SKIN ON SKIN: THE TRAGIC CASE OF KATARZYNA ZOWADA

January Sixth, 1999. The nameless captain of the boat named “Los” (“Elk” when translated) was sailing in the Vistula river near in Krakow, Poland. January in the town Krakow is a cold month, the coldest of the year on average. For Krakow, January boast highs of 33.8 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of 23.2 degrees. Aside from the bitter cold, there is an average of 15 days of rain in the town that bring with it dark clouds that hang over the city even when the rain stops. On average, the days of January in Krakow bring with them just 1.4 hours of sunshine.

            That day, January sixth, did not feel special. It was an average January day that the captain of the “Los” chose to venture out into the Vistula. The Vistula, Poland’s longest river, runs through the entirety of Krakow and continues on to either end of Poland. Going north, the Vistula ends in the Baltic sea and going south, it bleeds into Slovakia. The waters of the Vistula are tame, unswimmable only in areas where contamination is an issue. It made sense then, that what caused the “Los” to port on January 6th, 1999 were not rough waters, but what the captain assumed to be something stuck in the boats screw propeller.

            The captain felt the tug of the tangled screw and with the tug, he also noticed that the odor of the air’s humidity had been overpowered by something rotten. He didn’t think much of it as they ported. Again, the Vistula did have the tendency to be filthy in some areas and that could easily have been explanation for both whatever was stuck in the boats screw and whatever was giving the air that foul smell. However, nothing could have prepared the captain for what he would find stuck under his boat.

            Contrary to the belief of the captain, what had been caught in the propeller of his boat had not been trash that had been littered in the Vistula. There, now on the deck of his boat, was a form that could only exist through the sheer hands of evil. It was headless and armless.  It had a thin pale layer of skin that seemed to have been sewn together with its insides hollowed out to make space for something else, or someone else. The skin of the torso was still attached to a lower body that ran all the way down to the feet. The captain couldn’t know at the time, but what had gotten caught on the propeller of the “Los” were the scalped remains of a student from a nearby university that had gone missing only a few months before. What he also didn’t know at the time, is that it would be speculated that the students skin had been flayed then worn of the skin of her killer. Reports would call him the “The Real-Life Buffalo Bill”, a reference to the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.

But how could something so gruesome happen in a town like Krakow?

            Admittedly, there are some places in the world that lend themselves to acts of evil. Places like Las Vegas that dubs itself the “City of Sin” or Amsterdam with its infamous Red Light District that give them an air of modern-day Sodom or Gomorrahs. But Krakow, Poland? While researching this work I wanted to get a better sense of Krakow and what it was like so armed with google translate, I visited the webpage of a popular paper in the area, The Krakow Post. Once there, I tried to find some headlines that were untouched by global issues and focused more on the goings on of the city of Krakow. What I found were two articles from January 9th and January 10th of 2020. The first article was about a university in Krakow that was opening a new emergency room. The second article, the one I found to be more entertaining, was one of a wild boar that attacked three people (not a serious attack) at a cracovian park. The article was not focused on the actual attack however, but instead focused on informing the citizens of Krakow that the boar in question had tested negative for rabies-how reassuring. For further research, I studied a side tab of the Post’s most popular articles of which number one was an article titled “Any Idiot can find a Brother in Krakow”. I did not click this link. Seeing it trend as the website’s number one post gave me some reassurance that I was not going out on a limb in my hypothesis that Krakow was not the place people spent their days worried about a murder as horrendous as Katarzyna Zowada’s.  

            Katarzyna Zowada was a college student that had been reported missing on November 18th, 1999. That day, Katarzyna missed a doctor’s appointment she had made with her mother. After being contacted by the office concerning her absence, Katarzyna’s mother became worried. The worry became panic when she was unable to get a hold of Katarzyna. The two shared routine phone calls with one another and it was unlike Katarzyna to be so hard to find. In her maternal panic, her mother made the decision that she would go to the police and report her daughter missing. Upon arriving at police station, Katarzyna’s mother was asked to wait to file a report and so she did. Time passed she heard nothing of her missing daughter, claiming there was very little done those first months of her daughters’ disappearance and subsequent murder investigation. Because of this, she would go on to hire a private detective but even then, wasn’t able to find any answers as to the disappearance of her daughter. Then, January Sixth came, and with it, heartache along along with more questions. And again, to the dismay of Katarzyna’s mother, there was nobody with answers to those questions. All she could do was wait for a breakthrough.

*

May 1999

In the basement of a home in Brzyczyna, Poland, a town 11 miles south of Krakow, A man named only Wladyslaw W. in newspapers stood staring at a headless body hanging upside down in his cellar. Wladyslaw, unaffected was unaffected by the horror in front of him because he had been the one to put it there. The evil inside of him had manifested and made the familiar unfamiliar, the body in front of him was one he’d known his entire life, and what he wanted to do with it next is tear it apart and make it his own.

He had killed the man in his basement with a screwdriver, stabbing him 14 times before hanging and letting his blood pour out in to buckets. The body would need to be purged before he could continue with his godless fantasy. He would go on to take a shovel along with a scalpel and tear the corpses head from its body. After, he went into his bedroom with the head and a scalpel in hand; his night was far from over.

            Throughout the night, Wladyslaw worked the scalpel against the skin and try to peel it like someone would peel an orange. With precision, he pulled the mostly intact skin from the decapitated head; all he wanted was the skin. He carefully took the skin and sewed it together to make a mask, this would take him all night to complete. When he was done, he threw the skinless head out of his window. In the early hours of the morning, the head would lay in the garden waiting to be discovered. Putting the final touches to his work, Wladyslaw would tend to the mask by salting it in hopes that it would help to keep it from spoiling.

            Nobody can ever know what it must have felt like, to stand there staring at his father’s face, separated from its frame. The bulk of his father still hung from the basement ceiling and his skull still sat in the family’s garden. What a disturbing sight it must have been, a still expression on a face with no skin, lifeless but surrounded by the life of the garden. The phrase “to take a life” usually refers to the act of killing someone but it could be argued that on that day, what Wladyslaw wanted to do was take his father’s life in order to make it his. Wladyslaw walked into his father’s bedroom, searched the closet and grabbed some of his clothes. After doing this, he stuck adhesive tape to his scalp so that the mask would better mold onto his face and finally, he put the mask on and walked out the front door.

            In some unnamed, unknown park near his father’s home, Wladyslaw sat on a park bench. There was nothing noteworthy about the trip to the park, all he did was sit there in the early morning contemplating something that can only be guessed about. One must wonder how comfortable he found himself to be under his father’s skin. That morning at the park, there was no reports of a strange looking man sitting alone, no disturbances (that were reported) or any other story that could point to Wladyslaw being anything but in a state of external peace as he sat on that bench. Eventually, as easily as he had arrived, he got up and made his way back home. He kept the mask and his father’s clothes on when he got home. And after he had settled back in, there was a knock at the front door.

             Wladyslaw’s grandfather had arrived unannounced and uninvited. Under his father’s skin, Wladyslaw did his best to make small talk with his grandfather with the goal of making him feel like this was just any other day, a  day that wasn’t tainted with the morbidity of rotting corpses and rotting souls.

How are you? What about this weather? I took a stroll to the park today. It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it, dad?

Wladyslaw grew so confident in his father’s skin that he invited his grandfather into the house for breakfast. With no reason to do otherwise, his grandfather accepted the invitation and went inside the home. He didn’t know it at the time but stepping into that home could have proved to be the most dangerous thing he’d ever done in his life.

During the meal, Wladyslaw did his best to keep up the façade. However, there was only so much he could do. Sitting only a table lengths away it was easier to notice the stitching of his face, the expressionless movement of the skin taped to his face and the coarseness of his voice as his vocal chords struggled to emulate a voice that wasn’t his. And it was that, his voice that ultimately gave him away. The air of the room shifted when Wladyslaw realized that his grandfather had finally noticed something was amiss. The room became quiet. Wladyslaw’s answers shorter and shorter to keep from giving himself away.

What was he going to do about this? What could he do? Wladyslaw could see that while his grandfather didn’t know who he was talking to, it had dawned on him that who he wasn’t talking to, was his son. Then, his grandfather stood up. When he began to make his was to the cellar where his sons decapitated corpse was hanging, Wladyslaw panicked, packed some belongings, and left the home in a hurry.

He wouldn’t go far however, he stayed within an eye’s view and watched as his grandfather fled to the neighbor’s home in a state of complete hysteria. Wladyslaw would also watch as police arrived before making his weigh to a bus stop where he would eventually be found and arrested.

*

            When news of the crime reached Krakow, it naturally made Wladyslaw the prime suspect in the murder of Katarzyna Zowada. After all, the skinning of both victims was done meticulously and with the goal of being able to wear the skin after it was completed. For two separate murders of such an evil nature to happen so close to one another felt too strange to be coincidence. The big question however, was why? Why would Wladyslaw murder Katarzyna, a shy and quiet college student that he had probably never met before? The wearing of the skin could have been linked to him as most people assumed it was Wladyslaw’s twisted obsession, but this did not explain the 14 stab wounds that would normally only be attributed to a crime of passion.

The specifics of the crime didn’t make sense nor connect outside of the skinning. Later, Wladyslaw’s grandfather would claim that the murder of his son was a crime of revenge but not other details regarding his claim could be found through research. This claim would create an even bigger rift between connection of the two murders. The murder of Wladyslaw’s father would become understood to be an isolated incident. Combined with the fact that there was no evidence to link Wladyslaw of the crime, he was later dismissed as a suspect and like before, Katarzyna’s case went cold.

  Even after the body was exhumed in 2012 and police were able to find information that could potentially point them in the direction of the person that committed the crime, they had no suspect that they thought fit the bill, or so they though. The body had sustained injuries before death that lined up with someone who knew martial arts. From the findings, criminal psychologist were able to make the assumption that the crimes were influenced by a sexual passion and we most likely committed by someone who probably harbored ill feelings towards woman while also maintaining an unhealthy and hostile fascination with them. What police failed to realize in 2012 however, was that they had suspected someone in 1999 that fit the bill but was ultimately cast aside because of a lack of evidence or motive. The thing is, crimes as heinous as this one are rarely rational, and almost always influenced by an otherworldly evil that doesn’t care for logic or reason.

Enter the man known only as Robert J. Robert J., at the time of his arrest was 52 years old. In the photo used for a variety of the newspaper articles detailing his arrest in 2017, he was handcuffed and walking in between two officers. He looked short, at least standing next to the officers, whose shoulders were almost level with the top of his head. When the photo was taken,  he was wearing grey sweatpants and a crewneck sweatshirt to match. He had a stocky build (a result of his bodybuilding hobby) and the hair on his head was cut into a sort of buzzcut, the kind that you can get by walking into a barber shop and pointing at a poster on the wall. In the arrest phote, nothing about Robert looked special, and actually, it can probably be argued that nothing about Robert was special. He was, before evidence came to light to prove otherwise, just a good Christian man who regularly attended church; he had been so since February of 1999.

  As mentioned earlier, Robert J. was a suspect early on in the case but there was nothing at the time that could connect him to Katarzyna. Robert’s parents denied his involvement and made note that Robert because of their belief that he was far too godly a man to commit such a crime. Robert, as stated before was a “religious” person and attended church services habitually. Also worth noting a second time is that this religious fervor had awakened inside of him the month after Katarzyna’s body was found in the Vistula. It was as if the murder of the student had for on reason or another, put a weight on his soul.

Perhaps, Robert had himself fallen victim. Victim to the symptoms of a tell-tale heart that he could not ignore. And although he had claimed to never know her, Robert became very interested in information on the case and tracked it with a curious intimacy. It’s likely that the same intimacy was what compelled him on multiple occasions to visit Katarzyna’s grave. Of course, none of this information came to light until 2017 when Robert was once again a suspect in the case. For 17 tears, Robert led a life where the only judgment he had to fear was God’s, but that time was soon coming to an end.

Eventually, police would find out that Robert was well trained in martial arts, something they didn’t know and wouldn’t care to know before the exhumation of the body in 2012. It was a loose association but something that linked him to what they were searching for when looking at potential suspects. Of course, a knowledge of martial arts didn’t make Robert a sadistic murderer. A look into his working record would change this though. And little by little, the police search would begin to narrow onto that born-again Christian; one that was born-again out of the fire and brimstone of murder.

Upon researching Robert’s work history, police could find that the firing of Robert J. left a huge crimson colored stain on his records. Robert had worked in a testing laboratory for some time. The work was short lived. He was fired from one day to the next because of an incident that could only be described as an ominous presage for what was to come. One day, a day that seemed to be like any other, Robert went into the laboratory for his scheduled shift. Before leaving, Robert would kill every rabbit in the laboratory. The next day, Robert was fired but even with the evil of his actions, no further attention was paid to him or his growing appetite for murder.

With the slew of new evidence, the police interviewed Robert’s parents once again. In the interview, Robert’s father made mention of an incident in 1999 where Robert tore apart the floor tiles of his apartment and replaced them. At the time, his father didn’t think much of it and because of this, didn’t share the information with police. As mentioned earlier, when Robert was first suspected, his father, along with his mother, was adamant that his son was innocent and that the suspicions of police were preposterous. It seemed that like Katarzyna’s mother and Wladyslaw’s grandfather, Robert J’s parents were also coming to the realization that the innocent child they raised was only a distant and bittersweet memory.

After finding out about Robert’s bathroom renovation, police investigated his apartment and did extensive work to pull apart and analyze the floor of the bathroom. Robert had always claimed he had no relationship with Katarzyna and that he had never even come into contact with her. The DNA results would prove this to be false and would serve as the final nail in the coffin for the case. Results confirmed that there was DNA belonging to Katarzyna Zawada in Robert’s bathroom and with that, police could finally do what they had wanted to do since January of 1999. Robert was arrested on October 12th of 2017.

*

As of September 2019, Robert J. continues to claim that he never had any interaction with Katarzyna Zowada and waits for his day in court where he can try to prove that despite the overwhelming amount of evidence against him. It has now been 21 years (at the time of writing this [2020]) since Katarzyna’s body was discovered on the Vistula river that gloomy day in Krakow. To put that into perspective, Katarzyna’s mother spent 23 years raising her daughter and then followed that by spending the next 21 years of her life trying to find justice for her killer. It has taken damn near a literal lifetime to bring some semblance of peace back into her mother’s life.

 While in prison, Robert J. has made complaints that he has been harassed and insulted by prison guards. The reports of harassment, like the court hearing, continue to allow Robert J. to tell his own story as he understands it, a privilege he stole from Katarzyna Zowada when he ended her life.

What little is know about Katarzyna is know because of her mother. She was shy but friendly, never had problems with anyone. Katarzyna’s mother remembers fodly long conversations the two shared about movies, plays and books. She refers to her as being an intellectual partner to her when she was alive and notes that she was very intelligent. A studious person that never had problems at school despite multiple changes in her field of study.

It’s quite evident that Katarzyna, in her youth was still trying to figure herself out at the time of her death. She had been exploring herself and her place in the world, trying to find out how the thick roots of herself would spread into her own fruitful life.

Another thing her mother makes known is her daughters love for nature. She loved mountains; thought they were beautiful. Every mountain has its own story, its own history with peaks and crevices as nuances that demand to be explored because that is the only way to learn those stories. No mountain tells its story but instead asks for its story to be discovered. And now the memory of Katarzyna Zowada, without the ability to tell its own story, waits to be discovered like a beautiful mountain landscape seeing sunlight for the first time in a gloomy Krakow January.  

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