I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
We often hear about an inmate who is exonerated when DNA evidence proves he couldn’t be the perpetrator. But sometimes, DNA allows guilty people to go free. This is the case in a burglary at a high-end store in Germany.
Berlin’s Kaufhaus des Westens, known to everyone as KaDeWe is a vast department store. It opened for business in 1907 and quickly became a symbol of the luxurious lifestyle of Berlin’s upper class.
On November 1943, an Allied bomber crashed into the building and set it on fire. The ruined structure was used by the German Army as a defensive strongpoint during the 1945 Battle of Berlin. After the war it was rebuilt and it reopened in 1956.
KaDeWe’s stock in trade is everything―apparel, electronics, furniture, food―and it attracts up to 50,000 shoppers a day. But, what attracted visitors one night in January 2009 was the jewellery department.
Early Morning Heist at KaDeWe
As the city slept, three masked men climbed onto the awning of the department store. They pried open a window, and dropped a rope ladder to the floor of the grand main hall.
In the jewellery department they carried out the traditional smash-and-grab raid, breaking open display cases and making off with their plunder of jewellery and watches.
The value of their haul was an estimated $6.8 million.
They got out way they had come in, leaving behind the rope ladder and a single latex glove.
A Sensational Crime
The KaDeWe store is an icon in Berlin. That audacious crooks could break in, steal millions of dollars worth of jewellery, and get away was an affront to the city’s dignity.
The New York Times reported “The robbery was unprecedented in its scale and daring, according to a spokesperson for the store. ‘There’s no comparable crime in the store’s history,’ said Petra Fladenhofer.”
Police were under great pressure to solve the crime.
The Vital Clue―Sort of
The latex glove the thieves left behind came in for close scrutiny. There were traces of sweat inside; enough to get a DNA signature. A match turned up in the police DNA database to a man with a criminal record.
But, hang on a minute, there’s another match. How can that be? The odds of two people having the same DNA are calculated in the many trillions against, unless ...
A couple of weeks after the robbery, police arrested the identical twin brothers Abbas and Hassan O. (German police do not identify suspects by their family name). The two had gone to Germany as children from Lebanon and had unsuccessfully tried to gain citizenship. The fact that they were both crooks didn’t help their application.
A Problem of Identity
There’s one sure fire way to tell identical twins apart―they do not have identical fingerprints. But, no fingerprints were left at the scene. So, scratch that idea.
Although the thieves got in and out of the store without being detected at the time their activities were caught on camera. They wore masks so facial recognition was not possible. Two of the men resembled Abbas and Hassan in height and build, but “resemble” is not going to lead to a conviction.
The brothers both swore they had nothing to do with the crime but the DNA said one of them was involved. But, which one?
There is an expensive and time-consuming way to differentiate the DNA of identical twins, but, as Der Spiegel explains, “German law limits the amount of genetic analysis that can be carried out by investigators. For the ‘problem case from Berlin,’ as forensic doctors have dubbed it, it isn't nearly enough, experts say.”
Prosecutors faced a dilemma. If they charged both brothers, one of them might be innocent. If they only charged one brother, a guilty man might go free. Here’s Der Spiegel again, “German law stipulates that each criminal must be individually proven guilty.”
Police and prosecutors had no alternative but to let the twins go. The third burglar has never shown up nor has any of the loot. If no further evidence is found that leads to a conviction it’s as if the burglary never happened.
In December 2014, KaDeWe was hit again in a less subtle robbery in which five men made off with jewellery as well Rolex and Chopard luxury watches in broad daylight. Berlin police released a video of the crime.
- Other identical twin sets have pulled off crimes and gotten away with them.
- George and Charles Finn had both served in the U.S. Air Corp during World War II. In 1952, they bought a C-46 twin-engine transport as the first plane in an airline they planned to start. However, the federal government challenged the legality of the purchase, so one of the brothers stole the aircraft and hid it in a Nevada desert airport. The plane and the twins were found by the FBI and brought to face a grand jury. But, the only witness to the theft could not say which brother had carried it out; the result was no indictment. The Los Angeles Times reports that “The disputed C-46 finally was sold at a sheriff’s auction in 1957 and, according to the twins, vanished somewhere in Africa.”
- In February 2011, eyewitnesses to a murder outside an Arizona nightclub said that Orlando Nembhard was the gunman. Or, it might have been his identical twin brother Brandon. Who can say? You can’t tell them apart. And, if you can’t tell them apart, you can’t tell which one was the killer. Police held Orlando for a while but had to let him go.
- “Twins Suspected in Spectacular Jewelry Heist Set Free.” Der Spiegel, March 19, 2009.
- “Twins Arrested in Berlin Jewellery Heist.” Nicholas Kulish, New York Times, February 20, 2009.
- “Perfect Genes for a Robbery.” Jörg Diehl, Der Spiegel, February 18, 2009.
- “Did These Twins Commit the Perfect Crime?” Chrystel Kucharz, ABC News, March 24, 2009.
- “Charles Finn, of ‘Flying Finn Twins,’ Dies at 72.” Jerry Belcher, Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1986.
- “Can Identical Twins Get Away With Murder?” Brian Palmer, Slate, August 23, 2012.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor