Who killed Helga Beer? Time is running out to find her murderer
Grass grows over flat gravestones, creeping in from all corners, enveloping letter after letter carved into stone until names and years and “in loving memories” are obscured. It’s a reality of the passage of time. Groundskeepers do their best to keep the stones bare, digging grass out by the root so the corners are sharp and traceable — at least for a little while. The dead are numerous.
In the sunny section of Mount Pleasant Cemetery in London, Ont., where Helga Beer is buried, grass that is green and brown in patches crowds her stone. Hers is a simple marker: In loving memory. Helga Beer-Erdt, 1936 – 1968. She’s been dead for longer than she lived.
But half a century after Helga’s premature death, the question goes unanswered: who killed her?
Helga was a 31-year-old divorcée with red hair styled in a pixie cut brushing her ears. She was, by police accounts, a gregarious woman. She’d come to London from Germany, settling in the forest city seven or so years before her death. Helga spent her days as a hairstylist at the Elizabeth Arden Beauty Salon in the Simpson’s Department Store downtown. She spent her nights with friends at restaurants and bars or friends’ apartments. She retreated to an apartment she shared with one of her brothers.
She was out with friends on Aug. 5, 1968. The night was foggy and warm, wet lingering from an evening rainstorm as the group moved from one spot to the next, nursing drinks and chatting. After midnight, they retreated to a nearby apartment on King Street for a nightcap.
On the street about to go in, Helga spotted someone she appeared to know. Her friends went inside but she stayed on the sidewalk to talk to the man. When Helga came in not long after, he was with her.
Her friends never got his name. They just remembered him as average height: five-feet-nine or five-feet-11-inches tall, somewhere in between? He seemed like he was in his late 20s. He was sturdy too, a solid-looking white man with a full head of dark hair, thick eyebrows, and a noticeably broad nose. Police either didn’t make or didn’t keep a sketch. He was fluent in English, her friends told officers — if he had an accent it was faint, barely discernible.
Helga and the man stayed a half hour or so, talking and drinking. Her friends weren’t worried when she left with him. They didn’t know him, but Helga seemed comfortable around him. That was enough.
A parking lot attendant found Helga’s body after sunup. She was in the back seat of her car, a 1963 Volkswagen, in a parking lot not far from where she’d last been seen. She was naked from the waist down. She’d been beaten, then strangled to death.
Hers was not the only murder in London that year.
Michael Arntfield, an ex-city cop and cold case expert, recently dug into past homicides in the city using the case files of deceased OPP investigator Dennis Alsop. Alsop had investigated or amassed files on the investigations of many young victims killed the same year as Helga: 16-year-old Jacqueline Dunleavy, 9-year-old Frankie Jensen, 16-year-old Scott Leishman, 19-year-old Lynda White.
One of his thinner files was about Helga, even though her murder was being handled by the London police.
“What we see is a city that was fatigued, quite frankly,” says Arntfield, “terrified of the violence that was overcoming it.”
But where Dunleavy, Jensen, Leishman and White were “the city’s young, innocent … from good families, from good neighbourhoods,” he notes that Helga — “a swinging young divorcée” — was an outlier whose death generated little public sympathy.
Five decades later, her case is added to the stacks of others whose leads have gone cold.
“What was once front page news is long since forgotten,” Arntfield says, and “people’s names and their murders risk being lost to history.”
The National Institute of Justice’s working definition of a cold case is one in which “probative investigative leads have been exhausted.” By that definition, murder cases as fresh as two months can be lumped together with murder cases as old as Helga’s.
But turning the clock back 60 days is not the same as turning it back more than 1,800.
First, Det. Sgt. Stacy Gallant says, he wants to be clear.
“We’re not reinvestigating cold cases,” he says. “They were fully investigated at the time by the top homicide investigators of whatever police service you’re dealing with.”
Instead, says Gallant, who heads up the cold case unit with the Toronto Police Service, what you’re doing is taking a fresh look at a case using a modern perspective. You are looking to see if anything can be done now that couldn’t be done then or if any witnesses might be franker with you now than they were then.
“That’s not an avenue that really there’s much success with,” Gallant says. He is rather candid about the limitations of cold case investigations.
“The best avenues, obviously, are technology,” he says. “Utilizing today’s technology against what you had back when the crime happened.”
For Helga, that means DNA.
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Investigators in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s didn’t have the foresight that the teeniest crumbs of DNA could crack cases. That means they likely weren’t wearing gloves and facemasks, Gallant says, nor were they securing samples in the manner police do today.
So even if a cold case investigator manages to apply a modern test to old samples, it could come back belonging to an officer or a witness or an investigator. “Someone,” he says, “who was at the crime scene and wasn’t wearing gloves.”
If the odds are long, where do you start?
“I normally start with the crime scene photographs,” says Sheryl McCollum, director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute in Atlanta.
McCollum starts with old photos because they tell an unedited version of the story, they contain information that hasn’t been filtered through the opinions of someone else. While she looks, she has a partner reading through old witness statements.
Then, McCollum walks the scene. Never mind that apartment buildings have been renovated, skyscrapers built atop squares of dirt. “Everything ain’t new,” she says, “and even if it is, the point of entry and exit, they’re still going to be pretty similar.”
Standing there, McCollum says, she’ll start to get a sense of the person who killed and got away with it. She’ll try to understand, “why here? Why her?”
Why downtown London in her own Volkswagen? Why Helga?
Whether an investigator can answer those questions five decades later hinges, at least in part, on the quality of the investigation in 1968, McCollum says.
“If somebody is making cursory notes and they just say, ‘the witness saw her sometime after lunch,’ what does that mean?” She says. “For me, that might mean after 12. For you, it might mean after two.”
Did the investigators ask the right questions, knock on every door, carefully tighten their timeline as much as was possible? Arntfield is doubtful.
It’s still too soon to say whether the man with the broad nose killed Helga.
“I’m not saying that this person is responsible for her murder,” says Det. Sgt. Alex Krygsman, “but we do know that this person left with Helga a number of hours before she was found deceased.”
What Krygsman knows comes from case files whose origins predate his existence. He’s in charge of the London police major crimes section; the man to whom requests about her cold case are referred, although he wasn’t even conceived when Helga died.
The story in The London Evening Free Press on Aug. 6, 1968, begins like this: “The badly-beaten body of a pretty 31-year-old hairdresser was found early today clad only in blouse and brassiere and jammed onto the floor of her Volkswagen.”
It was the first of only a handful of front-page stories allotted to Helga’s murder investigation and instead of her face staring out above the fold, readers were shown another Helga’s smile, this one a brunette, still very much alive, and living in Germany. They apologized to the living Helga the next day.
The newspaper reported the Volkswagen’s windows were “rolled up tight” and that detectives “immediately” set to scouring the downtown for leads. But how Helga’s investigation unfolded following the parking lot attendant’s early morning discovery depends on who’s telling the story.
Krygsman tells the official version like this: her body was discovered and investigators launched their search by interviewing those who saw her in the hours leading up to her death. A person came to police attention early on, Krygsman says, someone who moved out of that same apartment where Helga was last seen in the very timeframe of her death. But ultimately cops found “no reason” to believe there was a connection and this person was ruled out. Shortly thereafter, without being interviewed, Krygsman says this man left the country.
Evidence was collected and stored in hope, Krygsman says.
“So far we have not been able to gather the information needed to put us on the path of the person responsible.”
Arntfield, working off Alsop’s file, describes the early investigation a little differently. Instead of a group of friends that Aug. 5 night, Helga was at the apartment to visit one friend. That woman moved out of that apartment later that night, suitcase in hand, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Sometime around then, in the hours before her death, Helga had sex, Arntfield says, although it’s unclear whether it was consensual or rape. What is clear, he goes on, is that she either redressed herself or was redressed by her killer. The clothes that had been stripped off her were scattered in the front seat of her car. That scattering is rare, Arntfield says, “a very specific crime scene behaviour.”
From there, he contends that the initial investigators made mistakes in Helga’s case, were sloppy with her investigation as compared with some of the other murders of the time.
One of the men she knew that investigators wanted to interview managed to get on a flight to Europe within days of her death and hasn’t been seen since, Arntfield says. In Arntfield’s version, the woman who left the apartment and the man who fled the country are different people. In Krygsman’s version, they’re the same.
Although Helga’s shoes and shorts and underwear stained with semen were on the front seat of her car when police found her, Artnfield says officers don’t appear to have stored the evidence in a way that might prove useful as DNA technology advanced — work he says they did in other cases.
“It still remains unknown what the police actually did, of forensic significance, with respect to the Helga Beer murder,” he wrote in his book Murder City, “since few if any records or independent memories remain.”
Krygsman says he isn’t clear on what information is in the Alsop file or “what analysis that Michael Arntfield made of that information.”
There is forensic evidence, he says. It has been tested. It just hasn’t provided the answers police hoped. But if science can’t decode the evidence, is the case still solvable?
Short of a confession, Arntfield says no.
Krygsman hedges: “Time is ticking.”
Det. Sgt. Stacy Gallant has had some success drumming up new leads in old cases by using forensic phenotyping. He gives private labs a sample of DNA from the crime scene and — if he’s lucky — they return the beginnings of a portrait: the person is white, they have blond or brown hair, their eyes are green or blue or brown.
“That helps narrow down your person of interest list,” he says.
He takes that information and runs down the names of people in the case file. If someone is a match, he can go try to get a current sample to compare with.
Here is where time isn’t a friend. Do the math: if Helga’s killer was in his late 20s or early 30s, he — most killers are men — could be anywhere from his late 70s to early 80s, maybe older, maybe dead.
Aging is a concern in Helga’s case, Krygsman says.
“Not only do memories fade and people go separate ways, but people who were involved in this thing as a potential witness, they’re not getting younger,” he says. “We risk losing what they have to offer us.”
Witnesses were interviewed as part of Project Angel, a London police dedicated cold case team active from 1997 to 2000, Krygsman says, and have been interviewed since. He’s hopeful that for all its challenges, time might provide at least one advantage. Maybe, he says, someone knew something about Helga’s murder but was too scared to say anything in 1968. Maybe, he hopes, they’re not too scared now.
DNA may help with convictions in old cases, but forensic psychologist Chris Kunkle says returning to interview people again and again, old-fashioned policing, should not be undervalued.
“You see it in sexual assault cases all the time,” says Kunkle, who is also vice-president of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases.
“People come forward decades later, they’re now older and they’re able to stand up to their accuser, and they want to see him brought to justice. The same thing happens in homicides.”
Krygsman says London police consider the case open and — to the extent officers are “ready to move” on any tips that come in — he considers it active. However, Krygsman doesn’t remember the last time police interviewed witnesses or chased down leads. Less than a decade, he’s sure, but exact dates are fuzzy.
“We’re in a bit of a holding pattern until we can get a piece of evidence or information that will drive us forward again,” he says. “That’s all it will take.”
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While he waits, Krygsman makes periodic contact with the Centre for Forensic Sciences, checking in on the latest advancements to try to decide whether to run the genetic material preserved in Helga’s case through another test.
Police have tested the material three times in the last 50 years in the hopes of building a workable DNA profile. So far, they’ve had no luck. Now, Krygsman says, with only so much material left they have to be careful about when they run another test.
It’s risk versus reward, he says.
“What is the risk that in the process of testing that the evidence could be consumed or destroyed or contaminated versus what are the chances that we can be successful here getting what we need.”
But based purely on the age of the case, Gallant wonders, why wait?
The day Helga was murdered, her mother and one of her brothers were at the beach. They arrived home to the news. That day is so far in the past now, her brother said recently during a brief phone call. He’s old now, he said, he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“Is there a point any longer in waiting for new technology if everybody is going to be pretty much deceased by the time you do this investigation?” Gallant says. “I think you have to weigh that when you decide whether or not you’re going to try something new with the DNA.”
“OK, time to do right by poor Helga Beer.”
So begins one of the sparser online threads about unsolved murders in London, this one dedicated to Helga. For a few days in April 2011, anonymous Internet sleuths posited case theories, teased out possible motives, illuminated conceivable but as yet unproven connections with other cases. It wasn’t long before their conversation petered out.
From the incorrect photo announcing Helga’s murder to the community to that brief online forum, Helga’s case has never been a media darling. Google her name and the top hit is a yoga studio with Sunday drop in. In the small grouping of news articles about cold cases in the London area, Helga is a name sandwiched in a list of names.
Krygsman says he hasn’t forgotten her.
“I firmly believe that there remains out there people who have information that will help us solve this case,” he says.
To the public, he makes an appeal: call us.
It’s hard to make sure the people who might have information hear the call, Gallant says. He occasionally feeds clips to the media, tries to generate some buzz. He wants his request to spread as far as they possibly can.
“There’s a slim possibility that someone’s going to see the light and come forward and give you everything you need to know to solve the case,” he says.
It’s not about one callout, Kunkle says, but many.
“You have to make it so everyone knows the task at hand,” he says. “The more you put these things out there, the more people can connect the dots.”
Helga Beer-Erdt, 1936 – 1968. Did someone see the killer reverse her car into the empty lot? Before, what clues might Helga have dropped into conversation while washing someone’s hair, while blow-drying soft curls?
“The general public, they literally think a lot of the times that we know things we don’t know,” McCollum says, but “we can’t know if they don’t tell us.”
You can call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).