In July of 2016, seventeen-year-old Mike Mansholt, a tourist from Germany, vanished after setting out to explore the catacombs of Rabat on Malta, also
In July of 2016, seventeen-year-old Mike Mansholt, a tourist from Germany, vanished after setting out to explore the catacombs of Rabat on Malta, also known as the “Realm of the Dead”. Mike’s frantic parents raced to the island after Mike failed to arrive home. About a week after Mike’s initial disappearance, his remains were discovered near the highest point of the island under very strange circumstances.
The discovery of Mike’s body marked the beginning of a surreal, two-year-long ordeal to return his remains home and to find answers about what happened to him. To this day, the Mansholts are still without those answers, and while there’s no shortage of theories, clues to this tragedy may be found in the ancient, secretive tunnels that hide beneath the island like a hollow spider’s web, woven into stone by a mysterious culture so long ago.
Bernd Mansholt is a goldsmith from Oldenburg, in Germany. He is Mike’s father and has been at the front of the pack in the search for answers about what happened to his son, who he considered his best friend. Bernd is an adventurous man, fond of sailing with his family on grand journeys across the sea. It seems Bernd passed this exploratory boldness onto his son, who enjoyed scuba diving and climbing.
Their favorite activity together was flying remote controlled airplanes, and it was this treasured pastime that inspired Mike to make aviation design his life’s ambition. But that was all lost the day Mike directed his curious spirit towards the underground realm beneath Malta. The subterranean tombs of Rabat would be Mike’s last known destination.
Rabat is a popular Maltese tourist destination ( Anette Andersen / Adobe Stock)
Retracing Mike’s Last Steps
Thanks to our brave new world of smart phones, security cameras, and online matrices, some solid evidence of Mike’s final hours was available. Mike was staying at the Astra, a small hotel on the east end of the island. Hotel cameras show Mike exiting his room at 8:39am, then returning at 9:10am, at which point he settled his bill. He was wearing a blue t-shirt and sunglasses, and had with him a rented mountain bike and a GoPro camera.
At 10:11am Mike was online and sent a message on WhatsApp about his plans to check out the Realm of the Dead catacombs in Rabat. From this point, the morning of July 18, 2016, Mike no longer appeared online, and all calls to his phone went unanswered.
Malta’s Mysterious Catacombs
Before dissecting the Mansholt incident, it should be mentioned that even the most discerning and dedicated students of history, culture, and civilization, may not be familiar with the strange and ancient structures beneath the surface of Malta. Much of the European continent is riddled with ancient catacombs, many dating back to the Medieval and Roman eras; however, this cultural phenomenon is entirely different from subterranean Malta.
While Roman and Medieval era catacombs certainly do exist under the island, these are relatively recent burials which utilized a much, much more ancient and artificial tunnel system that was built in prehistoric times. This tunnel system connects an incredible, mind boggling network of sanctuaries, temples, and dwellings, all carved underground out of solid stone.
There are many megalithic structures on Malta ( Luigi Nifosì / Adobe Stock)
The surface too, is still covered in archaic, megalithic wonders of astronomically aligned stone temples, where human sacrifices occurred, where the sands are littered with strange stone spheres and where grooves have been mysteriously cut into the bedrock. Many thousands of remains have been found scattered in these labyrinths, remains two millennia older than Medieval or Roman burials, Skeletons with elongated skulls have been found here, mysterious in origin.
Strange, difficult to believe folklore emanates from these places, tales of giants, cyclopes, and missing children. These mysteries are compounded by eerie acoustic designs, uncomfortable and limited Neolithic construction techniques, and rumors of an archaeological cover-up. There are endless questions waiting beneath the surface of Malta.
Returning to the incident in question, when the blue and black Lombardo 270 mountain bike Mike Mansholt had rented for the day was not promptly returned to rental shop at the harbor, the Maltese authorities were first contacted regarding his whereabouts. Initially, neither Maltese authorities nor Mike’s parents were alarmed. After all, a teenager who fails to answer phone calls or return a rented bicycle on time, is not much of a red flag.
But four days later, when Mike failed to arrive home on his scheduled flight, Mike’s mother called German and Maltese authorities to report her son missing. Bernd cancelled his vacation in Croatia, and headed straight for Malta, desperate to locate their son.
The Search and the Discovery
On July 23, 2016 Mike was officially declared a missing person. The search for Mike was an international cooperation between the Bundeskriminalamt (or “BKA”, the German Federal Police Office) and the Maltese authorities.
The Dingli Cliffs are the highest point on Malta ( Gallas / Adobe Stock)
Three days later on July 26, an allegedly anonymous tip led investigators to a body. 250 meters (820 feet) up, at the highest point of the island, the Dingli Cliffs swarmed with police, forensic experts, media reporters, with the distressed Mansholts looking on.
The peak of the island is a rugged place, with steep jagged cliffs, an old radar facility, and the Magdalen Chapel, surrounded by orange trees. The Mansholts’ nightmare took hold as the investigators held them back, but Bernd did insist on seeing the remains. They were later confirmed to be Mike’s, and according to Bernd, police unofficially relayed to him that there appeared to be a broken back, suggesting a fall.
The Agonizing Aftermath
Nearly two weeks later, the situation was growing more and more convoluted. On August 8, Bernd learned directly from the police that his son actually had no broken bones of any kind. Bernd confronted the lead investigator about the discrepancy, and according to him she behaved evasively. Furthermore, he had already been told by the same lead investigator that Mike’s camera had been found at the cliffs. Yet, after a long delay, an entirely different camera was given to him.
The Maltese authorities, according to Bernd, were now becoming uncooperative. There were additional discrepancies like fresh hay discovered under the body, and Mike’s shoes had been seemingly placed at the scene. Needless to say, the missing camera could have held critical evidence and another glaring discrepancy was that Mike’s backpack was missing, a bag containing electronics, cash, and a credit card.
By August 20, Mike’s remains finally arrived back in Germany, but the torture for the family continued. When the German medical examiners examined Mike’s body, they were shocked to discover all his vital organs were missing except for fragments of a few, including the brain. Also, the remains should have been saturated in preservation chemicals. Instead, the remains were still in a state of decomposition.
German investigators conducted their own autopsy and found that the likelihood of a fall was “practically impossible” as the cause of death, since he had no major injuries, no trauma, and no fractures. Oldenburg medical examiners also determined that due to the “irregularities,” (referring to the body not being embalmed for so long, and that organs were missing) they could not rule out the possibility of a third party crime as a cause of death.
The Maltese authorities stand firm that “the boy fell down the cliffs, a tragic accident. This is the most likely explanation.” And regarding Mike’s missing organs, they assert that the organs were missing before the autopsy, and that they must have been eaten by rats, and that the brain must have dissolved in the hot sun. The German forensic experts refute these points, pointing out that the body (as decomposed as it was) had no evidence of bite marks, and it’s not possible the entire brain had completely dissolved in such a short period of time.
Unanswered Questions Haunt the Mansholts
What happened to Mike? Why was his damaged bicycle discovered higher up in the cliffs than his body? Why wasn’t he wearing his shoes? Who took his backpack? What became of his camera? What on Earth happened to this boy’s organs? Why are the Maltese police behaving so suspiciously? Did something happen to Mike when he explored the ancient, subterranean tombs?
Alternative theories abound for what might have happened. Perhaps Mike was attacked and robbed by criminals, and then the body was staged in such a way to lead the police to believe he died accidentally. This theory then holds that the Maltese officials sought to cover-up this fact to protect the tourist industry, which is the lifeblood of the island. It is certainly possible that the Maltese police might conceal the fact, hypothetically, that an underage European tourist was murdered while on vacation on Malta.
According to Mike’s father, the Maltese police left many questions unanswered ( Jaceksphotos / Adobe Stock)
Another variation of this theory is that backpack robbery was not the motive but rather, organ theft. This would plausibly explain why the organs were missing, and it would also be something that would be destructive to tourism and so would invite a cover up. However, the brain was also missing, which holds no value to traffickers, and it is also true that organ trafficking aid organizations have never documented a single case in Malta.
Also, if traffickers sought to target vulnerable young people in order to secretly harvest their organs, a relatively affluent, European tourist is a much riskier victim then third world, impoverished youths. Even these alternative theories do not seem to fit with the evidence and cover-up.
Descent into the Quagmire
If it were the objective of the Maltese police to make Mike’s murder appear as an accidental death (in order to protect tourism), then there are many other ways they could have gone about it, with much greater success. If the scene at the cliffs was staged, regardless of who staged it, it would have been simpler to have thrown Mike’s body down the cliffs (one would think they would put the shoes on his feet too). They could have thrown his bicycle after him, and this would have created the desired effect of a fall.
A similar deception could have been achieved by disposing of the remains in the water. Chances are, by the time the body was recovered most traces (except for blunt trauma) would be masked by decomposition, or sea creatures feeding. Another problem with the cover up theory is that, if the Maltese went to these lengths to save face and protect island tourism, they failed horribly: tourists were not reassured to hear a teenager had died, and was returned home with missing organs amid an incomplete and inconclusive investigation.
Finally, if robbery was the motive, and perhaps Mike resisted in giving up his backpack, resulting in the classic-robbery gone wrong, this would almost certainly result in some forensic trace of trauma. But where was the evidence of this?
It seems unlikely that the Maltese authorities would go to such extreme measures to cloud the issue, and yet fail so terribly. Could there be an even more bizarre scenario, one so strange that even the alternative theorists have missed it? Perhaps clues can be found in Mike’s last known destination.
There are extensive subterranean tunnels across Malta (Kritzolina / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
After all, the last known contact Mike made with the outside world was at 10.11am on the morning of his disappearance, where he talked of visiting the catacombs. That was where he was known to be heading, and after that he was never seen online again.
The Realm of the Dead
The underground realm of Malta is an ancient, mysterious, and macabre world we know little about. What we do know is disturbing. According to the May 1920 edition of National Geographic Magazine (Volume XXXVII, Number Five, page 466) “In 1906 the work of exploration was begun. Most of the rooms were found to be half-filled with earth, human bones, and broken pottery. It has been estimated that the ruins contained the bones of 33, 000 persons, mostly adults. Practically all were found in the greatest disorder, and there had evidently been no regular burial of a complete body.”
These disordered skeletons, discovered at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and documented dozens of times over the last century, have all but vanished today. Heritage Malta has never displayed these remains, nor published any laboratory analysis of them. We do know from early documentation and photographs, that the skeletons were “robust” and the skulls elongated . .Dr. Josephine Quinn, a modern researcher and professor at Oxford, has scientifically established that infant sacrifice occurred on Malta, and her discoveries of urns containing charred remains of children has been published in the scholarly journal Antiquity.
Chthonic Mysteries of Malta
In 2012, Andrew Cross of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem published an essay “Child Sacrifice at the Tophet”. In it, he references a Phoenician translation into Latin of a stelae from Carthaginian Malta, which makes reference to underworld deities and the sacrificial practices to appease them:
“To the holy lord Saturn ( Baal-Hammon), a great sacrifice of nighttime (sacrum magnum nocturnum), molchomor (Moloch), breath for breath, blood for blood, life for life (Albright 1965, 235). According to the inscription, the sacrifice to Baal-Hammon was made at night. This confirms the chthonic nature of this sacrifice.”
Baal-Hammon (Rais67 / Public Domain )
National Geographic Society reported on this in the August, 1940 edition (Volume LXXVIII, Number Two): “Prehistoric man built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside a sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth and never returned. For weeks mothers declared that they had heard wailing and screaming from underground. But numerous excavations and searching parties brought no trace of the lost souls. After three weeks, they were finally given up for dead.”
So What Happened?
What happened to Mike? His missing organs, camera, and shoes? Why was there an apparent Maltese cover-up? It all remains a macabre mystery. Maybe Mike did die of a fall, maybe he died of dehydration, maybe he was robbed and killed, maybe he was poisoned. Maybe after the fact of death his body was looted for its youthful organs, and maybe the Maltese police felt compelled to fudge the forensics to conceal some such combination of egregious actions.
But maybe Mike’s adventurous spirit led him deeper and deeper into the underground Realm of the Dead beneath Malta, a place that this fearless young man knew little about, a realm that could possibly contain some relic of ancient and unknown horror. Hopefully, time has healed some of the Mansholt’s emotional wounds, at least to some small extent. It is difficult to imagine the grief they have endured, only to be left with so many unanswered questions, which might be found within the dark chambers below the surface, and between the pages of history.
Top Image: The Malta Catacombs. Source: Christoph Bisel / Adobe Stock.
By Mark A. Carpenter