Why Was an American Scientist Murdered in a Nazi Bunker?

By Barbie.Nadeau@thedailybeast.com (Barbie Latza Nadeau)
Courtesy of Suzanne Eaton Family
Courtesy of Suzanne Eaton Family

Suzanne Eaton was, by every standard, an accomplished woman. The 59-year-old molecular biologist from Oakland, California, held a black belt in Taekwondo and was a globetrotting speaker on the international science circuit. She was married to a British scientist with whom she had two children, and she was an avid runner, racking up several miles on her daily 30-minute run.

Eaton, who worked as a research leader at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, was last seen playing piano at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, in Kolymbari, on July 2, where she was attending a conference.

Her family and friends assumed that she had gone for a run and perhaps passed out in the stifling heat wave or fallen on rough terrain during her workout. Her passport, money, phone, cycling shoes, and laptop were all found in her hotel room, they say. All that was missing were her running shoes.

Her relatives and friends raised nearly $50,000 to aid the search through an online campaign. Then, on July 9, her body was found by two local residents exploring a World War II-era Nazi bunker about seven miles from where Eaton had been staying.

Her body, which was wrapped in burlap, showed signs of torture, including stab wounds, but her official cause of death, according to the coroner, was asphyxiation. The coroner said she likely suffered a “slow and painful death.”

There was no immediate sign of sexual violence, according to investigators, who said she was still dressed when she was found. A full autopsy is under way. Her body was in such an advanced state of decomposition after a week in the extreme heat that dental records had to be used for a positive identification.

On Friday, Crete’s police spokesperson Eleni Papathanasiou confirmed to The Daily Beast that they were questioning several suspects, including some with neo-Nazi ties, who may know something about what happened to Eaton.

Papathanasiou also said they were looking into whether the location of her body inside a labyrinth of tunnels dug out by Nazis occupying Crete during World War II was connected to the murder. “It is of course part of the investigation,” Papathanasiou told The Daily Beast. “It is a curious place to leave a body, especially when the victim was living and working in Germany.”

Police are also taking into consideration how a woman as fit as Eaton who held a black belt in Taekwondo could be overcome. “The perpetrator or perpetrators may have suffered defensive wounds, and we are looking at that as well.”

Crete has long been a magnet for neo-Nazi sympathizers who regularly treasure hunt in bunkers like the one where Eaton was found, searching for World War II relics. Several collectors have unofficial museums in small villages where their Nazi regalia is on display.

Crete was also a recent base for several leaders of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party who had chosen the Greek island for its historical ties to Nazi occupation. In 2018, an anti-Fascist group was able to raid the Golden Dawn headquarters in the capital Heraklion, which sent the group underground.

Konstantinos Beblidakis, the vice mayor of the local Platanias municipality, said the area where Eaton was found was accessible by various back roads but there were no surveillance cameras despite the fact that the area above the bunkers was a popular hiking area for tourists.

He said that most people, except those who are well versed in the island’s Nazi past, would not have known about the bunker, which was not open to the public or marked in any way. It is as yet unclear how the two local residents found her or just why they were inside the secret bunker.

Eaton’s university-age son, Max, praised his mother in a statement. “She managed to live a life with few regrets, balancing out her personal life with her career,” he said. “I think the fact that I did not realize how well she had managed to do so was evident [by the fact] that other mothers around me had taken to caring for their children full time, yet mine was never outdone by any of them.”

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