How a German playboy used the notoriety of being falsely accused of being a serial killer to become an unlikely 1970s celebrity.
In 1964, 22-year-old American tourist Mary Ann Peterson was hitchhiking her way around Europe when she became the first (known) victim in what would become known as the ‘Autobahnmörders’. Her naked body was found on the 26th of August near the town of Karlsruhe, at the side of the highway that was part of a network of roads crisscrossing the south of Germany. She had been strangled and at first, the police thought that this would be an easily solved case – a young man was quickly arrested. However, the evidence against him proved to be non-existent – something that would set an unfortunate precedent for the case – and he was released.
Things went quiet after this and it seemed as though the killing was an unfortunate but isolated case. But in 1966, it became clear that a serial killer (though of course, that term had yet to be invented) was at work, as two more young women – one American, one German – were found in similar circumstances dumped in the Rhine on May 20th and June 13th – a seemingly sudden escalation that put the authorities on high alert. The pressure was on to solve the case quickly, especially as two of the victims were American and so gave the case more international attention than it might have otherwise had. The problem was that there were no witnesses – the bodies had been discovered sometime after the fact and in isolated locations. The police had nothing to go on. Well, almost nothing.
There were eyewitness reports of a red sports car with Stuttgart license plates in the area around the time of at least one killing. It was hardly what you’d call solid evidence – after all, many cars would have been passing through the same area, probably on a regular basis as people travelled to and from work, and the only reason that this car was remembered is most likely because a red sports car simply stood out more than most vehicles. In normal circumstances, the police might have just added this to a list of equally vague clues to look at without placing any real significance on it. But these were not normal circumstances and desperate police forces will often do very stupid things when under pressure.
The police discovered that there was indeed a red sports car with Stuttgart plates, belonging to a Waldemar Egon Wohlfahrt. Further investigation revealed that Wohlfahrt had ‘vanished’ – which turned out to mean that he was just away from home at the time rather than anything more sinister or suspicious. The police rather desperately put two and two together, even though there was nothing to suggest that Wohlfahrt even knew that he was under suspicion and so would have had no reason to suddenly go on the run, and despite a complete lack of evidence, they made him their number one suspect – and they alerted the press to the fact that he was missing, though it was believed that he might be in Spain, where his girlfriend lived.
Then, as now, the popular press was even keen on sensationalism and lacking in restraint or human decency. Wohlfahrt’s name was plastered across both German and Spanish tabloids, with the total lack of evidence linking him to the crimes rather buried amongst the innuendo. In many ways, he was a perfect target for press sensationalism. A man described either as a ‘playboy’ or a private detective, he was known to dress in flashy clothes and, at 6 foot three inches tall with a shock of bleach-blonde hair, was a bit too flamboyant for his own good. His family was harassed by reporters and members of the public who had already decided on his guilt, and his past was raked over with a decided lack of attention to detail and a lot of exaggeration – by the time publications like Germany’s Bild had finished with him, he was not only a serial killer but a white slaver, an illegal arms dealer and a violent sadist who liked to beat his girlfriends. There was no actual evidence to support any of this, of course – though at least one of these accusations would come back to haunt him later.
Wohlfahrt was eventually arrested when German footballer Günther Herrmann, vacationing in Benidorm, recognised the photo in a German newspaper as that of a man who he had seen around the holiday resorts popular with German tourists, known to all as ‘Tex’ on account of his taste for cowboy hats – which hardly suggests someone trying to go unnoticed. Wohlfahrt was arrested on July 8th and found himself immediately in trouble when the Spanish police found a gun in his red Mercedes 250 SE convertible – the car that had brought him to the attention of the authorities to begin with. He spent a month in an Alicante prison while his case was investigated and the German authorities probed his alibi for the highway killings. As it turned out, his alibi was sound – he was already in Benidorm when the last victim was killed, with plenty of eyewitnesses and rock-solid paper trail evidence to prove it. If it was his car that had been spotted near the crime scene – and in truth, there was never any evidence that it was – then he certainly wasn’t there on that day. Even the gun turned out to be legally licensed in Spain and so he was eventually released on August 3rd.
Wohlfahrt would – understandably – go on to take legal action against both German and Spanish publications for the outrageous slanders that they had heaped on him, and he won the court cases against them. This perhaps did him no favours though, as the press (and an embarrassed police force) was now more determined than ever to bring him down and in 1967, he was arrested and tried for pimping, a charge based entirely on the claims of an ex-girlfriend, Käthe Laskewitz. The evidence in this case seemed no more solid than that of the murder hunt, but he was nevertheless convicted of procurement and sentenced to ten months in prison.
Upon release, Wohlfahrt decided to make the most of his notoriety. In a move that now feels very familiar thanks to the publicity-seeking antics of infamous figures, he decided that he would milk his unexpected celebrity status for all it was worth. He was always inclined towards wanting to be famous and while the crimes that he was accused of had little or no evidence to support them, he was certainly a figure with a rather mysterious, questionable past that he could play on while building a public persona – if life gives you lemons, then why not make lemonade? In the past, his life of ‘independent means’ had nevertheless forced him into gainful employment from time to time, and when working as a store detective – hardly the private investigator that he claimed to be – he was fired for faking evidence of theft against a customer. In the mid-Sixties, he was involved in the murky body-building world and an MC at fitness shows – and he certainly seemed to relish the limelight even if the tabloid accusations had taken things too far.
He announced a book about his life and the autobahn killings, which would remain unpublished if he ever actually wrote it (and that seems unlikely), but he did begin a career as a pop star, performing as Waldemar The Vampire. We should note that ‘vampire’ is not exclusively used to describe supernatural killers in much of Europe and has often been used to describe any bloodthirsty murderer – The Vampire of Düsseldorf etc – and the autobahn killer was known in Spain as ‘el vampiro de la autopista’, so his use of this name, capitalising on the real-life crimes that he’s been accused of, seemed a little bit tasteless. In the end, he managed just one recording, a single titled Benidorm produced by John Christian Dee, an American songwriter based in London who penned a few unsuccessful records, dated the notorious Janie Jones and would eventually be arrested himself for both pimping and attempted murder during the 1970s. The cover of the single shows Wohlfahrt posing with his sports car, just to labour the rather dubious point. Either because of or despite his notoriety though, it was not a hit and his live performances, noted for lots of shirt-ripping and macho extravagance, did not propel him to stardom.
As his pop career fizzled out, Wohlfahrt began to look elsewhere for his fix of fame. He found it in the movies when Spanish filmmaker José Luis Madrid took advantage of the partial relaxing of General Franco’s censorship restrictions to make a film inspired by the case that had first brought Wohlfahrt to the public attention. However, El vampiro de la autopista had nothing whatsoever to do with the facts of the case, or indeed motorways in general. Rather, it was a lurid gothic romp about a Draculaesque vampire Count and his descendent who is trying to defeat him. Both characters – Count Winnegar and Adolf Oblensky – were played in the film by Wohlfahrt, who gives a stiff and humourless performance. The film makes a few nods to the real-life case – Oblensky drives a red Mercedes (making a big deal of asking for one when hiring a car on his arrival in Stuttgart) and comes under suspicion as being the murderer even though he was not in the country at the time; he then threatens to sue the gutter press. But on the whole, the film is a straightforward vampire movie, spiced up with enough nudity to just about justify the ludicrous English-language title of The Horrible Sexy Vampire.
By the time the film came out in 1970, however, the case – and Wohlfahrt – already seemed to be ancient history. Although there had been another murder in 1967, things had been quiet since with no arrests (indeed, the crimes remain unsolved to this day) and other, more sensational crimes had caught the public imagination since then. Things moved in and out of the public consciousness a lot more quickly back then. The film was trying to capitalise on a mostly forgotten case and did not garner much attention or notoriety. Nevertheless, it did launch Wohlfahrt – who did at least look like a leading man – on an acting career, mostly in Spain, for some years. He changed his professional name to the less overtly Germanic Wal Davis and spent the 1970s making films for directors like Jess Franco and others, often co-starring with real-life partner Adela Tauler. His films are a mix of action, horror and exploitation with Red Rings of Fear, La Hiena, Al otro lado de espejo, Love Camp and a pair of sexy Maciste films for Franco amongst his better-known works.
In 1980, he was making a documentary about air travel when a DC-3 hired for the shoot vanished after leaving Barcelona airport, presumably having crashed into the sea. The crew of the plane and all the footage shot was lost with it. Other than a role in a 1983 German drama written by his girlfriend, this tragedy seems to have marked the end of Wohlfahrt’s film career – and, indeed, of his unlikely period of minor celebrity. He slipped back into obscurity with surprising ease and no one has heard anything of him for nearly forty years – though by all accounts he is still alive and happily retired. Many of his films have become cult classics in the years since – it’s probable, though, that he remains blissfully unaware of that.
While largely forgotten today, Wohlfahrt nevertheless feels like a very contemporary sort of celebrity – a man of limited talent who became accidentally infamous and nevertheless managed to carve an unlikely career out of that infamy for over a decade. It’s the sort of thing we see all the time these days and so we could say that Wohlfahrt was a pioneer of sorts. Not, perhaps, a pioneer of anything good. But a pioneer nevertheless. Every passing nobody who makes the most out of their fifteen minutes of accidental fame owes him a debt of gratitude.
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