Can a murderer change?

October in Edinburgh can be pleasantly warm. Earlier that day, Ernst and Helga had been married, and now, on a perfect evening, they were enjoying a romantic stroll in the city’s Queen’s Park. Only one of them would return.

For many years I listened as people told me they wanted their lives to change. Some needed to quit smoking, some to save their marriage, some to stop drinking, some to lose weight, some to declutter their homes, some to have better relationships. A few did change; most did not. For many the effort and sacrifice change requires was too much.

This post is the first of two about ‘change’. In this blog I’ll tell Ernst and Helga’s story which, at the time of writing, happened almost exactly 50 years ago. It’s also a story which, in a small way, I encountered personally. In the next post I’ll set out four principles for change taken from another story, this one much older and better known.

I have several sources for my narrative of Ernst and Helga, the chief of which is a detailed account given by F.W.F. O’Brien QC in an address to The Medico-Legal Society in London in 1976.[1] O’Brien was the leading defence lawyer in the 1973 trial that followed the couple’s fateful walk in the Queen’s Park.[2]

Ernst Dumoulin was born in June 1951 in Minden, West Germany. His father was Dutch, and had been held in a concentration camp during World War II. When Ernst was one-year-old the family moved to Rotterdam, but returned to Germany when he was eight.

On leaving school Ernst went to a commercial college, and then trained as a bank assistant. He got engaged when he was 20 but that relationship soon ended. A few months later, in July 1972, he placed a newspaper advert for a wife. That was unusually bold, but a reply came from Helga Konrad who was 18-years-old. She may have been lonely. Her family was wealthy but old-fashioned, and much of her youth involved working on the family farm. Marrying Ernst had a strong appeal for Helga.

Just three weeks after the advert and first contact, Ernst arrived at the farm and asked Helga’s father for permission to marry his daughter. Unsurprisingly consent was not given. Her father made it clear Ernst would need to wait at least six months. That was too long for Ernst.

In September he bought a new red Fiat car he could not afford. His cheque bounced, but he had the car and drove to the Konrad farm. Ernst asked permission to take Helga for a short drive, and her father reluctantly agreed. As she left Helga waved back to her parents. She never returned.

Ernst and Helga’s drive was anything but short. They went to France, sold the car, and with the money bought air tickets to London. During the flight, Ernst had a chance conversation with another passenger and learned that getting married in Scotland was easier than England, so they journeyed north from London to Edinburgh.[3]

Only four or five days after leaving the farm in Germany the couple rented a room in an Edinburgh boarding house owned by Herbert Wood. They told him they planned a civil wedding at the nearby Registrar’s office as soon as they’d fulfilled the three week residency qualification in Scotland.[4] Wood had no problem with that.

The following day, Ernst used the last of the car-sale money to make a large bank deposit. With the bank account came a sizeable credit allowance, and Ernst knew exactly how he would use that credit. Two days later the couple met with the senior manager of a life insurance company and filled out forms for sizeable insurances on his life and Helga’s

The insurance company had second thoughts, and passed the business to another company. Their officials met with the couple and agreed policies to insure Helga’s life for £206,184 and Ernst’s life for £190,480. In each case the pay-out would be doubled in the event of accidental death. These were enormous sums in 1972. If Helga died accidentally then, in today’s value, the company would pay between £4.4 million and £6 million.[5] If Ernst died, the amount paid would be the equivalent today of between £4 million and £5.6 million.[6] Three quick points are relevant here: 1) The amounts covered are enormous; 2) The couple had nothing like enough money to afford the premium payments – Ernst covered a partial payment of the first premium only by drawing on his newly acquired credit allowance; 3) The fact that they were both insured, especially against accidental death, is significant.

With these insurances in place, and residency requirements fulfilled, Ernst and Helga were married in a Registrar’s office at 10.30 am on Friday 13th October.[7] Witnesses were required, and the obliging landlord Herbert Wood and his wife fulfilled that duty. After the ceremony the Dumoulins and Woods had lunch at a nearby restaurant. While they enjoyed the meal, Helga explained that Ernst planned to become a financial advisor and she would be his secretary. With her parents so opposed to their marriage, they would not return to Germany.

That afternoon the couple walked in Queen’s Park, and climbed to the top of Salisbury Crags to enjoy the fabulous view of Edinburgh, especially its castle, palace and the water of the Firth of Forth not far off. Salisbury Crags is one of the most imposing features of Edinburgh’s skyline, a semi-circle of sheer cliffs part way up a hill. It formed some 340 million years ago. In the days of the Scottish Enlightenment, philosophers, politicians and other eminent citizens walked round a track at the foot of the crags while engaged in deep thought. Braver and stronger souls climbed to the top (by an accessible path) to enjoy the higher view. (During many years of living in Edinburgh, I went to the top of Salisbury Crags several times. No-one should get near the edge, especially on windy days.)[8]

Salisbury Crags Photo by Reinhold Möller CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Apparently Helga suggested they return to the same place that evening when the view across the city to the sun setting in the west would be spectacular. It was a great plan. They set off around 8 o’clock, strolled back to the park, climbed the hill and found a quiet place high above the steep cliffs. Around 9  o’clock a merchant seaman, walking on the path below the crags, found Helga’s body. She was dead.

The seaman alerted two police officers, then almost immediately Ernst appeared. He’d run down the hill and around the base of the cliffs to where Helga lay. He was shouting for someone to get an ambulance because his wife had fallen. More people arrived on the scene, and all testified that Dumoulin was greatly distressed, describing him as ‘very agitated’, ‘in shock’, ‘hysterical’, ‘very upset’, ‘shivering uncontrollably’. One of the police officers said Dumoulin was ‘crying and shaking’. All Ernst could say was that he and Helga were enjoying a special time together when she slipped and fell. That was very possible, and no-one doubted his story. He was treated at hospital for a minor injury, after which he returned to his lodgings.

Two days later – on the Sunday – Ernst telephoned Helga’s father in Germany, and told him that he and Helga had married. When Herr Konrad asked where Helga was, Ernst replied, ‘She is in heaven’.

Later that day Ernst met with a representative of the insurance company, and found that the procedures for the policies had not been completed so no payment to him would be possible. That appears to have panicked Ernst who asked if the insurance documents could be torn up. Not only did that not happen, the company decided to inform the police.

Ernst was arrested on the Monday morning, and, with his solicitor present, he was cautioned and charged with the murder of his wife. His landlord, Herbert Wood, went into Ernst’s room to tidy up, and found letters and receipts for the insurance policy. He also alerted the police, the insurance company confirmed the details of the policy, and that Ernst had already attempted to make a claim.

In answer to the charge of murdering his wife, Ernst Dumoulin made a statement that he had pushed his wife and that caused her to fall down the cliffs, but he had not intended to murder her. Nor did he have any motive to gain money. ‘I am no murderer’ he said in German.

Scotland has a strict time limit within which trial proceedings must begin, so there was no long delay before Dumoulin was in court. He lodged a plea of not guilty and a plea of self defence.  His formal trial in the High Court in Edinburgh began on 23 January, 1973. It lasted ten days.

Among those called to give evidence were representatives of the life insurance company. They were clear that the policy applications were incomplete. None of the policies had advanced enough to be effective. But did Dumoulin know that? The company official who dealt with Ernst said it had been made very clear to Dumoulin that some matters could only be finalised after the wedding, and until that was done the policies would not be operative. Ernst’s lawyer, O’Brien, believed that negated the motive for murder. He said later, ‘No one commits murder to gain money from insurance policies which he knows have not come into effect’.

The insurance issue was, of course, only part of the evidence given to the jury. Two expert witnesses from the University of Edinburgh were called, one a specialist in forensic medicine and the other in pathology and forensic medicine. Helga’s body had many injuries, including severe fractures of the skull resulting in extensive brain damage. On these details the experts were as one. However, the two men differed in their theories of how Helga had fallen, such as whether feet first or by some form of somersault off the edge. But, critically, they agreed that the girl’s injuries did not match with a slip over the edge. Rather, as one put it, her body went into an arc either because she ran and jumped or because she was pushed violently.

As an aside, my small personal encounter with this case was that I was present at the trial on the day when these experts gave their forensic evidence. I was studying criminology at the time, and decided to attend a High Court trial, which happened to be this one.

There were discrepancies between the experts’ testimonies, but, as it turned out that did not matter. With the prosecution case finished, Ernst gave evidence on February 1.

Here are key features of his evidence:

  • He confessed to planning an insurance fraud
  • Both he and Helga would be insured
  • He would disappear and Helga would claim the money (the scheme involved leaving clothing on Cramond Island, which sits just offshore from Edinburgh)
  • The insurance on Helga’s life was simply an ‘alibi’ (by insuring both, nothing would appear sinister)
  • On the crags that evening, he and Helga had sat for half an hour close to the edge
  • She stood up to leave, and as he also rose he felt a short, firm push beneath his shoulder blades
  • That shove in the back bent him forward but he did not fall
  • Helga then rushed at him trying to push him backwards towards the edge
  • He took hold of her wrists, turned her, and pushed her away, not over the cliffs but parallel to them
  • She spun round, overbalanced and fell head first over the edge
  • He did not believe Helga’s motive was money, and could think only that she was insane at that moment

In summary, Ernst’s self-defence argument was that Helga had tried to kill him, and she fell when he protected himself.

Other witnesses were heard, and then the trial ended with the judge addressing the jury for two and a half hours on matters of law, including the presumption of innocence. They could reach any one of three verdicts: guilty; not guilty, not proven. The last of these – ‘not proven’ – is unique to Scotland. It means the case has not been made for a guilty verdict, but is not sufficiently clear for a not guilty verdict. There is no difference at all between the outcome of ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’ – the accused goes free and generally cannot be retried on the same charges.

By a majority of 11 to 4 the jury found Dumoulin guilty of murder.[9] He was sentenced to life imprisonment and, as was usual in such cases, no minimum term for serving the sentence was set.

Why did Ernst murder Helga? It seems he actually believed the insurances were settled, and thus he’d gain a small fortune from her death. If so then, as his lawyer O’Brien said later, Helga died and Dumoulin served a life sentence only because he misunderstood what he had been told about the policies not yet being effective, or he thought he knew better and that they were in force. Whatever the explanation, Helga’s death over Salisbury Crags was an act of evil. It cost him 16 years of imprisonment in Saughton prison.

However, my story of Ernst Dumoulin does not end at this point. As I mentioned earlier I sat through at least a day of his trial, and read later about the verdict and his life imprisonment. For several months my thoughts kept returning to him.

It is hard to explain, but for some reason I felt Dumoulin needed help to change. I had no idea whether he wanted to change, but there was one thing I could do to spur him towards a better life. I owned a copy of the New Testament in German, and about two years after Ernst was convicted I felt an urge to send him that German language New Testament. I hoped he would read it, turn to God for forgiveness, and begin a new life.

I never sent it. I had good intentions, but made the dreadful mistake of not acting promptly on my intentions. Time passed. The thought drifted away. Ernst Dumoulin never got help from me.

But it seems he got help from a far superior source, and Ernst did change. I do not know the details, other than his own statement much later that during his time in prison he ‘found God’. Most people who talk like that mean not only that they come to believe in God’s existence, but that they feel forgiven and try to live a new, better life. That is what happened with Ernst.

When he emerged from Saughton, he was different on the inside from the man who entered that prison 16 years before. Ernst Dumoulin had changed. He was still only in his late 30s, and whatever happened while in prison set him on a new path. He returned to Germany, studied theology for five years, remarried, got ordained for Christian ministry and became a pastor in a small town.

In 2006, he gave a German newspaper an account of what happened 34 years earlier on Salisbury Crags. He described it as the ‘darkest night of his life’. The couple sat on the edge of the cliffs. He held Helga in his arms, wanting her to feel loved and sure they had a wonderful future ahead. Then he’d suggested they should go home. ‘I got up,’ he said, ‘put a hand on her shoulder and acted as though I had tripped up. I didn’t want her to know I was a murderer. I pulled her and her body fell, and after that everything was quiet.’ His words were a very public confession.

John Hislop, writing in The Edinburgh Reporter, told Dumoulin’s story in October 2012, exactly 40 years after Helga’s murder. Remarkably, some weeks later Ernst Dumoulin sent him a reply from Germany. It was short, saying how surprised he was that the bad deeds of his past still drew negative attention. Then he wrote this: ‘If at all, I wish for the general welfare of people, that it might for the future be shown, that God is able to raise a small pretty flower out of a heap of dung.
With kind regards,
Ernst Dumoulin[10]

His earlier life and actions, Ernst said, was a heap of dung. But that was then, not now. He had changed, and his new life was ‘a small pretty flower’.

Some will never be able to see Ernst that way. Perhaps that’s how it has been for Helga’s parents who had the terrible pain of burying their daughter’s body 300 yards from their home. But Dumoulin’s life after prison was very different from before. He was not the man he had once been.

Change is hard but possible. In the next post I’ll describe four critical steps to bring about change in our lives.


[2] Queen’s Park – also known as Holyrood Park – lies right beside Holyrood Palace (the Edinburgh residence for royalty), and only a short distance from the city centre. It is no ordinary park, measuring 5 miles in diameter with mountains, marshes, moorlands and lochs. A short summary of the Park’s features is here

[3] Parental consent has never been required for marriage in Scotland, which was the major reason young couples would elope north to Scotland for their wedding service. Until 1929, the age for marriage in Scotland was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In 1929 the minimum age was set at 16.

[4] At that time couples were required to have been resident in Scotland for three weeks before their wedding. That law was abolished in 1977.

[5] The modern equivalents vary according to exactly which inflationary factors are taken into account.

[6] At the time of writing this blog post, £6 million = $6.7 million.

[7] I don’t believe in superstitions, but many have made a point of noting the day and date of Ernst and Helga’s wedding.

[8] Details of Salisbury Crags here and here

[9] There are 15 jurors in a Scottish criminal trial. A verdict is always reached, no matter how small the majority.

[10] From