On a sunny Tuesday, June 16th, 1959, 24-year Klara Frieda Tesmer’s life ended in the green meadows of the Rhine, in the small city of Duisburg, Germany. Her cold, naked body was found the next day by five boys on their bicycles for a day out.
The police investigation would ultimately arrest a nervous mechanic named Heinrich Ott, who would promptly hang himself in his jail cell.
It would be another 17 years before his innocence was realized, after police captured the man responsible for at least 14 other rapes and gruesome murders, with some bodies indicating the work of a hungry and proficient cannibal. His victims would mostly be young girls and women, with only one man killed incidentally.
This would not be the only example in this tale of wrongful convictions leading to fatal outcomes.
A cannibal is born
Joachim Kroll was born in 1933 to a lower-middle class family in the city of Zabrze, in what was then Germany, and is now modern-day Poland. Kroll was the last of eight children and was considered a weakling who often wet the bed. Psychiatrists would later confirm his IQ to be 76, which is hardly surprising considering that he dropped out of school in the third grade. The son of a miner, his family moved to the West German state of North Rhine-Westphalia after World War Two. His father would later be taken prisoner by the Russians when Kroll was only 14 years old, in 1947, never to be seen again. Growing up in the abject poverty that was pervasive in Germany after the war likely left a dark spot on the already disadvantaged Kroll, who felt inadequate sexually and unable to have meaningful relationships with women, which psychiatrists would later attribute as one of the motivations behind his crimes.
Psychologists also consider certain life events as stressors, or triggers, that when added to an already stressed and vulnerable person, can lead to the manifestation of a mental disorder in this individual. For Kroll, this occurred in 1955 when he was only 22 years old and his mother died suddenly. Her death was one of the final stressors in an already alienated and difficult life. Of course, instead of a mental disorder, Kroll manifested rape, murder, and cannibalism.
It was only three weeks after her passing that Kroll killed his first ever victim, in February 1955. Only 19 years old at the time, Inngard Strehl had a decidedly bright future ahead of her. It would be brutally cut short when Kroll raped and killed her in an old, run-down barn near the village of Walstedde. A year later he is emboldened again, raping and killing Erika Schulter, who was 12 years old. The next year, he decides to move to the city of Duisburg, working as a bathroom attendant, where his murders take on a more monstrous tone.
An introduction to human flesh
Reports differ on how exactly he began eating the flesh of his victims. The general consensus seems to be that Kroll turned to cannibalism on a whim, an impulse to taste human meat. He apparently enjoyed this nascent experience so much that he would later choose victims that looked “tender”. His preferred cuts came from the buttocks, thighs and belly, with one report described the cuts as “steak size”.
Death in Duisburg
It would take Kroll two years to adjust to his new life in the industrial city of Duisburg, after which he would resume killing with a slow, burning desire that would continue for over 20 years. He is nomadic with his crimes, stalking the Ruhr area on public trains and buses indistinguishable from the crowd, or crawling the streets on his moped.
He was a disorganized killer who depended mainly on circumstances to choose his victims, fueled by an unstoppable, blind urge for sex and domination. His choice of victims reflect this. His victims were usually stabbed or strangled to death. Some were drowned, like 5-year-old Ilona Harke, who Kroll murdered on a cold night in 22 December 1966.
Harke’s murder was unusual, even for this killer’s impulsive mind. She was taken by train from Essen to Wuppertal, then went on a city bus, and finally through a patch of dark woods to the small, frigid Feldbach river. They trekked through the thick, cold mud in the dark. The grass that engulfed Kroll and the girl as they walked through the woods was not particularly high at the time, but the night was quiet. Kroll was able to take his time with her, raping, drowning, and fileting her body, removing parts of her buttocks and shoulder for him to cook and eat later. He would come to tell investigators that he ate his victims to reduce his grocery bill, an earnest admission that reveals the simplicity of his mind, no doubt as a result of his low IQ.
Police would later discover in his apartment a rubber sex doll, which he happily admitted to strangling as he masturbated.
Despite the gruesome nature of the murders and the generally young age of his chosen victims, Kroll still managed to escape police attention for two decades. The seemingly different methods to the murders, as well as other killers supposedly active in the area meant that he would stay under the radar. It also meant that victims went unavenged, and several falsely accused men paid a dear price for a crime they didn’t commit.
The damage done
The poor mechanic who was wrongfully arrested for one of Kroll’s crimes was not the only one who met an unjust fate.
In April 1962, Petra Giese, 13, was raped and murdered, with the flesh from both her buttocks removed, along with her left forearm and hand. A steelworker is arrested for her murder, but later released after police admitted that they have no evidence against him at all. His life is ruined. The man’s neighbors are sternly convinced that he was the killer, his wife divorces him. He later kills himself.
On a hot summer night in June 1962, 12-year-old Monika Tafel was killed in the Walsum district of the harsh city, slices of flesh carefully carved from her small body. A 32-year-old known pedophile named Walter Quicker is arrested for her murder. He is released but is later driven by his neighbors to hang himself in the dark forest outside of town.
Four years later in September 1966, Ursula Rohling was strangled in a park near Marl, 25 kilometers from the city. Her boyfriend at the time, Adolf Schickel is accused of the crime. Unable to bear the grief and guilt for his girlfriend’s violent death, he too commits suicide, drowning himself in the meandering 525-kilometer Main river in Wiesbaden, the longest river that lies entirely in Germany.
Another four years and five murders later, Kroll kills Jutta Rahn, 13, as she walks home from school. She decides to take a shortcut on her way home from the train station and he finds her there by chance. He rapes and strangles her to death. Her boyfriend, Peter Schay, is arrested for the murder and spends 15 months in prison. Once he is released, he flees to Belgium to start a new life but he is unlikely to have forgotten the ordeal for the rest of his days.
A simpleton by all accounts, Kroll’s capture was only a matter of time, although no one would have thought that this would mean two decades.
Kroll’s last victim was four-year-old Marion Ketter. She lived in his neighborhood and knew him affectionately as “Uncle Kroll”. This was how he was able to lure the little girl into his apartment on the promise of chocolate. She screamed as he tried to rape her, so he strangled her and raped her anyway. He then dismembered Ketter, leaving some of her flesh in the fridge, and flushing her lungs and other organs down the toilet. After her disappearance was noted, police set up a massive investigation and immediately started scouring the area.
Kroll meanwhile placed her dismembered hand in a saucepan to cook, as well as other parts of her in a boiling pot of water with potatoes and carrots.
While interviewing people in the area, one of Kroll’s neighbors relayed a peculiar statement that the cannibal had made to him a few hours ago. Kroll dutifully informed his neighbor that the building’s pipes were blocked. When the neighbor asked Kroll what blocked them, he simply replied, “Guts.”
Police rushed to his house to find the gruesome cuisine on the stove, and blood everywhere. In the putrid freezer they find more human flesh. He is arrested and confesses to the crime as well as at least 14 others. Kroll admitted that he had raped and killed for so long that there were probably many more victims that he had lost to forgetfulness.
People are outraged. How could the police have been oblivious to this prolific killer operating in the same geographic area for 20 years? Are there others?
A simple operation
Kroll’s trial started in 1979 and extended until 1982. Yet the police and court records remain sealed to this day, so little is known of what went on in that courtroom. Kroll is ultimately found guilty and given the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The confused killer conveys to investigators that he believed he would be given a “simple operation” to “fix” him, after which he would be promptly released.
He dies a few years later in Rheinbach prison from a heart attack in 1991. But this is not the end of his bizarre tale.
In 1996, a group of art students in Belgium run an exchange program with a German institute. The artists chose Kroll as their subject matter, and visited the crime scenes, taking samples of grass and other mementos to create a diorama with. They also took nude photographs of themselves in the crime scenes, posing as the victims. A suitably strange and morbid ending to a seriously troubled tale.