Monsters, Nightmares, and the Occult: The Mysterious Disappearance of Katarzyna Zowada (Part 1)

Hold on to your dermis, epidermis, and epithelial cells my friends because this is going to be a graph-ic one. Get it? Like skin grafting. (Pause for reactions) Well now that I’ve given you a little insight into this week’s case. I can officially say we will be discussing the murder of Katarzyna Zowada in Krakow, Poland.

Now according to Wikipedia, the Republic of Poland, which is a part of the Continent of Europe, has an estimated population of 38 million people. It is bordered by Belarus and Ukraine to the East, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to the South, Germany to the West, and Lithuania and Russia to the Northeast.

Map of Poland.  https://www.google.com

Krakow, the city where our episode takes us today, is the 2nd largest, and one of the oldest cities in Poland. (It actually used to be the capital of Poland until 1596, before the largest populated city in the Republic, Warsaw, took that title.)

Now let’s learn a little more about the life of Katarzyna Zowada, and how she became an unfortunate victim of such a heinous and torturous murder. 

Katarzyna, better known as “Kasia” to her friends and family, was born on June 1st, 1976 to Antoni & Marta Zowada. (Remember her nickname as it will come up later in the story.) She was an only child and was very much a “daddy’s girl”. That is until her father died tragically when Kasia was 19. 

Kasia and her dad shared a love for mountain hiking. He taught her how to hike as a young girl and both were on a trail in January of 1996. Antoni lost his footing, slipped & fell, which led to a spinal cord injury. This injury, then led to an illness, which ultimately took his life, on January 19th, 1996. 

Kasia, being so close to her father, fell into a deep depression, and blamed herself for his death. (Although there is nothing to suggest she was responsible in any way)

Kasia continued to live with her mother in the easternmost district of Krakow, known as Nowa Huta. It is one of the most densely populated areas, with a population of about 200,000. It also was built in the Soviet era, and up until the 21st century, had many streets, landmarks & statues commemorating the Soviet Union & its former leaders. Those have since been removed or renamed for non-dictators, such as Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Polish war hero Wladyslaw Anders. 

Funny anecdote, as a part of an arts festival that took place in Nowa Huta, in 2014, there was a bright green neon statue of Vladimir Lenin holding himself urinating. It was called “Fountain of the Future”, and had a water feature that simulated the “urination”. According to the Telegraph newspaper, Bartosz Szydlowski, one of the creators of the Lenin statue, said the statue would show that Nowa Huta is not a “gray and gloomy” town, and that those who live there have a “sense of humor”. I don’t know if it is still there today, but at the time, it became a popular attraction for locals & tourists. 

 

Now as populated as Nowa Huta was, Kasia didn’t have many people that she considered friends, let alone people she confided in. She was described by those that did know her as: shy, withdrawn, strange, or secretive. An introvert pretty much. This characterization may have played a part in her disappearance & death which we will discuss later. In other words, let’s “put a pin in it”.

She seemingly had 2 friends, Anna & Ula. Anna, she met in grade school, but it’s a little murky as to when in school she met Ula. From what I read, Anna was in Poland, went to the U.S. for some years, then returned back to Poland in early 1998. And it was also Anna that seemed to leave a lasting impression on Kasia. Based on information I found, Anna introduced her to the “Hippie” lifestyle, by giving her the book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, written by Tom Wolfe. 

The book was originally written in 1967, as a piece of nonfiction, that documented the communal group, “The Merry Pranksters”. They were based in California and Oregon, and were led by Ken Kesey. He was considered, not only their leader, but their “Messiah”. Which led many outsiders to view them as a cult, and Kesey as their cult leader. The group traveled the U.S., on what they called their “Transcontinental bus tour”, beginning on the west coast, traveling south through Mexico, and ending in the eastern U.S. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to Wikipedia, “Kesey wanted to see what would happen when hallucinogenic-inspired spontaneity confronted what he saw as the banality and conformity of American society.” They introduced people, and groups, like the Outlaw Biker Club & Hell’s Angels to the world of acid, marijuana, and amphetamines. The acid was put in Kool-Aid, which is another reason why you should not drink the Kool-Aid, and its effects were often combined with music and lights, which together made up the “acid tests”. The Merry Pranksters attended festivals, including Woodstock, and met many influential people of their day, including Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. 

After reading the book, Kasia also became a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. Kasia was into Science Fiction novels and movies as well, but music was her passion. She could often be found browsing for music at record stores or at music fairs. One such place that was popular with college students, during the 80’s & 90’s, was “Pod Przewąką”. Which roughly translates to “under the overhang”. It was a place young people would go to exchange cd’s, cassettes, or records, and was located in the basement, under the dorms, on Bydgoszcz Street. These days it no longer exists, but back then, if there was anything music-wise you were looking for, you could likely find it there. And for Kasia, that was Grateful Dead albums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After high school, Kasia, who was described as very intelligent by those who knew her, decided to enroll at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She opted for Psychology, perhaps following in her mother’s footsteps as a child psychologist. Or, maybe because of the trauma she went through losing her father. But not long after, she decided to change majors, to History, and eventually Religious Studies. The changes in major happened over the course of her first year.  

Jagiellonian University in Krakow. https://www.uj.edu.pl/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I find this to be an interesting choice, not because it’s religion, but because during the late 90’s in Krakow there was a dark underbelly, consisting of Satanism, death, the occult, and evil amongst young people her age. Horror movies, especially English ones, were all the rage. That being said,and by all accounts, Kasia was neither involved nor interested in this dark culture, and was not a part of any cults or sects. Just an interesting juxtaposition to her Religious Studies major it seems. 

While attending school, Kasia was also being treated for depression, and had been since the death of her father. Not difficult to imagine, especially since she seemed to blame herself for his death. Her mom would meet her at the therapy clinic in Nowa Huta for every appointment, as a way to be sure she was going. 

On Thursday, November 12th, 1998 at 6pm, Kasia had a scheduled therapy appointment as usual. And, as usual, her mother arrived to be sure Kasia showed up for that appointment. Only, on this Thursday, Kasia did not arrive as usual, and from this moment on, nothing would be usual ever again for Kasia or her mother.

Marta, Kasia’s mother, waited around for a while, even though Kasia was always punctual. She had last seen her daughter that same morning, leaving the house wearing her black jeans, hooded corduroy jacket, and red shoes. She went back home to see if Kasia was there, but of course, she wasn’t. Her next thought and action was somewhat surprising to me, as Marta’s next destination was the Dominican Order on Stolarska St. This was a place where people looking to escape from cults, or family members with a relative inside a cult may turn to for help. Kasia was not there, but they suggested she report Kasia’s disappearance to the police. 

Marta did just that. But unfortunately, for her & for Kasia, there were already a couple stumbling blocks in their way. The first of those, was that Kasia was in her early 20’s. And much like some of the police departments in the U.S. the police in Krakow assured her mother that Kasia had probably just run away, and that since Kasia was technically an adult, she would have to wait until the next day to file a missing person’s report. But they believed she would be back before that time would come. They were wrong.

The next stumbling block was an even bigger one. It just so happened that at the time Kasia goes missing, the police have their hands full trying to locate a local man, by the name of “Misiek”, who had thrown a knife at the head of an Italian midfielder, Dino Baggia, during a UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) match. And by football, I mean soccer. This wasn’t just any guy in the stands watching the Wisla Krakow vs. AC Parma match. Misiek, whose real name is Pawal, was the leader of the Wisla Sharks, a local “hooligan” gang, responsible for violence and drug trafficking in the area. So, diverting resources to finding a “maybe” missing adult female, who has been gone less than 24 hours, was not high on their priority list. 

Having hit a dead end with police, Marta decided to enlist the help of a local private detective, by the name of Grzegorza Bohosiewicza. He had come recommended by someone she spoke with at the Dominican Order earlier in the day. After a couple months of searching, he was unable to locate Kasia, despite following several leads, including following up on a few supposed sightings in nearby cities, including Zakopane. There was another “sighting” of Kasia as a passenger on a bus going to Wolbrom. And yet another of Kasia supposedly at the Batowicki Cemetery. He also interviewed Anna and Ula, Kasia’s friends, as well as other acquaintances of Kasia at the university, to no avail.

Marta did receive two phone calls, at two separate times, from a male caller asking her to meet up with him at the Krakow Market Square for information regarding Kasia’s disappearance. On the advice of her private detective, Mr. Bohosiewicza, she did not go, as he believed the caller was not credible, it was likely a prank, and the situation could be dangerous for her. (Not sure why he didn’t offer to go in her place?)

During the course of her own investigation, Marta found out that Kasia had been ditching her classes for the last 3 weeks. This came as a surprise to her as Kasia was still keeping the same routine of getting up, getting dressed, and going “to class”. Kasia had been losing some weight recently, had changed her hair color from brown to blonde, and was dressing nicer than usual. But where was she going, and who was she seeing if she wasn’t going to class? 

Marta still had hope she would find her daughter, or that Kasia would come home. She put missing posters up around the university and central Krakow. She talked to people asking them if they had seen her. Some people speculated that Kasia may have taken her own life, as she was depressed about the death of her father, and this time of year was known as “depressing autumn”, especially for young people her age. But, Marta refused to believe Kasia would do anything to hurt herself, as she was willingly seeking psychiatric help for her depression, and because of her “hippie” lifestyle. 

1998 would come to a close, and the new year of 1999, would begin without a word or trace of Kasia. It was as though she had just vanished into thin air. Unfortunately for Marta, the new year would be anything but “happy” in the days to come. 

January is a brutally cold month in Poland. A local tug boat operator, Captain Mieczyslaw, had encountered an issue with his boat while sailing along the Vistula River, towards its mooring spot. Something had disabled one of its propellers, which then dropped the rpm’s on the boat’s turbine, or engine. (Discuss name of tug boat “Los” translating to Moose, but all other English sources say Elk. Also discuss what “mooring” is – dropping anchor.) This was not an uncommon occurrence, as people would throw trash into the river, or branches from trees could get lodged in the propeller, and boat operators have limited visibility after dark. So, when this happened, Captain Mieczyslaw simply shut it down, floated the rest of the way to the mooring spot, and dropped anchor. He decided he would handle it when he and his crew could see better in the light of day, after a night of rest. This was likely the last night of restful sleep he had for a while.

Which brings us to January 6th, 1999. The morning was no warmer than the night before, but at least there was light that made visibility easier. Captain Mieczyslaw and his deckhand had a propeller and turbine to fix before they could raise anchor and go on about their day. However, when they did finally access the propeller, what was jamming it, was not trash, it was not branches, it appeared to be something “leathery”. They weren’t sure what it was, until a deckhand saw what appeared to be an ear with a piercing hole in it. The ear was separated from the other large, leathery object that had been wrapped in some type of fabric. At this point, they realized what had jammed the propeller was human skin, a lot of it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The skin was no longer attached to bone, and the detectives who were called to the scene, retrieved the skin and brought it to the medical examiner’s office for inspection. At this point, there is nothing pointing to a crime, just skin that had been pulled into the propeller. Initially, the police report indicated, “…after the initial examination, the doctor did not find the involvement of third parties”. This report was made after Dr. Tomasz Konopka, a doctor from the Dept. of Forensic Medicine in Krakow, first viewed the skin. He initially concluded that it was likely the propeller had pulled & removed the skin from the body, while traveling down the Vistula River. (Notice I keep saying “initially”. This is not from a lack of words to use. It is purposeful.)

 

Because upon further inspection of the skin and the river, the doctor’s initial hypothesis was incorrect. The skin appeared sliced off, not torn, as it would have been if it had been “removed” by the propeller. Also, there was no sign of bone or bone fragments. Which would be odd, since skin is not easily removed from bone. Additionally, this was not a full suit of skin. Dr. Konopka concluded that the skin had been meticulously and surgically removed by someone who seemed to know their way around a scalpel or a knife. He described it as follows: “Human skin from the front part of the body without bone tissue, with a visible navel and fragments of pubic hair”. The unidentified female’s skin in front of them was evidence of a particularly brutal & heinous crime, not an accident as he initially believed. But, who was she, and where was the rest of her body, bones and all?

This brought investigators back to the Vistula River to search for more clues to her identity, and hopefully the rest of her body. Within a week’s time, after combing the area where the skin suit was found, investigators were only able to discover a section of one human buttock, one leg that had been severed below the knee, and fragments of clothing, likely belonging to the victim. A forensic pathologist determined the skin and body parts had been in the water for 2-3 weeks. The case had been dubbed, “Skora” by local police, which simply translated, means “skin”. But local police still didn’t know her identity, and were in way over their heads with this case. Nothing like this had ever been seen in Poland before.

Local media and reporters were all over this story. Speculation was growing. The pressure was on police to determine the identity of the victim, and her killer. So, they enlisted the help of several European agencies, forensic psychiatrists, as well as the FBI to assist them in answering some, if not all of these questions and more. 

The case, in the media, was referred to as, “Silence of the Lambs: Poland”. The skin suit was very reminiscent of the one sewn together by the character “Buffalo Bill” in the original “Silence of the Lambs” movie, which had been released some 7 years prior. There were also parallels drawn to the serial killer, Ed Gein, nicknamed “The Butcher of Plainfield”, who took skin from his victims, to make skin upholstered furniture, leggings, and a corset from a female torso. (Sound familiar?) Gein’s crimes were discovered back in the 1950’s and were actually the basis of several movies, including “Silence of the Lambs”, “Leatherface”, and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Was he the inspiration for this killer too, or was this method of murder purely coincidence?

Before locating the killer, they needed to know the identity of the victim. This case would be the first time DNA had been used to identify a person in Poland. And, it would be DNA that would lead police to Marta’s door, with a summons for her to accompany them to the police department, to discuss a “murder with particular cruelty”. (Do you think Marta knew at this point this summons was about her daughter?) It was there she learned that any hope she had in finding her daughter alive and well, were gone. They gave her the worst news a mother could ever hear, that her daughter, Katarzyna “Kasia” Zowada, was dead. But not just dead, murdered in a heinous and brutal way, with most of her body still missing, perhaps never to be found. 

Who did this to her & why? We will dig deeper into the forensic evidence, victimology, and investigation to find her killer on next week’s episode of “Sleuth Be Told”. Stay tuned. 

 

All sources accessed August, 2023:

https://thoughtnova.com/the-shocking-murder-of-katarzyna-zowada-she-was-skinned-alive

https://www-radiokrakow-pl.translate.goog/aktualnosci/krakow/wiemy-kim-jest-zatrzymany-w-sprawie-zabojstwa-katarzyny-z/?_x_tr_sl=pl&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc

https://wiadomosci-onet-pl.translate.goog/tylko-w-onecie/19-lat-temu-oskorowal-studentke-podejrzany-o-morderstwo-zostal-zatrzymany-ujawniamy/vj5rq2e?_x_tr_sl=pl&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc

https://www.the-sun.com/news/5186003/silence-lambs-student-skinned-alive-flesh-suit/

https://krakow.naszemiasto.pl/sprawa-skory-ojciec-oskarzonego-jestem-przekonany-ze-syn/ar/c1-8617701

https://wickedness.net/murders/katarzyna-zowada/

https://anymystery.com/katarzyna-zowada-and-the-mystery-of-human-skin-suit/

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Poland/@51.9537506,13.8609411,5z/data=!4m6!3m5!1s0x47009964a4640bbb:0x97573ca49cc55ea!8m2!3d51.919438!4d19.145136!16zL20vMDVxaHc?entry=ttu

https://www.paranormalcatalog.net/unexplained-phenomena/the-disturbing-murder-of-katarzyna-zowada

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Katarzyna_Zowada

https://www.uj.edu.pl/uniwersytet-z-collegium-medicum/historia

http://www.krakow-info.com/Holy-Trinity.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dino_Baggio

https://talkmurder.com/katarzyna-zowada/

https://www.evidencelockerpodcast.com/transcripts/transcript-37-the-skin-suit-case-of-krakow-poland

https://allthatsinteresting.com/ed-gein

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Poland

https://tilt.goombastomp.com/film/appreciation-of-jodie-foster-inthe-silence-of-the-lambs/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Silence_of_the_Lambs_(film)

“Misiek” – the leader of “Wisła Sharks” – began to cooperate with the Polish police.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Further_(original_bus).jpg

Merry Pranksters

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/10894941/Polish-town-erects-statue-of-a-urinating-Lenin.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nowa_Huta