Missing - Presumed Alive
by Nicola Redway
On March 18, 1977, Nordstern IV, a 58-foot custom-built sloop with bright red-painted hull, slipped unrecorded out of English Harbour, Antigua.
On board were German skipper Manfred Lehnen, his girlfriend Christine Kump and four German charter guests. The guests, today officially declared dead, were never seen again. But now, more than 20 years later, the German police file on Lehnen and Kump remains very much open.
Originally a butcher by trade, Manfred Lehnen sold his business in 1976. He left his wife and two young children in Germany, took a large loan from the bank to purchase the steel-hulled Nordstern IV and moved to the Mediterranean to start a new life as a charter skipper. But with bank debts of over DM130,000 (about US$80,000), it soon became clear that there was no living to be made in Europe, and in December 1976 Lehnen sailed from Spain to the hopefully more lucrative chartering waters of the Caribbean. But it would seem that even then, all was not well with the 42-year-old Lehnen.
One of his first charter guests, who left Nordstern IV in Grenada in late February 1977, recalled later to the German Police that when it came to saying goodbye, Lehnen was very emotional and spoke of quitting the charter business altogether and just "taking off". But clearly not straight away. Early the next month he was back in Antigua to be joined by his Swiss girlfriend, 39-year-old Christine Kump, a scientist with a PhD in Chemistry. The two had met in the Mediterranean, and like Lehnen, Kump too had left family and children behind to begin a new life on the sea. Their first long-distance charter, a 6-week transatlantic crossing from Antigua to Lisbon with a stop in the Azores, was already planned (and paid for), and in the middle of March, their four guests began arriving from Germany.
Ulrike Muller, a 22-year-old medical student, 33-year-old judge Jurgen Gross, surgeon Helmut Kuhn, aged 34, and 44-year-old engineer Hugo Rosel had paid a total of DM4000 for the adventure voyage of a lifetime. When they arrived in Antigua they were, by all accounts, happy with the boat and excited about their imminent trip. This was to be last their family and friends were to hear from them. They were last seen by catamaran owner Rudolph Wagner who confirmed to German police that he had seen Nordstern IV with Lehnen, Kump and all four guests aboard as it left English Harbour in the late afternoon of March 18, 1977.
March July 1977
When the Nordstern failed to arrive in the Azores and no word was heard from either the crew or the guests, police in both Antigua and Germany were alerted. It was initially thought that the Nordstern IV and all hands had been lost in a freak accident at sea. However, months if not years of investigation by police, family of the missing guests and journalists from the German news magazine Stern, concluded otherwise. To start with, there was no record of any bad weather in the area at the time; this in itself did not rule out accidental sinking from fire or collision, but clear evidence of the "survival" of Lehnen, Kump and Nordstern IV rendered this explanation untenable.
Only 2 days after being seen leaving English Harbour with their guests, Lehnen and Kump were back in Antigua, signing for and collecting a replacement sail at the airport. (Why start a 6-week charter if you know you are due to take delivery of a new sail? Or perhaps they did not clear out on the 18th because they were going to wait around in Antiguan waters till the new sail arrived. If so, why did they then not clear out?)
On March 23 the tomato-red Nordstern with its distinctive broad yellow stripe was seen in Fort de France by businessman Heino Muller, a charter guest on another boat. In May the boat was seen again Martinique, in Dominica and in Bequia, where its striking colours and classic lines had been noted by Bequia historian Nolly Simmons, amongst others. In June/July 1977, harbour pilot Mike Forshaw and boatbuilder Ray Smith both remembered seeing the boat (in different locations and at different times) in Grenada, and Smith recalls the colour being changed from red with yellow stripe, to white with blue stripe.
When shown photographs of Nordstern IV's crew and the four guests by both Helmut Kuhn's wife, who spent months in the Caribbean after her husband's disappearance, and Stern magazine reporters who took up the story the following year, all witnesses positively (and emphatically) identified only Lehnen and Kump with the boat never anyone else. Christine Kump was seen again in Bequia in July 1977, this time alone and apparently without a boat. Here, at a "yachtie" party, she met German yachtsman and scrimshander Peter Frey, who recalled little of any consequence about the conversation that evening, but clearly remembered the woman: "you could not forget that face". After this last confirmed sighting, the trail went completely cold, and remains so to this day.
After much speculation in the months immediately following the disappearance, it is now the firm belief of both the police in Düsseldorf (home town of Lehnen and place of registration of Nordstern) and the families of the missing guests, that Lehnen and Kump were responsible for the deaths of Muller, Kuhn, Gross and Rosen. The most commonly held theory is that Lehnen, depressed, deep in debt, and facing confiscation of his boat on his return to Europe, planned to "disappear" together with the boat and start yet another new life with Kump. This necessarily involved faking an accident in which the boat and all hands would appear to have gone down at sea. Lehnen and Kump, perhaps exhilarated by the ease with which they had achieved the first phase of their plan, probably believed that reports of the missing guests would filter only slowly through to the sailing community in the Southern Caribbean.
After all, everyone who knew them assumed that they were crossing the Atlantic and the two would have felt relatively safe openly visiting other islands in the ensuing weeks and months. Perhaps a whisper of trouble ahead encouraged them to quickly repaint the hull of the boat in Grenada a few months later. And after that? The police believe that Lehnen, sensing that the search was gaining momentum, fled south to Venezuela, and quite possibly became involved in the shady world of drug running attractive to Lehnen because of the possibility of earning quick money. And Kump? If she initially went with Lehnen to South America, police believe that by now it is most likely that they have separated. The most current rumour is that Kump is living alone on "a small island" under an assumed name, and that Lehnen is still in South America, working once again as a butcher.
Where are they now? Do you remember seeing Manfred Lehnen, now 64, or Christine Kuhn now 61, at any time in the last 20 years? Do you know anything about the fate of the Nordstern IV?
If you have any information that could be of interest to the investigating authorities, please contact the Düsseldorf police, or Compass
[E-mail [email protected] or fax (784) 457-3410] and we will pass your information on.
When Nordstern IV was sold to Lehnen, it already had a sinister history someone had been murdered on board.
The mother of Ulrike Muller, in despair at her daughter's death and in a bizarre attempt to follow her daughter, later took her own life by drowning.
The wife of skipper Manfred Lehnen lives in poverty and mental decline in a dingy one-room apartment in Düsseldorf. A repayment for her husband's outstanding debt for the purchase of Nordstern is still deducted each month from her welfare cheque. She regularly dreams of her husband, on board his boat, playing the trumpet.
Lehnen's two sons, now in their mid to late 30s, firmly believe that their father was capable of and probably did murder his charter guests. They have never had any contact with him since he went to the Caribbean.
Commissar Karl Heinz Gerlach of the Düsseldorf Criminal Police is now leading the investigation into the Lehnen affair, File No. 111/5 Js300/77.
Sloop rigged, steel-hulled, designed
by Fred Parker,
built in 1970 at Joyke Marine, Southampton.
Length: 17.60m (about 58 feet)
Waterline: 15.20m (about 50 feet)
Beam: 5.10m (about 17 feet)
Draft: 1.60 3.40m (about 5 - 11 feet)
Tonnage: 24 tonnes
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Copyright© 1998 Compass Publishing