German van driver had run-ins with police, suicidal thoughts
MUENSTER, Germany (AP) — The 48-year-old German man who drove a van into a crowd in Muenster was well-known to police, had a history of run-ins with the law and had expressed suicidal thoughts to a neighbor last month, German prosecutors said Sunday.
The man, whose name was not released, killed two people and injured 20 others Saturday afternoon by crashing into those drinking outside a popular bar in the western German city’s Old Town. He then shot himself to death inside the van.
The impact of the crash was so violent that the van did not stop until it hit the pub’s stone wall.
Police said Sunday that they believed he acted alone, but did not explain why they thought that.
The picture painted by police showed the suspect as a Muenster resident who was apparently financially well off but was frequently at odds with authorities and in court often. Local media reported that he is an industrial designer who once threatened his father with an ax.
Muenster Police President Hajo Kuhlisch said the man’s four apartments — two in Muenster and two in Saxony — and several cars had been searched thoroughly.
Prosecutors said he had expressed suicidal plans by email to a neighbor. Police were told about the email and went to the man’s Muenster home but he was not there. They then told local authorities at the man’s other homes in Dresden and Pirna in eastern Germany about the note, but he could not be found there either.
In a joint statement Sunday, police and prosecutors said the suspect didn’t mention any intention to harm other people in his email. The city’s health services had also been in touch with the man, but authorities didn’t say why. Germany has very strict privacy laws on medical issues.
Authorities still appeared stumped about the man’s motive for the attack.
“We have no indications that there is a political background or that others were involved” in Saturday’s deadly crash, prosecutor Elke Adomeit told reporters. “But he was well known to the police.”
She said the man had three previous court procedures in Muenster and two in nearby Arnsberg in 2015 and 2016. His run-ins with the law regarded threats, property damage, fraud, a hit-and-run and domestic conflicts with his family, but Adomeit said that all charges were dismissed.
Authorities have identified the two victims killed by the van crash as a 51-year-old woman from Lueneburg county, 300 kilometers (186 miles) to the northeast, and a 65-year-old man from nearby Borken county. Their names were not released, as is customary in Germany.
Early Sunday, all three bodies were taken from the crash scene in front of the well-known Kiepenkerl pub. The silver-grey van that crashed into the crowd was hauled away hours later, after explosives experts had thoroughly checked it.
Inside the van, police found illegal firecrackers that were disguised as a fake bomb, a fake pistol and the real gun that the driver used to kill himself with.
Inside the apartment where the man was living, which was near the crash scene, police found more firecrackers and a “no-longer usable AK-47 machine gun.” Police also found several gas bottles and canisters containing gasoline and bio-ethanol, but did not know yet why they were stored there.
“We are now focusing our investigations on getting a comprehensive picture of the perpetrator’s behavior in the weeks (before the crash) to find out his motivation for this horrible act,” Kuhlisch said in the statement.
Officials said some of the 20 injured were still in life-threatening condition Sunday. They have not identified them, but Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state said they included Dutch citizens.
“This was a horrible and sad day for the people of Muenster, all of Germany ... and also the people of The Netherlands, who were sitting here and became victims,” he said as he toured the scene Sunday.
At a hastily announced memorial put together by Catholics and Lutherans Sunday night, Muenster’s Roman Catholic bishop urged mourners to try to understand the crash, with God’s help.
Bishop Felix Genn preached Sunday night at the city’s famous Paulus Cathedral, where the 700 seats were packed. Rescue personnel, emergency doctors and firefighters were among those attending the service.
Muenster is a popular tourist destination known for its medieval old town, which was rebuilt after massive destruction during World War II. The city was buzzing on Saturday — one of the first warm spring days of the year — and scores of people were sitting in the square outside the famous Kiepenkerl pub when the van driver struck.
“This cowardly and brutal crime has shocked all of us,” said German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who placed flowers at the crash site Sunday.
Grieshaber reported from Berlin.