It was one of the great remaining mysteries surrounding the final days of World War II — what happened to Heinrich Mueller, the head of the Gestapo secret police and the highest-ranking Nazi never to have been captured or located.
But a leading German researcher told The Associated Press on Thursday he has uncovered historical documents indicating Mueller never made it more than a few hundred meters (yards) from Hitler's bunker in downtown Berlin and was eventually buried in a common grave in a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis.
Johannes Tuchel, the director of Berlin's German Resistance Memorial Center, said a death certificate he uncovered says Mueller died in the final days of the war in 1945 near the Luftwaffe headquarters.
About three months after the end of the war, Tuchel said other evidence shows Mueller's body was found by a work crew cleaning up corpses and buried along with about 3,000 others in a communal grave on the site of a Jewish cemetery that the SS had destroyed in 1943.
"We now know with near certainty that he was buried in August 1945 in the garden of the Luftwaffe headquarters, and then brought to the Jewish cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Strasse," said Tuchel, whose story was first reported by Bild newspaper.
Mueller, who was an SS Gruppenfuehrer — roughly equivalent to a major general — was sought for decades after the war by investigators around the world, including Israel's Mossad, the U.S. Office of Special Investigations, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Tuchel said he had no explanation for why they hadn't come up with the same information. "That is a part of the puzzle I can't answer," he said. "It's unclear to me."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center's top Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, sounded a note of caution, saying only DNA evidence could really prove Mueller was buried in Berlin.
"The Nazis who wanted to escape very often took measures to create false documents faking their death," he said in a telephone interview from London. "I would be very wary of reports like that without forensic evidence."
Tuchel came across the documents when researching an incident in which Mueller ordered the execution of 18 resistance fighters at the end of the war. He said in addition to a December 1945 death certificate for Mueller, he said he also has evidence that the identity papers and medals were turned over to military authorities to return to his family in 1948.
And in 1963 — when authorities were looking into a false rumor that Mueller had been buried in the Neukoelln district — a gravedigger told police in testimony Tuchel found that he had buried Mueller in the former Jewish cemetery, and had matched his identity papers to the face of the body.
Zuroff said if the information does turn out to be true, it would be a "comforting thought" that Mueller didn't escape but "absolutely horrifying" that he was in a Jewish cemetery.