February 28th, 2008
11:24 AM ET

International manhunt becomes humiliating TV blunder

It was going to be, "the most spectacular manhunt in the history of 'Aktenzeichen XY,'" Germany’s top-rated and longest-running crime show.

In an unprecedented move, America’s FBI was asking the German public for help in a global manhunt for Boston mob boss James J. "Whitey" Bulger - one of America's most wanted crooks - allegedly on the run in Europe.

On the show, FBI agents showed old pictures of Bulger and a photo of an elderly couple, supposedly resembling the gangster and his girlfriend Gail Marcinkiewicz. The new photo was taken by an American tourist in Italy last year and came with a warning: “the couple may be  armed and  is extremely dangerous.”

Calls started pouring in to the show and to Germany's federal investigators.  One was from a young man who had just seen his parents presented as murder suspects on the German media.

It turns out the couple shown in "Aktenzeichen XY" were German pensioners enjoying a summer holiday in Italy at the time. According to their son, they were shocked to find themselves the focus of an international manhunt with a hefty price on their heads.

ZDF, the broadcaster that aired the show, says they didn't have the chance to verify the photos for themselves before they went to air. Rather, that was the job of the FBI and German investigators. The German investigators said it was up to the FBI, not them, to check whether the photo really was that of Bulger himself.

The FBI, despite the mix-up, waited a good five days before they took the offending photo off their website.

We weren’t able to reach the elderly couple in question for comment, though a representative from the show said she had managed to clear the air with their son. It’s not clear whether they're considering legal action.

On a positive note, the show had some of the best ratings ever. Who knows - maybe "Whitey" himself tuned in. If the FBI ever does catch up with him, it'll probably be because he’s laughing so loud at one of TV history's biggest ever blunders. 

– Frederik Pleitgen/CNN Correspondent
CNN's Diana Magnay contributed to this blog

Filed under: Frederik Pleitgen
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