Twins Suspected of Diamond Heist

German police struggle with identical twins' DNA in robbery investigation.

February 23, 2009, 1:20 PM

Feb 23, 2009— -- Investigations into the spectacular heist at Berlin's luxury department store KaDeWe have run into a problem: The suspected robbers may be identical twins. That means that the traces of DNA found at the crime scene could be useless under German law.

Germany's Federal Statistical Office is a constant source of news. And sometimes it's even good news. In early January, the bureau's "News of the Week" announced that the national number of multiple births had increased to 22,400 in 2007. Among those, 21,600 were twins. Germany's Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen must have been pleased.

But in other government departments, the subject of twins is a bit of a sore spot. The reason can be traced to Abbas and Hassan O., brothers from a large Lebanese family from Lower Saxony, who are suspects in a spectacular heist at Berlin's famous department store, Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe).

The duo, together with an unidentified third man, are thought to have climbed onto the roof and into the luxury department store in the early morning hours of Jan. 25. Police investigators believe the masked men lowered themselves into the store's main hall, evading motion detectors, and broke open countless display cases. The thieves made off with watches and jewelry worth millions of euros.

So far, there has been no official confirmation that Abbas and Hassan O. are indeed identical twins. Photographs of the two, though, would appear to support the assumption. One official told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "It's impossible to tell them apart. To me, it's obvious that they are identical twins."

The Case Was Almost Closed. Almost.

Investigators identified the brothers using clearly identifiable traces of DNA from a glove found at the scene of the crime, according to police. Berlin's Office of Criminal Investigations dispatched a special team who arrested the two roughly one week ago at a gambling arcade in Lower Saxony. It looked almost as though the case had been solved after just two and a half weeks. Now, though, the remaining hurdles appear higher than first thought.

For starters, the third burglar is still on the loose and there is no trace of the loot. Then there's the fact that the DNA, which ordinarily would serve as powerful evidence, may prove worthless in obtaining convictions for the KaDeWe case.

It is impossible to distinguish between the DNA of identical twins using the kind of genetic analysis typically used in law enforcement, according to SPIEGEL ONLINE research. Furthermore, 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.

Under perfect laboratory conditions it would be possible to distinguish between the DNA of twins, experts say, and several research teams worldwide are working on the problem. But the method has not yet been perfected. Moreover, these methods are not admissable as evidence under current German law, according to one scientist.

"Monozygotic twins can only be identified by their fingerprints," an expert explained in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. "That's why this case is unprecedented in Berlin's criminal history." According to law, each of the three men must be individually proven guilty. This might be difficult in the case of the O. brothers -- especially since no additional evidence has been found.

Advantages of Being a Twin

The O. brothers are apparently old hands at taking advantage of being twins. Both have criminal records, having made criminal use in the past of their identical appearance. The German tabloid Bild cited an anonymous "friend" of the brothers, who claimed the two had "shared" community service hours, with "one brother showing up in place of the second." And if one of them lost his driver's license, he just used his brother's. "That was probably the case," police commented.

Der Tagesspiegel reported that the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) had matched the height, weight and stature of the suspects with that of the figures captured on KaDeWe's security cameras. Presumably, they hope to secure their case independently of the DNA evidence. A spokesperson for the Berlin Public Prosecutor's office would not comment.

Failed Applications for Asylum

Exactly 20 years to the day prior to the KaDeWe heist, German officials rejected the twins' applications for asylum. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, the O. brothers, born in 1982, came to Germany at the age of one. After their bids for asylum were denied in 1989, each had his permission to stay regularly extended -- for 20 years. The brothers also obtained "Fremdenpässe," passports issued to foreigners, because their professed homeland of Lebanon apparently refused to give them papers.

On Feb. 5, 2009, almost two weeks after the KaDeWe break-in, Hassan O. applied for residence. His brother Abbas received an expulsion order on Feb. 2.

Hassan O., who was first held in Hanover, was transferred to a jail in Berlin's Moabit district on Tuesday, Feb. 17. His brother Abbas, who was first held in Lüneberg, was scheduled to arrive in Berlin on Wednesday.

According to local press reports, the siblings belong to a Kurdish-Lebanese gang, which has previously gained notoriety for attempted murder, as well as break-ins and knife attacks. The Berliner Zeitung also reported that their extended family includes the 19-year-old offender who ran into and killed a senior citizen with a stolen BMW at Berlin's Potsdamer Platz last October.

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