Beyond Hannibal

He was a mild-mannered IT boffin. For 41 years he lived an uneventful, small-town life. Except that, since childhood, he had dreamt of eating human flesh. And then he got his chance. Ruth Elkins on the case that is testing German stomachs

A rmin Meiwes was the perfect gentleman, or so his neighbours thought. But the 41-year-old computer expert had a darker side. Two years ago, he met a man through the internet, killed him and ate him. He did it because the man wanted to be killed. Or at least that's what he told the police.

It sounds like it could only happen in America. But Meiwes is German. On Wednesday he appears in court charged with "murder for sexual satisfaction", the first case of its kind in the country. The gruesome details of the man dubbed the "Hesse Hannibal" is forcing prosecutors to grapple with a knotty legal issue: is consensual killing really murder?

It was late 2000 when Meiwes, then 41, did something he had dreamt about since he was a young boy. Using his internet pseudonym, Franky, he posted an advert in an online chat room visited by enthusiasts of cannibalism. "Seeking well-built man, 18-30 years old for slaughter," the advert read. "Applications with age."

Meiwes received a number of replies. Not surprisingly, many turned out to be hoaxes: others simply lost their nerve. One man broke off contact after Meiwes sent him photos of the specially constructed killing room in his sprawling 44-room half-timbered home.

It was not until early February the following year that Meiwes found a kindred spirit in Bernd-Jürgen Brandes. Brandes was a highly paid microchip engineer for the electrical engineering giant Siemens. He had told friends and colleagues he was bisexual but had recently ended a seven-year relationship with a woman, Ariane B. The couple had never had children and, single once again, Bernd-Jürgen lived alone in a penthouse apartment in Berlin. It was just a few hours away from Rotenburg, the small town on the banks of the River Fulda in central Germany where Armin Meiwes lived and tapped away at his keyboard.

In the darker reaches of the virtual universe there are sites with names such as Necrobabes, Cannibal Café and Gourmet where would-be internet cannibals chat away about eating human flesh. Brandes posted a message on one of these in early February 2001.

But unlike most visitors, who were playing out fantasies, Brandes was deadly serious. "I offer myself to you and will let you dine from my live body. Not butchery, dining!!" he wrote. "Whoever REALLY wants to do it will need a REAL VICTIM!!"

Meiwes replied immediately.

Brandes's and Meiwes's initial emails read like a courtship. Brandes was 42 at the time, but Meiwes had specified he wanted a younger man so Brandes made himself seven years younger. Meiwes fuelled Brandes's fantasies of torture and sent him pictures of his teeth. He told Brandes he would use them to bite his tongue out.

The flirtation worked. Brandes agreed to come to Rotenburg on 9 March 2001. He took a day's holiday from his job, deleted his computer hard drive and told colleagues he was visiting a London hair-loss clinic. Then, he bought a one-way train ticket and sent Meiwes an email telling him he couldn't wait.

Brandes arrived in the central German town before midday. Meiwes picked him up from the station. In one of the few interviews Meiwes has given - to reporters from the German news magazine, Stern - he recalled the drive back to his house. Brandes made one thing very clear: he wanted to be mutilated and killed that day, not next week. Indeed, he had especially made sure not to eat anything so his intestines were clear.

There was only one problem. Brandes didn't think Meiwes was up to killing anyone. So Brandes decided to drink a whole bottle of Night Nurse, a flu remedy which famously causes drowsiness. An hour later, the medication hadn't taken effect. Brandes became frustrated and decided to go home. The two returned to the train station and Brandes bought a ticket to Berlin. Then he had another change of heart: he would drink another bottle of Night Nurse and take some sleeping pills. Then they would try again.

Back at Meiwes' home, the pair cuddled on the bed in the slaughter room, but the drugs still hadn't made Brandes drowsy. Again, he became frustrated. "Just do it now," Meiwes recalled Brandes saying. "Cut the thing off." The "thing" was Brandes' penis. Meiwes went and got a kitchen knife and turned on his video camera. Brandes cried out as Meiwes mutilated him, but the way Stern told it, the pain did not last for long. The drugs had de-sensitised him.

Meiwes bound the wound and cut Brandes's penis into two pieces. He fried it, seasoning it with salt, pepper and garlic, and the two ate it. Meiwes told Stern journalists that the dish was "tough and unpalatable".

Brandes was losing blood fast. Meiwes heaved him out of the warm bath he was lying in and on to the bed in the slaughter room. He said Brandes' breathing was light. Meiwes stabbed him.

Meiwes told police later that the killing made him feel hate, power and happiness all at once. He hated himself for doing it. He hated Brandes for coming to him in the first place. And he was "furious", he told Stern, at his own perverse fantasies. He says now that he regrets going through with it. Nevertheless, he butchered Brandes's corpse, put the pieces in the deep freeze and had eaten many of them by the time police arrived. He said the flesh tasted like pork.

Meiwes proceeded to trawl the internet for younger and more tender victims. In all, four men, including one from London, were lured to his home. He wrapped them in cellophane, marked out their body parts and labelled them according to what sorts of cold cuts they might eventually provide. As it turned out, none of them wanted to be killed, they just wanted to role-play. Uninterested, Meiwes let them go: he wanted the real thing.

His manic search was his downfall. As Meiwes continued trawling cannibal sites, he boasted of the killing. In the summer of 2001, a student contacted Germany's Criminal Investigation Bureau. They identified "Franky" and investigators turned up to search Meiwes's house. The next day, 10 December 2001, he was arrested. By then Meiwes had already admitted to his lawyer that he had killed a man, but a man, Meiwes maintains to this day, who wanted to be killed...

The case of the Cannibal of Rotenburg has appalled Germany, but it didn't surprise the cannibal experts. To them, what went on in Armin's sprawling, half-timbered home is a classic case of "sexual cannibalism". Sexual cannibalism is a known psychosexual disorder. Although experts maintain cases are rare, Meiwes is just one in a long line. American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer received a life sentence in 1992 after he murdered and ate 17 men and boys. In Russia, Andrei Tschikatilo was executed in 1992 after he dined on the sexual organs of his 52 victims. But Germans, so it would seem, are particularly notorious. Karl Denke pickled the flesh of 31 people between 1914 and 1918. And another German, Fritz Haarmann, drank the blood of his 26 victims in the same period.

When the story broke, Germany's tabloid press raked over the two men's private lives in an attempt to find a motive for the bizarre ritualistic killing. They linked it to sex: although Meiwes was a regular guest at his local brothel bar, Bild, the German tabloid newspaper, reported that he didn't want to sleep with the women there. Both men, they said, had past relationships with women but both were more attracted to men. Then they linked it to witchcraft. Bild found a friend of Meiwes's dead mother. Ulla von Bernus, they reported, was a self-styled witch and it was claimed she killed "whenever Satan orders".

But German psychiatrists, who have delved deep into the lives of Brandes and Meiwes, have another explanation of what led the pair down this bizarre avenue. Both, psychiatrists say, were severely traumatised by their relationships with their mothers. Brandes lost his in a car crash and had blamed himself. His death would make up for his mother dying.

Meiwes's case is slightly different. Apart from a brief spell in the army, he lived with his mother, a cold and distant figure, until she died of cancer when he was 37. Waltraud Meiwes had three divorces behind her and wouldn't let her son date. Meiwes's three brothers left home and broke off contact. When his mother died, Meiwes looked elsewhere for love. By eating another human, the experts suggest, Meiwes was merely satisfying a need to have another person close to him, for ever.

"When you have sex with someone, you have a very high level of personal contact with them," says Rudolph Egg, a criminal psychologist and head of Germany's main Criminology Institute "Sexual cannibalism is just a more extreme version; it is the 'highest' form of intimate behaviour." Egg maintains Meiwes's disorder had a long learning pattern and, ultimately, the two men's fetishes fitted together very well.

This is the case the five judges overseeing the trial will have to rule on. It is a complex case, not least because in Germany, as in the UK, cannibalism is not a crime. Although Meiwes has admitted he killed Brandes, his lawyer claims he is "no monster". Harald Ermel, who has known Meiwes for much of his life is arguing for a "killing by demand" verdict, as would be the outcome in a euthanasia case. Much will rest on whether prosecutors can prove whether Brandes was still alive when Meiwes stabbed him. If he is convicted for murder, Meiwes can expect to face up to 15 years behind bars, the maximum sentence for murder in Germany. If he is convicted under the lesser charge, he can expect to be free within five years.

When Meiwes was arrested, he told police there are at least 800 cannibals like him in Germany. Investigators have trawled internet chat rooms for more cases, but none have surfaced and none will, according to Carsten Niemitz, an anthropologist at Berlin's Free University. "The case is one of a kind," he says. "The extent of questioning and shaking of heads which has happened here since the story broke would be exactly the same if it had happened in Britain or in France." Germany is unlikely to produce another Armin Meiwes, he insists.

The tale of the Cannibal of Rotenburg is a one-off, not, as some would have it, a cry for help from the tortured soul of the German nation.

Not that it is likely to stem the massive media and public interest in the trial, which prosecutors expect will run until January. Demand for ring-side seats in the Kassel courtroom has been so high that press accreditation has had to be raffled (TV crews are coming from as far afield as South Korea). Film producers are talking about making a movie and Meiwes - who has admitted he regrets the whole episode - says he plans to write his memoirs.

But many inhabitants in the country hamlet where Meiwes lived, killed and ate merely want to forget him. "We hope," said one, "he never comes back."

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