Saturday, May 16, 2020

Margarita Herlein, Black Widow Serial Killer – Argentina, 1978

Translated from Spanish: Marisa Grinstein, Mujeres Asesinas: Las historias que inspiron la exitosa serie de TV producia por Mediamates.

"Getting men was never a problem for Margarita Herlein. Already in her adolescence she knew that her male neighbors went out of their way to talk to her, to approach her, to see her. They invited her to parties and bars, to the cinema and theaters, to barbecue, to me excursions. Margarita was proud of her sexual success, although deep down she always despised the looks of desire to which she was subjected. It seemed to her that someone like her did not deserve so much attention: by dwarfing herself under her own gaze, she automatically dwarfed her potential candidates.

She was born in 1936. Her German family raised her with strict principles and a notable lack of affection. 'My mom never hugged me and neither did my dad', she said to Norita, her only friend at the time. She did not say it with pain, but rather with a certain amazement, as if her case was a rarity that she carried with stoicism.

Margarita was blonde, of normal height and with harmonious features. What she liked best about herself was a combination: the hardness of her square jaw with her light blue eyes. Light blue, large and peaceful. In fact, her eyes had become part of an unfriendly joke that her mother used to repeat to her every time she was disciplined: 'The truth is, you are unbearable. In life, what will save you are those eyes and nothing else.'

In 1953, at age 17, Margarita married Juan Gebel, ten years her senior. Her parents insisted that she accept this man. 'He is German, like us, they will understand each other.', her mother always said. Margarita had had several boyfriends, but she had never dared go to bed with them: Coronel Suárez was a small place and she was afraid that her family would find out. So accepting Gebel was an episode that had more to do with curiosity than love.

The novelty of a life without parents and with a man was likeable for the first two years. But then her curious and erratic spirit came to light. She was 19 years old and wondered if it was fair to herself to grow old knowing a single man. She also wondered if her husband would not be a tremendous mistake sponsored by a spiteful and unloving mother like hers.

With doubts, they started what she herself called, 'the tests.' They consisted of combing her hair very carefully, choosing clothes that favored her, and going outside to test if she still liked men. She never felt sure of the results. They looked at her, yes, and she knew, but it seemed to her that things had changed, that nothing was like before her marriage. She wondered why. Could just getting married just make her lose all her appeal? Or was it that the men only looked at the teenage girls? She had put on four kilos, was that it? Each day, the nature of the responses to her own questions changed.

Meanwhile, she had a son, Juan Carlos. She had become pregnant a few months after being married. In 1958, four years later, she would've her second child, Lidia Noemí.

Lidia's birth was the trigger for a crisis that Margarita did not know how to overcome. She saw the whole family scene of her own life as if it were a bad taste movie, a stupid movie about a woman who threw everything away for a vulgar husband, two insignificant children and an ugly house. She couldn't have done something like that to herself.

Juan Gebel was a simple person. He started selling meat, later he also sold cars and opened a bar. His occupations kept him permanently away from home, which allowed Margarita to take certain liberties.

In the pharmacy two blocks away from her home, she met a certain García, who visited the pharmacy and who, without being a pharmacist, killed time studying the effects of certain poisons. Margarita liked the employee's physique: she looked at him in his dark pants and light blue jacket and imagined him naked. He had the same intentions as her. It didn't take long for them to become lovers. And when she managed to have him in bed, the second man who appeared in her life, her suspicions were confirmed: her husband was not worth it, and it was useless to grow old with that burden. However, divorce was not in her plans. Juan would've to disappear. Literally.

At first it seemed that fate was going to help her. In 1962, Gebel suffered a terrible accident with his Model T Ford which almost killed him. She, who had gone to a Catholic school, refloated to her religious side to ask, to beg that her husband would not recover. Her prayers were not heard. With difficulty, Gebel improved. She lived through the entire process of his recovery like a nightmare. Many times it seemed to her that God was going to punish her for making such a request, or for waiting for the death of her husband. She imagined the punishment as many more years of her life in solitude, ignored by men, dedicated to raising her children, cleaning the garbage in the house day by day.

One night, when her friend Norita had come to keep her company, [Margarita] had a couple glasses of wine and was encouraged to confide, in part, to her fantasies of widowhood. Her friend told her to speak quietly, because her convalescent husband might be listening to them. But then she comforted her, telling that all the women in the world, at some point, had wished for the death of their husbands. There was nothing more normal.

One afternoon, several months after the crash, Gebel invited his wife to go to the movies. On the way back, Margarita was in a terrible mood. She had seen her lover - the one from the pharmacy - hugging a woman two rows in front. She had no intention of projecting a future with García, but there was an idea that did not leave her: 'If I weren't married, he would be with me now, not with that other one.'

In a darkened mood, she looked at her husband: he was doing accounts on a quantity of papers on his desk. She saw him looking worse than ever, older, weaker, skinnier, smaller.

She realized that this was the time to put into practise what she had been thinking for months: poison him. She approached him and asked: 'Are you hungry? Do you want me to cook you some empanadas?' Gebel accepted. A few hours later, he started vomiting. The next day, the picture worsened. The prescribed medications were having no effect. He had kidney complications. The following Thursday, he was admitted to the hospital in Coronel Suárez but, given the seriousness of the case, he was immediately transferred to Buenos Aires. Two days later, Juan Gebel died. The doctors believed that it was an exceptional case of 'fulminant cancer'.

Now a widow, Margarita Herlein began to feel better. One of her first decisions was to leave Coronel Suárez. She took her two children to Olavarría, where she decided to settle. She rented a house in the Los Eucapliptos neighborhood. The landlord, Abel Vitale, was a carpenter, somewhat poor, divorced and with two daughters. They became friends. Soon after, lovers. Right away, Vitale settled them in his own house - the one he rented to Margarita and her children - and, in the end, they married. In 1970, they had a daughter, Esther Viviana. Once again, the birth of the daughter triggered in Margarita a process of anguish and dissatisfaction. She saw her life again as a lousy film, a film to which pathetic elements were being added without pause.

When the daughter was born, Vitale decided to install a pantry so that his wife had something to do: he saw that she was bored and disinterested of doing anything. The business was useless for the family finances because a few days after opening it, he had to quit his job as a carpenter: he had permanent nausea, terrible headaches, cramps and his hair began to fall out. Doctors speculated: the disease appeared to be caused by bone-marrow cancer. On October 21, 1971, Abel Vitale died.

At the beginning of 1972, Margarita met, in Olavarría, a former neighbor from Coronel Suárez - Alberto Seitz, who had played in the Juvencia orchestra. They knew each from there. But when the group disbanded, Seitz decided to move.

He was over fifty years old, married, had children, and made guitars and violins. But fidelity was not his strong suit. When he saw Margarita, he remembered the number of times he had insisted on going out with her. More than twenty years had passed, but at 36, she was still an attractive woman. Even more attractive than before.

Margarita had approached Seitz because she remembered him from when he played at Juvencia: she had always wanted to have a relationship with a musician. And besides, she had the obsessive idea of getting men. What she really wanted was to try them. There were some who were dismissed outright, but others raised doubts. So many doubts, that the only way to be sure if it was worth it, was like this - to test them. And the tests were always disappointing to Margarita. With Seitz, in a couple of months she knew that nothing else was wrong. But she had already gotten used to ending her relationships definitively. A simple separation was not enough for her. It was not enough. The 'fulminant cancer' came to Seitz on August 27, 1973.

How is it possible that with this background, men still approached Herlein? Even for superstitous matters, they should have at least been scared of a three-time widow. But people often have unlimited confidence in their own luck. So when Ricardo Máximo Janush, a 37-year-old trucker, met Herlein and learned of her three dead husbands, he was not the least bit impressed, not even by comments from other people. Not that there were concrete suspicions that she had murdered them, but all the jokes ended there, in the perfect crime.

On April 19, 1976, Janush and Herlein married and he took care of her children. He made the eldest one a carpenter. He took out life insurances and made all four of them beneficiaries.

A few months after their wedding, Margarita got tired of her husband. She still felt young enough to give up the search for the man destined for her. She would have to kill him to go her own way. At the same time, she was afraid that people would become suspicious. So she thought about poisoning him too - she couldn't think of another way to kill - but she served him the poison before he hit the road with the truck. According to her calculations, the poison would make him numb and he would crash on the road.

She had no luck. Janush had the symptoms that were all too familiar to her: colic, dizziness, headaches, cramps, extreme weakness. But he did not crash on the route, but, arriving in Buenos Aires to transport some merchandise, he felt so bad that he went to Rawson Hospital, where he was admitted. From there, they transferred him to the Ferrer Hospital. He died on December 11, 1977.

Janush's death raised suspicions among his co-workers. The death certificate stated that he had died of bronchopneumonia, but different theories began to be woven at the wake. In an Olavarría newspaper, El Popular, the story of Margarita Herlein and the successive deaths of her men, all with similar symptoms, were linked together. A nephew of Janush told about Margarita and her son to the police. Once detained, and fearing that her son would be incriminated, she confessed to having poisoned her last husband with rodenticide.

While serving in preventative detention, she was told that her ex-husbands' bodies would be exhumed. It was the first time she was lost, overwhelmed.

Poison was found in the bodies of Gebel, Vitale, Seitz and Janush. She only admitted to poisoning Janush. In a moment of exhaustion, she gave some details: 'I expected him to kill himself on the road, with the truck. He failed me. What am I going to do. But now I don't expect anything. Nothing matters to me.'

She ended up in the Azul Women's Prison. She told one of her companions that, deep down, being imprisoned was not so bad. 'At least, you don't have to think whether men like you or not. At least that.'


[Her case was also covered on the ninth episode of the TV show 'Mujeres Asesinas']

1936 – Margarita born.
1953 – Margarita (17) marries Juan Gebel (27) husband #1.
1958, second child, Lidia Noemí.
1962 – Juan Gebel dies.
1962? – Abel Vitale becomes lover.
1970 – daughter of Margarita and Abel Vitale, Esther Viviana Gebel, born.
Oct. 21, 1971 – Abel Vitale, lover, dies.
1972 – Margarita met Alberto Seitz, husband #4, in Olavarría, (over 50).
Aug. 27, 1973. Alberto Seitz, lover, dies.
Apr. 19, 1976 – Margarite marries Máximo Janush.
Dec. 11, 1977 – Ricardo Máximo Janush, husband #5, dies.


For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


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