Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery

As President of the Austrian Society of Forensic Medicine, Dr. Walter Rabl is considered the foremost forensic doctor in Austria.  In recent years, he has been commissioned to serve as the final scientific arbiter in complex and controversial cases, including those of Denisa Soltisova and Joerg Haider.  When someone dies in Austria under suspicious circumstances and the cause and manner of his death become a matter of debate, Dr. Rabl may very well have the last word. 

As I recount in Cold a Long Time, Dr. Rabl played a key role in concealing the cause and manner of Duncan MacPherson's death. After I published the paperback edition in January 2012, I learned about other unnatural deaths in Austria that were handled by Dr. Rabl and the Austrian criminal justice system in a highly questionable manner. As the families of the deceased have suffered a fate similar to the MacPherson family, I believe it is appropriate to tell their stories on this website. 

The Angelika Foeger Case

Thirty-two-year-old Angelika Foeger--wife of Walter Foeger and mother of two children--worked part time as an accountant at a cheese factory in the Tyrolean town of Graen. On June 9, 1990, she was assaulted and murdered--stabbed four times and strangled--at her place of work. Shortly after the police arrived, a young apprentice named Martin Kofler, who was heavily intoxicated, confessed to the crime. His motive, he explained, was sexual. He'd wanted to rape Angelika.

With this confession, the case seemed, at first glance, to be clear and simple. There was, however, a significant piece of physical evidence found at the crime scene that has haunted Angelika's widower ever since. Defensive stab wounds on Angelika's hands and right wrist indicated that she had fought her assailant. The injury pattern on her throat and congestive hemorrhaging around her eyes indicated that she had also been manually strangled with considerable force. In her bloody right hand were found approximately 20 light blond hairs, and it was obvious that she had ripped them out her assailant's head during the struggle.

Dr. Rabl examined the crime scene a few hours after Angelika was murdered, and in his initial report he wrote: "In the [victim's] right hand were found twenty light-colored hairs that obviously do not match the woman's hair color. The hairs are secured as evidence." This statement echoed the assertion of crime scene investigator Markus Hammerl, who wrote in his report: "In the victim's right hand were found blond hairs that are apparently not from the victim." The following morning, Dr. Rabl performed an autopsy and made the following notes pertaining to the hair evidence:

1. The [victim's] head hair is dark brown, the hair in upper region of the skull is circa 7-8 centimenters long; on the back of the head the hair is over 20 centimeters long. In so far as it is possible to judge from exterior inspection, the hair-bearing skin appears uninjured.

2. Head hairs are taken from the victim for forensic comparative analysis.

From Dr. Rabl's statements pertaining to the hair in his crime scene and autopsy reports, it is clear that the next step in the investigation was to compare the "20 lighter hairs" found in Angelika's right hand to head hairs from the prime suspect--i.e., Martin Kofler, the young apprentice who confessed to the crime.

Kofler was a young and naive country boy, and at the time he gave his confession (with no witnesses or a lawyer present), he had a BAC of .19 The law officer who persuaded him to confess was the local Gendarmerie Kommandant--a man named Franz Wolf, who was well-known to be a good friend of the owner of the cheese factory in which the crime had taken place.

The light-colored head hairs found in Angelika's right hand presented the most valuable, objective means of confirming Martin's confession. It is therefore most peculiar that--in his concluding forensic evaluation of the crime, dated September 24, 1990--Dr. Rabl mentioned nothing about comparing the hairs found in Angelika's right hand with Martin Kofler's hair. Reference to a "comparative forensic analysis" of this primary trace evidence is also conspicuously missing from the Innsbruck Public Prosecutor's indictment of Martin Kofler, dated November 30, 1990.

A proper telling of all the bizarre twists and turns in the Angelika Foeger story would require an entire book. Walter Foeger's cousin--a retired Tyrolean gendarm named Wolfram Foeger--has written a first draft. An experienced criminal investigator, Wolfram was initially skeptical of Walter's perception that the Innsbruck authorities were not handling the case properly. However, at the moment he realized that the hairs found in Angelika's right hand did NOT match Martin Kofler's head hair, he became convinced that something was indeed badly amiss.

The Foeger family and Martin Kofler's defense attorney demanded that a proper comparitive analysis of Martin Kofler's hair, Angelika's hair, and the hairs found in Angelika's right hand be performed. At this point, the Innsbruck Court asked the Foeger family for a sample of Angelika's head hair. The Court did not mention that Dr. Rabl had already taken a sample of her hair for "forensic comparitive analysis."

About a year before Angelika was murdered, she'd changed her hair style from long to short, and Walter Foeger still had a large, braided lock that he had kept as a momento. This was turned over to the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Shortly thereafter Dr. Rabl presented his findings: The hairs found in Angelika right hand did NOT match Martin Kofler's hair. However, based on his analysis of the lock of Angelika's hair provided by the family, Dr. Rabl concluded that the victim had "light to white-colored" hair in the region of her temples. According to Walter Foeger, this is a bold-faced lie. The crime scene photos, as well as the autopsy photos that Dr. Rabl himself took (at the same time he took a sample of Angelika's hair) support Walter Foeger's contention.

The above image was taken of Angelika at the crime scene, a few hours after her death. It is just one of many images that support Dr. Rabl's initial statement that the victim's hair color is "dark brown." Moreover, if Angelika had "light to grey" hair around her temples, why didn't Dr. Rabl note this during his autopsy, when he carefully examined her scalp for injuries, noted her hair color as "dark brown," and took a sample of her hair for "forensic comparative analysis"?

In spite of the highly questionable manner in which the key hair evidence was handled, Martin Kofler was convicted of the murder in 1991.

About a year after the trial, Walter Foeger complained to Dr. Rainer Henn--then director of the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine--about Dr. Rabl's hair evaluation, and Dr. Henn agreed to conduct his own evaluation. Shortly after he completed it, he informed the Foeger family that he would apply to the Innsbruck Court to reopen the investigation after he returned from a trip to the Austrian state of Carinthia, where he was scheduled to give a lecture about Oetzi the Iceman. As fate would have it, Dr. Henn never filed the application because he was killed in a car accident on his way back to Innsbruck from the lecture.

After Dr. Henn's death, Mr. Foeger and his sister made an appointment with Dr. Rabl to discuss Dr. Henn's evaluation of the hair. Upon their arrival at the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Dr. Rabl told them that he couldn't find Dr. Henn's report and that he knew nothing about it.

In 1993--two years after Martin Kofler's trial--DNA evidence was first accepted by Austrian criminal courts, and so both Walter Foeger and Martin Kofler's defense attorney petitioned the Innsbruck Court to reopen the investigation and to perform a DNA comparison of the hairs found in Angelika's right hand with a lock of her own hair. In flagrant violation of the Austrian Code of Criminal Procedure (StPO § 3. Objektivität und Wahrheitserforschung) the Innsbruck Court denied this request.

Walter Foeger and Matin's defense attorney then petitioned the Court to release the evidence to that another accredited institute could perform the analysis. The Innsbruck Court denied this request on the grounds of securing evidence.

On December 11, 2007, Walter Foeger visited Dr. Rabl at the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic and personally requested the hairs. Dr. Rabl replied that the hairs had been lost during a recent remodeling of the Institute. In a subsequent letter to the Innsbruck public prosecutor's office, the current Institute Director Richard Scheithauer stated that the hairs in question had indeed been lost. Only the empty nylon evidence bag could be found. So much for securing evidence.

Another disturbing aspect of the crime was a stab wound to the right side of Angelika’s chest. As Dr. Rabl noted in his autopsy report:

The stab penetrated further into the superior vena cava approximately 3 centimeters above the pericardium. The superior vena cava is pierced through. 

According to four forensic scientists with whom I have consulted, including two forensic doctors, Angelika could not have lived for more than five minutes with this injury. Given that she was still alive but rapidly dying when an emergency doctor arrived appoximately 8 to 10 minutes later, it is clear that someone inflicted this fatal wound after Martin Kofler ran to the neighbor’s house to call an ambulance. 

To further analyse the case, I showed the crime scene photos to the renowned Crime Scene Investigator, Kenton Wong.  From his evaluation of the photos, he came to the same conclusion as Wolfram Foeger--i.e., that many aspects of the crime scene, as well as Angelika Foeger's injuries, do not match the official version of the crime (based on Martin Kofler's confession). He also observed that the crime scene in Martin's bedroom appears to have been staged. A striking indication of this is the shirt that Martin purportedly wore while he attacked Angelika and that was purportedly found by crime scene investigators on the floor of his room. He was not wearing it when he ran to the neighbor's house to call the ambulance.

Review of the photograph of Mr. Kofler's shirt (which was purportedly recovered on the floor of his bedroom and which he purportedly wore during his attack on Mrs. Foeger) revealed that the blood stain patterns observed on the shirt were not consistent with those typically associated with active blood spatter deposition while being worn by an assailant in cases involving multiple stab wounds.  Rather, examination of the blood stain located at the area of the front upper right chest region of the shirt suggests that it was not worn and instead had been held/bunched together from the back of the garment (with the front area of the shirt facing outward) while it was subsequently utilized to wipe a bloody area in some fashion, which resulted in the contact transfer pattern exhibited on the shirt (see photo below). [Lab Report by Kenton S. Wong, Senior Forensic Scientist, Forensic Analytical Sciences, Inc, Hayward, California, 06.11.2012].

Other men were possibly present at the cheese factory on the day Angelika was murdered, including the owner's son--a young man the same age as Martin Kofler. Wolfram Foeger believes that a proper investigation would have included comparing the hairs found in Angelika's right hand with head hairs from the owner's son. However, given that the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine "lost" the hairs found in Angelika's right hand--just as it burned Raven Vollrath's t-shirt and neglected to analyze Duncan MacPherson's shredded limbs, clothing, and snowboard--the possibility of easily confirming or ruling out this hypothesis has been eliminated.

The Foeger case is yet another example of the psychological devastation that is wrought when the unnatural and violent death of a family member is not properly investigated. For 22 years, Walter Foeger has been tormented by the suspicion that another man committed or at least participated in the brutal assault and murder of his beloved wife, and that this man has been allowed to go entirely unpunished. A simple DNA test would have either indicated an accomplice or put Walter Foeger's suspicion to rest. Nevertheless, the Innsbruck Court refused to order this procedure and refused to hand over the evidence to the victim's next of kin. To add insult to injury, Dr. Rabl or one of his colleagues at the Institute of Forensic Medicine then "lost" this key evidence in a case of murder--a crime that has no statute of limitations.


The Raven Vollrath Case

Around the time that I started researching the Duncan MacPherson story, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) reporter Zoran Dobric won the prestigious Robert Hochner journalism prize "for exposing the grave errors of the Tyrolean police and public prosecutor in their investigation of the death of the seasonal worker Raven Vollrath.” In its award citation, the jury of the Austrian Journalists Union mentioned nothing about the grave errors of Tyrolean forensic medicine, even though Dr. Rabl failed to note and report obvious signs that Raven had been murdered.

The Vollrath case caught my eye because, as I recount in Cold a Long Time, it bears a number of eerie similarities to the Duncan MacPherson case. In December 2005, Raven Vollrath, drove to Tyrol to look for work over the holidays and found a job at the Rohnenlifte ski area near the town of Zoeblen. On December 22, he called his parents to tell them about his fun day of snowboarding, and then never called again. They didn’t know where exactly he was staying, and they couldn’t reach him on his cell phone. With no help from the German or Austrian police, they drove to the ski resort to look for him. In the parking lot of a chair-lift station, they found his Opel Corsa. At an apartment adjoining the lift station, they found his friend and traveling companion, who claimed he’d not seen Raven since the early morning of Christmas Eve, when he’d driven off with a girl named Helena. And yet, Raven’s unlocked car contained all of his IDs and ATM card, as well as all of his clothing. His parents knew there was no way he’d abandon everything, run off with a girl, and never check in. Something had happened to him.

To his parents’ dismay, the local police conducted the bare minimum of an investigation. Raven's roommates were not carefully questioned and nor was the apartment in which he was staying examined for trace evidence.  Six months later, on June 10, 2006, his decomposed body, clothed only in underwear, a t-shirt, and socks, was found lying on a mattress in a dry creek bed, 2.5 kilometers from the chair-lift station. Again, the discovery scene was not properly examined for trace evidence or photographed.  The police concluded that in the early morning of December 24, 2005, Raven left the warm apartment wearing only underwear, a t-shirt, and socks (even though it was minus 11 degrees Celsius that night) and carrying a mattress.  He then dragged the mattress 2.5 kilometers down the street to a small bridge crossing the creek, clambered down a steep embankment to the frozen water’s edge, went to sleep, and froze to death.

It was a ridiculous hypothesis, especially given that the district medical officer who’d attended the discovery scene considered it highly probable that Raven had not died at the site at which his body was found. Naturally his parents didn’t believe the police hypothesis, but in spite of their desperate plea for a proper investigation, the Innsbruck public prosecutor closed the case after the forensic doctor, Walter Rabl, found no clear sign of foul play on Raven’s decomposed body. 

After Raven's case was closed, Mr. and Mrs. Vollrath persevered with their own investigation and enlisted the help of Zoran Dobric, who produced an award-winning documentary about their search for the ORF show Thema. Watching it, I was amazed at how strongly they resembled Lynda and Bob MacPherson—not in appearance, but in the story they told about their ongoing attempt to find out what had happened to their son. Much of what they said in the documentary was identical to what Lynda and Bob often said. Particularly moving was the scene of Mrs. Vollrath standing in the creek bed where Raven's body had been found, expressing incomprehension and rage at the Innsbruck authorities.

The police aren’t helping us anymore.  The case is closed.  I want the case reopened and further investigated.  Every mother and every father wants to know how their child died.  It is the worst thing that can happen in life—the greatest pain.

After the documentary was broadcast, the case was reopened and in February of 2008, German investigators uncovered evidence that Raven had in fact been murdered by his travelling companion, who had, in the meantime, moved back to Germany. With a trial date set for September 2008, the Vollraths returned to Innsbruck in search of additional evidence. They began by asking Prosecutor Rudolf Koll for copies of the autopsy photos, but he would only give them low resolution photocopies of the images. They then visited Dr. Rabl, who said that he couldn’t give them the autopsy photos without the public prosecutor’s permission. However, through the persistence of their lawyer, they ultimately received the images and saw that one of them was of Raven’s t-shirt, laid out on the dissection table. Clearly visible on the shirt’s chest area were two perforations that had obviously been made by an instrument such as a knife.

The red arrows on the above photo of Raven's t-shirt (taken on June 12, 2006) indicate punctures made by a sharp instrument. Note that the punctures are identical in size and shape, and were clearly caused by the action of a tool, and not by a natural cause such as a scavenging animal bite. Upon viewing the autopsy photos, the renowned German forensic biologist Mark Benecke advised the Vollraths to exhume Raven’s body. A forensic doctor in Jena, Germany then performed a second examination (in November 2008) and, with a naked eye, noticed a mark on one of Raven’s ribs consistent with a sharp instrument such as a knife. Further examination revealed similar cuts on another rib and the breastbone.

Dr. Rabl claimed that he simply hadn’t noticed the puncture marks on Raven’s t-shirt or the stab wounds on his ribs, but the Vollraths found this incredible. After all, Rabl had taken the photo of the t-shirt in which the puncture marks were clearly visible. Equally strange was the fact that his institute had then burned the t-shirt. The way Dr. Rabl handled this crucial piece of evidence was strikingly similar to the way he'd handled the piece of cable wrapped around Duncan MacPherson's left leg

Like all learned professionals, medical doctors have tremendous prestige in Austria, and the typical Austrian is not inclined to question their authority. However, it seems to me that anyone with decent vision and basic common sense would have noticed the above punctures and understood that they warranted grave suspicion that Raven Vollrath had been stabbed.
Like the MacPherson family, the Foeger and Vollrath families feel they have been abused and deceived, but so far their efforts to obtain the full truth and redress have been dismissed. In November 2011, the Vollraths filed a lawsuit against Dr. Rabl for damages they incurred as a result of his erroneous forensic medical evaluation. In May 2012, the Innsbruck Court ruled that Dr. Rabl is not liable for his erroneous evaluation. In October 2012 the Austrian Supreme Court confirmed this ruling.
In February 2012, Walter Foeger filed a criminal complaint against Dr. Rabl for falsifying a forensic medical evaluation and for suppression of evidence. His complaint was forwarded to Public Prosecutor Wolfgang Tursky in the city of Wels for review. On June 29, 2012, Mag. Tursky dismissed the complaint on the grounds that Dr. Rabl’s alleged offenses were time-barred from prosecution. 
The Susi Greiner Case
In August of 2006—shortly after Raven Vollrath’s body was found—a beautiful twenty-eight-year-old German waitress named Susi Greiner disappeared in Tyrol. Two weeks later, her body was found on a mountainside (the Karwendel), completely naked and barefoot, 1,000 vertical meters above the lot where her car was parked.  Her clothing, hiking boots, and backpack containing her laptop and cell phone were later found at different locations in the valley.  All data—all records of communication before her death—had been deleted from her laptop and phone. Moreover, she was last seen alive with an unidentified man in the passenger seat of her car. 

In spite of these suspicious circumstances, Dr. Rabl found no signs of foul play on her body and concluded that she had died of hypothermia.  According to an ORF report, “the only injury on her body was a laceration on her head that may have resulted from falling and sliding several meters.” From Dr. Rabl’s findings, the police theorized that Susi must have hiked naked and barefoot (in an area popular with tourists) to the high elevation and died of exposure. 

Susi's mother asked Rabl about the condition of her daughter’s feet, and he replied that they bore no conspicuous marks, only a bit of grass between her toes. How, Susi’s mother wanted to know, had her daughter hiked barefoot for several hours over rocky terrain without cutting and abrading the soles of her feet? Mrs. Greiner might have also asked Rabl how he had determined that the laceration on Susi’s head was the result of an accidental fall, and not from an assailant’s blow with a rock or blunt instrument, or from someone pushing her? How had investigators determined that Susi has not been forced to undress near the mountain top? 

Zoran Dobric also produced an ORF Thema documentary on the Susi Greiner case, which, coming on the heels of the Raven Vollrath case, seemed to confirm that something was badly amiss in the Innsbruck criminal justice system.  But while Dobric received the prestigious Robert Hochner Prize (presented to him by Austrian President Heinz Fischer) for exposing the "grave errors" of Innsbruck officials, none of these officials were disciplined. Dr. Rabl's authority and prestige were in no way diminished by Dobric's reporting. On the contrary, he was asked to evaluate the high-profile and controversial Haider and Soltisova cases after the Thema reports were aired. To appreciate the strangeness of this, just imagine what would happen to your career if a star journalist was presented with the highest honor from your nation's president for exposing your grave professional errors.


The Luca Elias Case

In July of 2007, the then 14-month-old child, Luca Elias, was brought by his mother to a hospital near Vienna because he was apparently having difficulty breathing.  During the examination, hospital personnel discovered oval-shaped bruises on his left upper arm and massive bruises on his buttocks. Though Luca's mother was from Tyrol, she stated that she and the child were visiting her boyfriend, who lived just east of Vienna.    

Strongly suspecting child abuse, the hospital contacted child protective services, which requested that the mother return with Luca to Tirol and take him to hospital in Innsbruck for further evaluation. Doctors in Innsbruck also suspected child abuse, but found no life-threatening injuries. Luca was released back into the care of his mother on the condition that she remain in Tirol and present the child twice a week to a family counseling association. She also signed an agreement that she would not visit her boyfriend with the child. 

On October 1, 2007, child protective services received a report that she had broken the agreement and visited her boyfriend near Vienna with the child. 

On October 3, 2007, the mother took Luca to a pediatric hospital in Innsbruck. His left forearm was fractured and he had bruises on the right side of his head.  His mother claimed he had injured his arm as a result of falling out of bed and onto a toy, but the hospital director suspected child abuse. 

To clarify the matter, child protective service contracted Dr. Walter Rabl to examine Luca’s injuries. Dr. Rabl claimed that the injuries could indeed be explained by a fall out of bed, and so the child was again released into the custody of his mother.

Less than one month later, on the night of November 11, 2007, Luca died in a hospital near Vienna from injuries inflicted by his mother’s boyfriend. The 17-month-old baby had been raped and severely beaten.  X-rays revealed another broken arm that had probably been inflicted during the period between mid-July and the beginning of August, as well as a broken rib that had probably been inflicted a week before Luca's death.

Three weeks after Luca’s death, the ORF (Austrian National Broadcasting Corporation) received (from an anonymous source) photos of the child that had been taken at the hospital near Vienna in July 2007. The resulting news broadcast, which showed the photos (see video below) shocked the entire country.

In addition to the severe bruising on Luca’s buttocks, the photos also reveal oval-shaped bruises on his left upper arm—a typical sign of child abuse, consistent with the child being grabbed by the upper arms and violently shaken, which was consistent with Luca's symptom of impaired breathing. In a baby's still-developing brain, the region that regulates breathing may be damaged by shaking. A baby's ribs may also be broken by powerful grasping and squeezing, and the resulting pain also produces difficulty in breathing. 

After the mother’s boyfriend was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, the mother and an Innsbruck social worker were tried for gross negligence. The social worker had made the decision to release the child into the mother’s custody following Dr. Rabl’s evaluation in October 2007. In her defense, the social worker claimed she had based her decision entirely on the professional judgment of the renowned forensic doctor.  Nevertheless, she was found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine—a disgraceful end of a twenty-year career in social work. No disciplinary action was taken against Dr. Rabl.

Why did Dr. Rabl draw the conclusion that the mother’s story (“fell out of bed onto a toy”) was a plausible explanation for Luca’s broken forearm?  A Google search with the words “injuries children falling out of bed” yielded the following article from the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics.

Note the chief conclusion of the study:

Our data indicate that severe head, neck, spine, and extremity injuries are extremely rare when children fall out of hospital beds. Child abuse should be suspected and ruled out when a child is seen with severe injury from a reported "fall at home."

A Google search with the German words Gewalt gegen Kinder erkennen ("violence against children recognize") yielded the following brochure published by the Association of German Police Officers:

Of special note is the section on “forearm fractures.”

Forearm fractures are common among abused children, as the the forearm is often used as a lever for shaking and throwing the child.  Bone fractures in children under three years old are highly suspicious and warrant further investigation. Radiological examinations are essential. 

A few months after Luca was murdered, another child was checked into an Innsbruck hospital with suspicous injuries. According to an ORF report:

One hopes that an investigation by the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine will clarify the matter. The forensic doctor, Walter Rabl, explains how one determines whether bruises resulted from playing or from child abuse.


The Denisa Soltisova Case

Denisa Soltisova was a Slovakian caretaker of a retired urologist in the Upper Austrian town of Voecklabruck.  She was last seen alive on the evening of 19.1.2008.  Ten days later, on 29.1.2008, her completely naked body was found in the Ager River, 13 kilometers downstream of Voecklabruck.  Five hours after her body was recovered, with no autopsy, Public Prosecutor (city of Wels) Wolfgang Tursky ruled her death a suicide and released her body for burial in Slovakia. 

Unsatisfied with the Austrian investigation (or lack thereof) Denisa’s parents petitioned the Slovakian authorities for an autopsy, which was performed by the forensic doctors Josef Krajcovic and Lubomir Straka. They found bruises on her forearms and inner thighs consistent with a powerful manual assault.  The bruises on her right inner were of a regular size and spacing—the same size and spacing as human fingers.  Moreover, Denisa’s blood contained medications (sulfinpyrazone and glibornuride) used to treat gout and diabetes, even though she suffered from neither illness.  Taken together, these two medications cause a dramatic hypoglycemia.  The "caretaker" and serial killer Elfriede Blauensteiner had used the active ingredient in glibornuride (sulfonylurea) to poison her victims.

After Austro-Slovakian author Martin Leidenfrost published a report about the case in Die Presse, it was nominally reopened in Austria and a forensic pathologist from Linz named Johann Haberl was assigned to evaluate the findings of the Slovakian doctors.  From his analysis of the autopsy photos, Haberl concluded it was possible—though not certain— that the defects on Denisa’s arms and inner thighs were injuries from violence inflicted while she was still alive. Due to the body’s advanced state of decomposition, one could not, he claimed, be certain. 

On the other hand, the renowned Viennese pharmacologist Michael Freissmuth found it unlikely that Denisa had ingested the medications in order to commit suicide. In his evaluation, addressed to Public Prosecutor Wolfgang Tursky, he wrote:

The taking [of sulfinpyrazone and glibornuride] with the intention to commit suicide is not plausible. .... Suicide would be more plausible if the victim had swallowed a large volume of sulfonylurea in order to die quickly of hypoglycemia.  ....  It is also difficult to conceive of why Ms. Soltisova would first swallow sulfonylurea and then walk to the river to throw herself into it. The hypoglycemia would have hindered her: She would have been too weak and her awareness and motor skills would have been too impaired for her to have walked [at least 1.5 kilometers] to the river. Much more plausible and probable is the proposition that Ms. Soltisova was given sulfinpyrazone and glibornuride without her awareness. One can imagine a scenario in which she was given a combination of sulfinpyrazone and glibornuride in a small dose so that the resulting hypoglycemia would make it relatively easy to push her into the river. 

At this point (June 2010) three scientists had found grounds for urgently suspecting murder, while a fourth had found that murder couldn’t be ruled out.  However, instead of launching an intense murder investigation, Public Prosecutor Tursky commissioned Dr. Rabl to evaluate the Slovakian autopsy report. Eight months later, Dr. Rabl presented his conclusions. 

In his opinion, the defects on the forearms upper thighs were impossible to distinguish macroscopically from postmortem defects resulting from decomposition. Regarding the medications found in Denisa’s blood, Dr Rabl concluded:

Neither in the choice of samples nor in the procedural methods does the chemical-toxicological evaluation performed in Slovakia meet the lowest standard necessary for interpretation. 

After Dr. Rabl presented his findings, Public Prosecutor Wolfgang Tursky closed the case. His press release concluded with the following assertion:

In fact the initial assessment of the Wels Public Prosecutor's Office....was confirmed. 

As the above expression of vindication suggests, Public Prosecutor Tursky had a conflict of interest, for it was he who immediately closed the case on January 29, 2008 without ordering an autopsy. Without an autopsy, it was impossible to rule out foul play in the case of a dead young woman found completely naked in a river.  According to paragraph 128 of the Austrian Code of Criminal Procedure: “An autopsy is called for when it cannot be ruled out that the death of a person was caused by a punishable offense." Thus, the Slovakian autopsy report gravely called into question the professional judgment of Public Prosecutor Tursky. This raises the suspicion that he wanted the final scientific arbiter, Dr. Rabl, to find fault with the Slovakian findings. 

Seeking an additional opinion about the defects on Denisa’s forearms and inner thighs, I forwarded autopsy photos of them to Dr. Terri Haddix, a forensic pathologist at an independent forensic laboratory. I explained to Dr. Haddix that the body has been submerged in water (with a temperature of approximately 6 degrees Celsius) for up to ten days and had then been stored for a few more days in unspecified conditions before the photographs were taken. Upon reviewing the images, she stated:

The injury on the back of the right arm (which is shown incised in one of the latter photographs) is compelling for being a true contusion, not just an effect of decomposition. The marks on the right thigh look patterned (i.e. regularly spaced and similarly oriented), though that does not necessarily mean they are ante-mortem.  Based upon my experience in the United States, a naked woman found in a river is highly, highly suspicious, and if this were my case there would have to be extremely compelling evidence (even if no convincing ante-mortem injuries were found) to assign a manner of death other than undetermined (or possibly homicide), as opposed to another manner (i.e. suicide, accident).

Above: Injury on the back of Denisa's right arm, incised to show seeping of blood into surrounding tissue.

Above: Photo of Denisa's upper right thigh. Note the pattern of the defects.

Dr. Rabl’s criticism of the Slovakian toxicology findings is also highly questionable. The lab that performed that analysis identified the presence of the medications in Denisa’s blood with gas chromatography–mass spectrometry —a standard method of screening postmortem blood serum.   How exactly had Dr. Rabl determined that the Slovakian lab had obtained a false positive for both medications?  Public Prosecutor Tursky’s press release about the case closure does not explain this.

According to numerous witnesses, in the weeks before Denisa died, she presented symptoms of extreme fatigue and difficulty concentrating—classic symptoms of hypoglycemia, which is caused by the combination of medications that the Slovakian lab found in her blood.  Moreover, the last time she was seen alive, she was walking down the street near her home, barefoot, wearing only a t-shirt and panties, in a disoriented manner with an apathetic expression on her face—behavior consistent with hypoglycemia.

Altogether, the circumstances of Denisa’s death should have immediately prompted an autopsy and a rigorous investigation, focusing on the household in which she worked and lived. Martin Leidenfrost, who ended up writing a book about the story (Die Tote im Fluss) discovered indications that Denisa had developed a friendly relationship with the elderly urologist for whom she was caring. Once he joked to her that he was so fond of her that he would like to leave part of his estate to her.  As a result of this information, her parents' attorney petitioned that the doctor's last will and testament be examined.  However, this petition was rejected by the competent authorities. 

The Vollrath, Greiner, and Soltisova cases were all closed after Dr. Rabl concluded there were no clear signs of foul play on the victims’ bodies.  This shows the tremendous weight that public prosecutors assign to forensic medical findings, as distinct from other investigative methods. Thus, the forensic doctor holds a critically important position in our society, for it is he who has the training to examine the dead for signs of homicide.    

In 2007, Dr. Rabl gave an interview to Die Presse in which he warned about the danger a society faces when not enough autopsies are performed—a growing problem in Vienna, due to a recent legal reform.

"It's only a matter of time before unrecognized homicides happen,” he said. In a 2009 statement he emphasized that it was of fundamental importance for the justice system to contract individual persons [as distinct from academic institutions] for carrying out forensic medical evaluations. "Only individuals who are held personally liable for their evaluations should be contracted.  .... Without independent experts, the quality of forensic evaluations with be endangered."

This statement raises an important question: How exactly is the "independence and quality of forensic evaluations (a big business in Austria) controlled?  The Foeger and Vollrath families spent much time and effort in order to discover the low quality of Dr. Rabl’s evaluations. When they attempted to hold him liable, the justice system dismissed their complaints.   

Given Dr. Rabl’s record, it seems to me that he should not be regarded as the ultimate forensic authority in Austria and given the last word in a controversial case such as Denisa Soltisova’s.  As he was unable or unwilling to see the significance of Duncan MacPherson's chopped up limbs and shredded clothing, as well as the holes in Raven Vollrath’s shirt and the blade marks on his ribs (matters of simple observation) why should he be regarded as competent to criticize the “analytic methods” of the Slovakian pathologists Krajcovic and Straka? 

When Joerg Haider was killed in a car accident in 2008, the world was told that his ability to drive safely had been impaired by the large amount of alcohol (1.8 per mil) in his blood.  How do we know that he was impaired as a result of drinking a large quantity of alcohol, and not as a result of some other mind-altering substance that someone put into his drink without his awareness?  All we can do is trust that the forensic doctors who performed the toxicology exams were competent and impartial. The first exam was conducted by the Graz forensic doctors Kathrin Yen und Peter Grabuschnig.  In order to check their findings, the Klagenfurt public prosecutor commissioned Dr. Rabl to perform a second examination. Can we trust that he did it competently and impartially?

 Author's Note: This article is a supplement to Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, by John Leake. All rights reserved.