POTSDAM, Germany — It's known in the tabloid press as "The Case of the Killer Minister," although Jochen Wolf is no longer in office and hasn't been accused of actually taking a life.
The trial of the deposed state construction chief on charges of twice having solicited the murder of his fourth wife is bringing out such sordid testimony that even the more respected media often forget to mention that he hasn't yet been convicted.
The proceedings providing German readers with melodrama that easily rivals daytime TV also have prompted some soul-searching among local politicians and voters. Wolf, 60, is now destitute and facing up to 15 years in prison if convicted--but he came within a heartbeat of becoming governor of sprawling Brandenburg state around the same time he admittedly took out his first murder contract.
"How can such a man have become a government minister?" his first wife, Kristina, demanded in an interview with Stern magazine shortly after his arrest last summer, telling of the beatings she suffered at his hands even when she was eight months pregnant.
His second wife, Erika, killed herself in the 1970s, and the third Frau Wolf, Gabriela, left him after only eight weeks of marriage.
An attempt by wife No. 4, Ursula, to force Wolf to pay child support for his two youngest sons, then teenagers, inspired his first approach to a hit man in the early 1990s, prosecutors say. Social workers have reported to the court that Wolf provided no financial assistance to any of his five children in the years before his arrest.
Prosecutors contend that the 1998 suicide of Wolf's 25-year-old Russian mistress after a confrontation with his wife instigated a second murder contract, in 2000, on Ursula, who is separated from Wolf but still legally his spouse.
Wolf has pleaded innocent to the charges. He did confess to the first deal but argues that it bears no legal significance since it was never carried out and his $5,000 deposit was refunded.
Between the two alleged murder contracts, Wolf was fined by courts for his part in a hit-and-run car accident and for using his government office for personal enrichment. The latter fine, about $4,000, cleared the books on the accusation that had cost him his state office: that he had acquired land and a spacious villa in the desirable lake district between Berlin and Potsdam at a fire-sale price from a developer who was later awarded a lucrative state contract.
Wolf, short and scruffy with a perpetually 4-day-old beard, has refused to speak to court officials or the media since his arrest July 27 in a tie boutique at Berlin's busy Zoo train station. But a seemingly incriminating conversation was captured on tape inside the shop, thanks to a microphone worn by the would-be hit man, who had turned state's evidence to escape a fourth prison sentence.
The man contracted for the killing, Ralf Muehlbauer, testified for the prosecution Thursday after swaggering into the courtroom here in a black turtleneck, broad-shouldered velour jacket, baggy silk trousers and patent-leather shoes.
"He looks straight out of 'The Sopranos,' " a German journalist murmured to a colleague beside him.
Muehlbauer is a former fighter with the French Foreign Legion, in whose ranks he has said he learned "the art of surprise killing."
Exuding sincerity along with sound bites, Muehlbauer told presiding Judge Horst Barteldes that he had accepted Wolf's down payment of nearly $5,000 in December 2000 because he had just been released from prison and needed the money. He gave an animated account of how Wolf allegedly pestered him to carry out the murder contract, providing details of his wife's daily routine and the times when Wolf would be out of the country and beyond suspicion.
"He told me, 'She simply has to go!' " Muehlbauer said, describing the defendant as a man who became "ice-cold" whenever he spoke of his wife.
At one point, Muehlbauer testified, Wolf provided him with a state business identification card so that the hit man could pose as a landscape gardener offering to fix up the Wolfs' front yard for the 2001 National Garden Show that was staged in Potsdam. Muehlbauer told the court that he spent about 45 minutes with Ursula Wolf to case the planned crime scene after accepting the defendant's down payment but before reporting the contract to police.
Muehlbauer's motives in testifying against Wolf haven't been made clear yet, as the trial is only two weeks into an expected two-month duration. But Wolf's court-appointed defense attorney, Stefan Waldeck, has cast grave doubts about the credibility of the prosecution's star witness.
It remains an open question whether the three-judge court will be persuaded to convict the former construction minister, who in 1992 was set to replace the Brandenburg governor when it appeared that he might be ousted in an intelligence scandal.
But the headline-grabbing case has set politicians to rethinking their practice of selecting candidates for important state jobs on the basis of who has been most influential in elevating the party.
The respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily questioned how it came to be that Wolf had obtained one state position after another even after losing his ministerial job following the influence-peddling scandal.