German authorities say driver in fatal van attack had long record of crimes and apparently acted alone
A 48-year-old German man who killed two people and injured 20 others by crashing his camping van into a crowd outside a restaurant in the western college town of Muenster had a long record of petty crimes and almost certainly acted alone, authorities said Sunday.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters in Muenster, after placing a wreath of flowers for the victims at the crash site, that there were no indications of any political motive for the attack, which had sent fears of terrorism across Germany. The van driver shot himself to death.
“Unfortunately there’s no such thing as absolute security,” Seehofer said. “At the moment, most indications are pointing towards just one assailant who did not have any ties to terrorism. But the security situation in Germany nevertheless remains extremely tense.”
Police and state prosecutors said the man, who was described as wealthy in German media reports, had a record of psychological problems. The image of the assailant that emerged reflected a troubled life: three run-ins with the law in the last three years that led to charges of fraud, malicious property damage, and hit-and-run. All three charges were later dismissed, according to state prosecutor Elke Adomeit in Muenster.
“He was well-known to the police,” she said. The man has only been identified so far in German media reports as “Jens R.” — as is the custom for individuals in Germany alleged to have committed a crime.
Authorities discovered an 18-page letter in one of the four apartments he owned that listed things that had gone wrong in his life and that blamed others for his woes. Police described that as an indication of suicidal intentions. He also owned several cars.
“We searched all four apartments belonging to the assailant and found nothing to suggest a political background in this first intensive inspection,” said Muenster Police Chief Hajo Kuhlisch. Authorities found what they described as a no longer usable AK 47-type assault rifle as well as a cache of illegal fireworks.
The assailant was a designer who had also once owned his own business. He shot himself in his silver-gray Volkswagen “California” model camping van after driving into the crowd on the region’s first warm Saturday afternoon of the season. German TV networks broadcast images of the smashed-up van, with its horribly damaged front section, as it was towed away in the predawn hours Sunday.
There were initial fears that the camping van may have been carrying explosives, because of protruding wires. Police later found only illegal firecrackers that were disguised as a fake bomb and a fake pistol in the van, along with the real gun that Jens R. used to kill himself.
Muenster is a small city in western Germany about 250 miles west of Berlin. There have been several attacks by Islamist extremists in Germany in recent years, some committed by refugees from Syria and elsewhere who arrived in waves since mid-2015 when Chancellor Angela Merkel began an open-door policy.
The attacks included one on Dec. 19, 2016, in which 12 people were killed by Anis Amri, a Tunisian whose application for asylum had been denied. He deliberately drove a stolen truck into a crowd of revelers at a Christmas market in Berlin in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Reflecting the heightened nervousness of an attack in Germany, police in Berlin on Sunday detained six men suspected of having links to Amri and to have been planning a knife attack against spectators at a half-marathon in Berlin. More than 36,000 runners took part in the race in front of more than 100,000 spectators without problems, authorities said.
“There were separate indications that those arrested were preparing a crime in connection with the race,” state prosecutors said in a statement.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.
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