DCSIMG

Rape, incest and lies: the warped world of Herr Fritzl

As Austria is left reeling by the discovery of a daughter locked in a cellar as a sex slave for 24 years, Jeremy Watson asks how her father's sickening crimes went unnoticed for two decades

IT WAS 1978, 11 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War still exerted its iron grip across Europe. Paranoia was rife. For the citizens of Austria, on the front line between east and west, the threat of nuclear obliteration by the former USSR was an everyday fear.

In the small industrial town of Amstetten, 80 miles west of the capital Vienna, neighbours shrugged when Josef Fritzl made clear his intentions to build a nuclear shelter in the basement of their home. He told them he wanted to provide protection for his wife and children in the event of a Soviet attack.

The actions of an obsessive perhaps, but Fritzl was by no means alone in wanting to attempt to ensure his survival should a nuclear holocaust be unleashed. Eyebrows were raised, but as it was his property he could do as he liked.

A practical man and an electrical engineer by trade, Fritzl applied for the necessary planning permissions from his local council and work on converting the cellar began. Five years later, Fritzl obtained further official permission to extend the cellar and install running water. Going beyond the approved plans, he installed a 300kg, electronically controlled steel sliding door at the entrance to the bunker. Inside, the tiny rooms were insulated and soundproofed.

The three-storey Fritzl home was large enough to allow tenants to rent the area immediately above the cellar while the family lived above. All accepted Fritzl's warning that the cellar was off limits. When the owner casually remarked to Alfred Dubanovsky, who lived there for 12 years, that one day, the home at 40 Ybbstrasse would make history, the tenant thought nothing other than that his landlord was being strangely houseproud of the unattractive concrete building.

Only now, after a series of extraordinary events brought the cellar's long-held secret to light, has the true significance of Fritzl's odd remark become clear. For beneath the feet of the unsuspecting tenants, Fritzl had kept his own daughter Elisabeth, now 42, imprisoned as a sex slave for 24 years.

If that was not enough, he had also fathered seven children in the sexually abusive incestuous relationship that started when she was just 11 years old and continued at least until 2003 when the last of her babies were born. Of the six who survived – Fritzl burned the body of a twin who died in his basement incinerator – three lived upstairs with him and his wife Rosemarie. She had been deceived into thinking that Elisabeth had run away to join a cult when she was 18 and was now somehow returning her own children to be looked after by doting grandparents.

The other three, a 19-year-old girl, Kerstin, 18-year-old Stefan and younger brother Felix, aged five, had been left to exist as well as they could with their mother in the dungeon below. Until they emerged last weekend – Kerstin in a coma from which she has not yet woken – none had ever seen the outside world except on a TV screen.

This weekend, 73-year-old Fritzl is in custody, still undergoing questioning by Austrian police and still largely insisting that what he did to his daughter was not wrong, insisting he drugged and imprisoned her to save her from addiction to drugs.

But like the Soham murders and the Fred West case in the UK, the case of the cellar children has prompted a bout of soul-searching not only in Austria but across the world. With fresh details of their imprisonment emerging daily, new questions arise over how Fritzl, who was jailed for rape in the Sixties, got away with his crime for so long in the midst of a busy and orderly community. Why did the authorities allow a convicted sex offender to adopt and foster children when there was no proof he was their grandfather? Is it conceivable that his wife, as police seem to believe, knew nothing of the tragedy being played out daily in the basement of her own home? And what does the crime say about an Austrian society still collectively embarrassed by the story of Natascha Kampusch, who only two years ago escaped after eight years of captivity in Vienna?

Police pictures of the dungeon give a heartbreaking insight into the world of Elisabeth and her three imprisoned children. The most poignant shows a family bathroom which while cramped – the pine-panelled ceiling is only 5ft 6in high – shows signs of normality in total conflict with the reality of their situation.

A toy elephant sits on top of a glass cabinet above a small porcelain sink. A hot-water bottle hangs down next to a green towel. Behind a tiled partition is a small bath and shower unit with a black octopus, tentacles waving, and a crudely drawn flower decorating the wall. A shower curtain, a small concession to privacy, is tied up neatly behind a hook.

It's a bathroom that would not look that out of place in many suburban homes throughout the world. Until you remember that is part of Fritzl's cruel prison.

Fritzl's alternative life began when he entered the basement utility room, which led through to a smaller storage area. There, hidden by shelving and boxes, was the steel hatch, opened by a combination lock, that concealed his secret.

A narrow tunnel led through into a cooking and eating area where the family television, constantly on, was located, with the bathroom to the left-hand side. Beyond were four bedrooms, in one of which Fritzl repeatedly raped his daughter over a 20-year period, with her children close by.

Elisabeth's ordeal began long before she was incarcerated. She has told police that she was being sexually abused by her father from the age of 11 and twice ran away from home in her mid-teens. She hid her nightmare well; one of the last pictures of her taken at her school before she "disappeared" shows a pretty young girl smiling politely at the camera.

She was the fourth-born of seven siblings brought up in the apartment house, in which several flats were let while the family lived on the top floor. To his neighbours, Fritzl was nothing other than a family man who worked hard to provide for his wife and children.

His wife, whom he married when she was just 17, was a pillar of the local community, active in the school council.

Yet even in those early years Fritzl was living a lie. In 1967 he was convicted for rape and sentenced to jail. Last week, a woman came forward claiming Fritzl had raped her too but she was frightened to report it at the time. Under Austrian law previous offences are expunged from all records after 10 years as part of the process of rehabilitation.

Fritzl told investigators that by her late teens, Elisabeth's behaviour was deteriorating. In August 1984, when she was 18 he lured her to the cellar, drugged her and locked the steel door. She was apparently given a choice – submit to rape or starve in the dark.

A story was concocted that she had run off to join a cult and her father became known locally for berating police officers for failing to track her down. The story was confirmed a month later when a letter arrived, supposedly from Elisabeth, confirming she had deliberately left home and she did not want her parents to look for her.

One of Fritzl's former friends said last week that Elisabeth's father was so convincing in his account of her disappearance that no one was suspicious. "His grief was so well delivered that no one had any reason to doubt it, even when Elisabeth's three allegedly abandoned children later appeared," said Anton Graf.

Kerstin was born, delivered by her father and grandfather in 1987, Stefan a year later. When Monika, now 16, arrived in 1993 the cellar became too crowded with small children and Fritzl was forced to act. Astonishingly, he managed to convince his wife and the local social services and police that Monika had been dumped on their doorstep with a letter from Elisabeth explaining she could not look after the child.

Lisa was born in 1994 and this time Fritzl phoned Rosemarie, pretending to be his daughter, saying she had left another daughter outside their home for the same reasons. There was a gap of four years until the birth of Alexander and his twin, who died soon afterwards and whose body was incinerated by his father.

The three children above ground thrived and their grandparents were lauded by friends, neighbours and Elizabeth's six siblings for providing a loving home for the offspring of their errant daughter. Meanwhile, Fritzl was smuggling food into the dungeon to feed his other family while he rigged the power meter of one of his tenants to disguise the extra costs of the electricity they were using. Josef Leitner remembers being puzzled when he switched his power supply off, only to see his meter wheels still turning.

Fritzl established a routine, disappearing into the cellar at 9pm each evening, ostensibly to work on electrical engineering plans long after his wife went to bed. She was told never to disturb him.

So comfortable was he with the way his secret life was operating, he was confident enough, in 1998, to take a three-week holiday with a male friend in Thailand. All police can surmise at present is that he left enough food in the cellar to cover his absence.

There have been no accounts of Elisabeth and her children attempting to escape or overwhelm their captor. Fritzl told his daughter that if anything happened to him, the cellar would be flooded with gas.

Their last child, Felix, was born in 2003 but Fritzl decided to leave him in the cellar with his mother and two teenage siblings. It is likely they would be there now except for a fateful intervention.

During the third week of April, Kerstin fell ill and Elisabeth administered cough medicine and aspirin, the only medicines she had to hand. On Saturday April 19, Kerstin lapsed into unconsciousness and her mother begged Fritzl to call an ambulance to take her to Amstetten Community Hospital. She was diagnosed as having life-threatening kidney failure but what Fritzl did not know is that Elisabeth had concealed a note in her clothing to be found by hospital staff.

It read: "Wednesday, I gave her aspirin and cough medicine for the condition. Thursday, the cough worsened. Friday, the coughing gets even worse. She has been biting her lip as well as her tongue. Please, please help her! Kerstin is really terrified of other people, she was never in a hospital.

"If there are any problems please ask my father for help. He is the only person that she knows. Kerstin, please stay strong, until we see each other again! We will come back to you soon!"

When Fritzl arrived at the hospital and discussed Kerstin's condition and the mother's note with staff, they found aspects of the story to be odd. He used the old story of a child being dumped on his doorstep with a note but suspicious staff alerted the police two days later. Dr Albert Reiter said: "I could not believe that a mother who wrote such a note and seemed so concerned would just vanish. I raised the alarm with the police and we launched a TV appeal for her to get in touch."

Austrian police issued an nationwide appeal to missing person Elisabeth Fritzl to contact them about her daughter. Back in the cellar, Elisabeth spotted the appeal on TV and persuaded her father to allow her to visit Kerstin.

By this time, Fritzl must have realised that his carefully constructed secret world was close to collapse. He is believed to have told his wife that Elisabeth had chosen to return home, with two more children, hoping that the cover story of spending years with a cult would explain away her own failing health and dishevelled appearance.

Last Saturday, as the pair visited the hospital, police confronted them. They were questioned separately and the following day the dungeon was uncovered and Stefan and Felix were freed.

At first Elisabeth refused to say anything but eventually, seizing her opportunity to free herself at last, she agreed to speak. Police officers had to promise she would never have to see her father again, and that the children would be cared for.

Meanwhile, Austria as a whole is taking a long hard look at a dark place in its soul. Commentators have criticised the Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer's concerns that the dungeon drama will damage the country's chocolate-box image.

"It would make sense to start looking for answers – many of which are slumbering deep within ourselves – instead of reacting in a patriotic knee-jerk way," said an editorial in the Vienna daily Kurier.

One of the Alpine country's leading writers says the Fritzl story typifies the Austrian trait of looking the other way when moral failings occur.

"My country has the fatal tradition of sweeping things under the carpet," says Josef Haslinger. "In Austria, private shortcomings and public morality have no connection with each other."

He linked the issue to Austria's failure to deal with its Nazi past. Haslinger said: "The de-Nazification process actually never succeeded. Until decades after the Second World War, we did not deal with the moral failings of private individuals.

"There is a double-character. The cheerful face and behind the facade the unspeakable and horrific. That has a real tradition in Austrian art and literature. That is no coincidence. We have a culture of looking away."

The children who had never seen the moon

Dani Garavelli

'IT WAS as if they had landed on the moon," said Leopold Etz, the head of Lower Austria's Murder Commission, the officer who led the Fritzl children, blinking, outside for the first time into the alien spring night. After a lifetime spent underground, Stefan, 18 and Felix, five, took their first slow, faltering steps, into a world they had only ever glimpsed through the prism of their television set. And they gazed in terrified wonder.

It had been difficult enough for them to come to terms with coming upstairs after their father released them from their cellar prison some time earlier. But how could their two-dimensional viewing of tower blocks, crowds, cars or rain possibly have prepared them for the giddy experience of the real thing?

So disorientated were they, in fact, that the journey to the Mauer psychiatric clinic near their home town of Amstetten was taken at a snail's pace. "We had to drive very slowly with them because they cringed at every car light and every bump," said Etz.

Of the two children, Stefan has been the more subdued. Despite Felix's obvious confusion (he clings to his mother Elisabeth when he encounters startling new phenomena such as escalators and lifts) he can scarcely contain his excitement as he comes across everyday things other children take for granted.

The sight of a cow, a car, a stream and a police officer using a mobile phone all provoked gurgles of delight. Then he squealed with glee as he tried to look at the sun through his hands and beams danced across his face. The moon provoked an equally spontaneous response. "Is God up there?" he asked, as if concepts he had heard about in his windowless prison were somehow beginning to slot into place.

There were other encouraging signs. The boys' first proper encounter with their three siblings – Lisa, Monika and Alexander – who lived a comparatively normal life in the house upstairs with Fritzl's wife Rosemarie, is said to have gone remarkably well. As Elisabeth and Rosemarie collapsed in each other's arms, the children were given space to talk and play together. Staff at the clinic even threw an impromptu birthday party with a cake for Alexander, who had turned 12.

If their sister Kerstin's illness brought about a new beginning for Stefan and Felix, it in no way marked the end of their ordeal. Even in the midst of the euphoria that surrounded their release, it was apparent they and their mother have many hurdles to overcome if they are ever to reclaim their lives.

Inevitably – given the length of their incarceration – the siblings are in a poor physical condition. Kerstin is critically ill in hospital after suffering multi-organ failure. Elisabeth, Stefan and Felix are all said to be Vitamin D deficient, due to lack of sunlight, which has left them with rotten teeth and depleted immune systems. Elisabeth and Stefan walk with a stoop caused by the low ceilings and Elisabeth, is said to look at least two decades older than her 42 years.

Of equal concern to psychologists is the family's mental state. After so long in captivity, Elisabeth is likely to have lost many basic life skills and to depend on those who are caring for her to make her decisions for her. "She will be feeling a range of conflicting and confusing emotions – shock, disorientation, anger, guilt, sadness as well as happiness and relief," consultant forensic clinical psychologist Anne Carpenter has said.

Although Stefan and Felix can speak German when talking to others, they prefer to communicate with each other with animal-like grunts. Felix also appears to have suffered developmentally, preferring to crawl, although he can walk.

Since Elisabeth was repeatedly raped in the cellar, the children have probably lived with the burden of their mother's distress – a trauma that could have its own developmental impact.

Now they are out, they will also have to confront other painful truths: that they are the products of an abusive, incestuous relationship; that the only man they have ever known was the architect of their suffering and that a whim or a quirk of fate kept them imprisoned and set their siblings free.

Kevin Durkin, a professor of psychology at Strathclyde University, says it is too early to tell if Stefan and Felix will ever learn to communicate normally. "These children have been with their mother and had siblings with them. That should help them. But a lot will depend on how (Elisabeth] was affected," he said.

The fact the children spent so much time watching television may mean they have some notion of appropriate social behaviour. But in using it to form a picture of the outside world, will the children have been able to distinguish between fact or fantasy?

"In normal circumstances, a child will be able to tell the difference at around four or five years old, although they will still occasionally get it wrong," says Durkin. "But whether this would still be true of those who have no first-hand experience of the outside world is something we have yet to establish."

The problem for psychologists trying to predict the future for the Fritzl family is that there has never been another case like this one. There have been instances of feral children – brought up in the wild – who have rejoined society. After seeing his father kill his mother in the mid-Eighties, toddler John Ssebunya fled into the Ugandan jungle and lived with monkeys for several years before he was rescued. He couldn't talk or cry, but later learned not only to speak, but to sing, joining the Pearl of Africa children's choir.

Closer to home, of course, there have been the well-publicised stories of 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch and 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne, who were abducted and imprisoned (Natascha for eight years, Sabine for 80 days).

But perhaps the children who have come closest to sharing the Fritzl siblings' ordeal are sisters Viktoria, Katharina and Elisabeth who were kept in a dark, filthy house – aged seven, 11 and 13 – in Linz, Austria, for seven years, after their lawyer mother had a nervous breakdown.

When they were released in 2005, the three victims could not stand exposure to natural light and communicated in their own singsong form of German. Even after a year of therapy, Elisabeth was said to be so disturbed that she stood on one foot for long periods staring at the floor. But the youngest girl, Viktoria, was doing well and was expected to be reunited with her father.

In the same way, psychologists believe that of the three cellar children, Felix stands the best chance of making a full recovery. In the meantime, they insist, a softly-softly approach is the best way forward.

Last week, it emerged a windowless chamber resembling the dungeon had been built inside the Mauer Clinic so the family would have somewhere familiar to retreat to when the outside world got too much. Elisabeth is said to huddle forlornly in it for hours, with Felix wailing at her side. The prisoners may have family escaped Josef Fritzl's clutches, but it's going to be a long time before any of them are truly free.

The last taboo

In the Greek fable of Oedipus, a mythical king kills his father and unknowingly marries his mother, bringing disaster on himself and his family. Then story can be traced to the eighth century BC, and over the centuries since, incest has been one of humanity's most abiding taboos.

In Roman times, incestuous unions were considered against the laws of gods and man, and were forbidden by an imperial edict in 295 AD. Punishment ranged from deportation to death. The world's religions have also weighed in on the issue. In the Bible's Book of Leviticus, men are prohibited on pain of death to have sexual relations with family members, and the Koran and Hindu scriptures also forbid the practice.

In England incest wasn't a officially a crime until 1650, when along with other moral crimes, it became punishable by death. Even before it was still a heinous charge – Henry VII accused Anne Boleyn, right, of sleeping with her brother to help get her executed. North of the border, until the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1887, incest was nominally punishable with death. However, more often the guilty faced penal servitude for life.

Elsewhere, in some countries there has been a more relaxed view. Napoleon legalised incest in France, and in the Netherlands consensual incest is no longer prosecuted. Sweden allows marriage between siblings who share a parent.

The medical risks of in-breeding are illustrated in the few well-documented cases of consensual incestuous couples. In Germany, a brother and sister couple challenged the courts so they could continue their relationship. They had four children, three of whom are in foster care and two have unspecified disabilities. In Australia, John Deaves and his daughter Jenny have been in a relationship for the past seven years. The pair had two daughters but one died shortly after birth because of a congenital heart disease.

The taboo subject has also been a subject in the art world. Murmur Of The Heart, a film about a sexual relationship between a mother and her son, caused a sensation at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.

 
 
 

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