found where Ursula had been buried in the woods near Bavaria’s Ammersee Lake.
Four days after her body was found, an anonymous caller to the local police told them to “make sure to take care of Werner”.
Then 31, Werner M was a local mechanic who lived down the road from the Hermann family. He was questioned by police after the anonymous phone call and, after initially claiming to have no alibi, said he spent the evening Ursula vanished with friends.
Police built up a file on Werner. He had considerable debts at the time and a witness was on record as claiming Werner said he would “have to pull off a coup to bring in a few million”. His ex-wife had been a cleaner in the Hermann household.
The mechanic was arrested in late January 1982 and his workshop searched, but police found no trace of any tools required to build and bury the box. The case was closed, unsolved, in 1991, with the statute of limitations set to expire next year.
In 2007, a new investigator, Brigitta Baur, was handed the case. She reviewed all documents, conducted inconclusive DNA tests on remaining evidence and had Werner H followed.
The breakthrough came when another house search turned up an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. A police sound engineer studied the machine, then listened to recordings of phone calls made to the Hermann parents by Ursula’s kidnapper, during which he tormented the family by playing repeatedly a recording of a local radio station signature melody.
The police technicians said that minute audio comparison of the tape recorder heads with recordings of the ransom calls showed conclusively that the machine had been used to play back the melody in the recordings.
Werner claimed to have bought the machine recently at a flea market, but the court dismissed his claims and returned a guilty verdict.
The Hermann family’s 30-year ordeal ended. But they said they were disappointed the case had been solved using circumstantial evidence.
Family lawyer Marion Zech said: “Right to the end, one always hopes for one, unmistakeable clue.”