Josef Fritzl: A monster caged

AFTER 24 years of horror, it took just one look between father and daughter to end the trial of Josef Fritzl. Allan Hall reports on a rare glimpse into a mind of pure evil

THE making of Josef Fritzl the monster occurred at 10.04am on the morning of August 29, 1984. The breaking of Josef Fritzl the man came at 3.13pm on the afternoon of March 18, 2009. Between those dates lies a cosmos of pain and suffering that is unimaginable to anyone but Elisabeth Fritzl, the wilful daughter who spellbound her sexually-obsessed father until the sick fantasy he nurtured of owning her could not be denied any longer.

Fritzl's trial last week can be summarised through numbers: 8,642 days his daughter spent underground, which breaks down to 207,408 hours; 3,000 rapes; seven incest children; one miscarriage; the 66 hours it took one newborn baby to die; 650 square feet of living space; six charges; eight jurors; and a 400-strong media pack to report to a world repelled yet fascinated by his crimes.

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Ultimately, though, it was the moment at 3.13pm – not his sentencing, nor his tears, not even his confession – that the 73-year-old cellar-master became, however briefly, the man he should have been. Minutes earlier, as the bushy-eyebrowed power freak stared at a video recording of the daughter whose life he stole recounting her 24 years of terror, rape, deprivation, humiliation, starvation, threats, beatings and torture at his hands, he failed to notice the thin woman who slipped into court accompanied by two others.

She came in through a side door, her hair bound up in a scarf, a long coat covering her thin body, which still looks undernourished after almost a quarter of a century of cheap food fed to her by her jailer father.

Elisabeth Fritzl didn't look a patch on the pretty girl who was kidnapped when she was just 18 and bundled into a cellar by her crazed father. But the fact that she had summoned up the strength and the courage to confront him in court was a giant leap forward in her therapy.

She was just six feet away from this thief of time – and much else besides – when she entered Court 119 in the Austrian city of St Poelten; a room, with its parquet floors and wood panelling, a universe distant from the clandestine hovel she endured for so long. On screen, she saw herself describing the degradation of the cellar. The tape had reached a part when Elisabeth said: "No one heard me scream down there. No one heard me cry out to God, to the heavens, why me… why, why, why… I was forsaken by the world."

At this point, the wolf-like eyes of Josef Fritzl landed on his daughter and he broke. The vacuum where compassion and reason should have resided was suddenly filled with the remorse that Elisabeth had waited so long to see.

The eyes, those brutal eyes which she saw as he raped her and ignored her pleas for mercy through all the long and hopeless days and nights, misted over and tears rolled down his cheeks.

"When he heard this and he saw his daughter… it was all over for him," said Rudolf Mayer, his lawyer. "I asked him, and he said this was when he broke inside. This was when a quarter of a century of denial could be denied no longer."

Fritzl could not hold his daughter's gaze for long. He bowed his head, turned back to the TV screen and began sobbing violently.

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"There was a good deal of discussion about whether she should go or not," said a carer at the clinic that Elisabeth, now 42, moved back into for the duration of the media frenzy in Austria. "In this case we thought it would be cathartic. But she is stubborn anyway, Elisabeth, and probably would have gone no matter what we said."

She watched her tormentor sob and squirm for an hour before leaving through a side door of the court with her brother Harald, 46, and an unidentified family member. In that time, she described how her father would bring boxes of XXX-rated videotapes to the cellar and order her to copy the writhing and moaning of the actresses on screen to arouse him.

She told how he left her with serious internal injuries by using oversized sex toys on her. She described how he routinely turned off the power to the cellar if she, and later her children, should upset him. Then she detailed how, in the dark, with the deep freeze food melting and water running over the floor, she and the children would cuddle up in bed and listen to the scurrying of the rats whose infestations were hallmarks of a confinement that was medieval in its cruelty.

Sometimes they were in the dark for days. No matches, no candles, no torches. Just the pitter-patter of vermin on the tiled floor and the sobbing of innocent children unable to grasp why God had chosen them to suffer in this way.

The moment of Josef Fritz's shame was a long time in coming. Elisabeth had nurtured it since that day in 1984 when her father, who had been abusing her since she was 11, gave in to the fantasy and made it a reality. What did it taste like, this victory? Was it hollow? Could she feel pity for him?

"She felt a certain satisfaction but not a feeling of triumph," said the carer. "She felt more about herself and dealing with her feelings than for him and any regret he might have, real or imagined. For him, she feels nothing at all."

The breaking of Josef Fritzl caused the trial to take a 180-degree turn. What began on Monday as an arrogant Fritzl denying slavery and murder – relating to the death of baby Michael, the child who turned blue and died because his father wouldn't let him out of the cellar to be treated by doctors – morphed the next day into a man pleading guilty on all charges including rape, incest, imprisonment and "massive coercion", relating to the threats he made that his children would all die from booby traps if they ever tried to escape.

But perhaps a confession was never necessary anyway. There was not much in the legal arsenal of Josef Fritzl to use in mitigation anyway – not after a blistering opening by prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser who did the next best thing to letting the four-man, four-woman panel visit the cellar.

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She let them smell it. In what is perhaps the first olfactory evidence ever presented in a murder case, she handed out items from the cellar for them to sniff.

The move was intended to convey the sense of utter corruption of Fritzl and his underworld, to get them to understand through the scent of mould and decay the vileness of everyday life in the windowless, despairing, concrete tomb.

Jurors picked out items from the cellar – one of them a cuddly toy owned by Elisabeth's youngest son Felix, who was five when released – and winced at their odour when removed from a plastic evidence bag. Their noses wrinkled, their brows furrowed; any notions that Fritzl the engineer had somehow created a subterranean des res in the ground beneath his house were dispelled as they caught the scent of 24 years of evil.

"Look at him, with his polite demeanour," said Burkheiser on that first day. "He will present to you a caring side, a selfless person, the nice man from next door. But what really troubles me is that he has not shown a single sign of regret."

She outlined how building engineer Fritzl, concerned that his teenage daughter was sliding into a life of debauchery, tricked her into helping him fix a door in the cellar that he had secretly built beneath the family home in Amstetten in 1984. A cloth soaked in ether was placed over her mouth and she was locked in the cellar.

"The second day," said Burkeheiser, "he came down and chained her up and raped her. He said nothing to her. He said nothing for years."

To give jurors an idea of the smallness of the cellar she pointed to the box they were seated in. "About 18 square metres (194 square feet], that was the size of the cellar for the first nine years. The size of the box you are seated in. He used her like a toy. He came, he took her, he left," she added. "But worse than the rapes, worse than the food shortages, worse than the darkness, was always the uncertainty. How long would he be gone? How long would he stay when he returned? Would he ever come back from his long holidays? This uncertainty was the worst thing of all."

The Everest of evidence against Fritzl would almost certainly have convicted him anyway, especially the psychological profile drawn up by Austria's most eminent psychiatrist, Dr Adelheid Kastner. She drew a portrait of a monster that Hollywood scriptwriters would have been hard put to create.

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He was an "emotional volcano". He had evil running through him "like a stream of unstoppable lava". He needed to assert power and control over people, driven to the cellar masterplan by a forbidden-fruit fantasy which she said ran through his head like a perpetually playing record.

"He knew what he was doing was wrong but he had fantasies and these amounted to a feeling of 'I'm not allowed to but it would be so good.'"

The end of his trial, when it came, was an anti-climax. The prosecution said Fritzl had only shed crocodile tears. Eva Plaz, Elisabeth's lawyer, told jurors he was a dangerous man who should never be freed. Even Mayer, who had the thankless job of defence lawyer, could find little good to say about him.

"He is a sick man, he knows what he did was wrong. But he is not a murderer," he said, clutching at legal straws.

"I am sorry from the bottom of my heart," said Fritzl when the final curtain fell on his crimes at shortly before 3pm on Thursday. The sorry was as empty as the cellar now is and, like Elisabeth's cries in the darkness, unheard by the jurors, the judge and the wider world.

As he now begins his life behind bars in a secure psychiatric institution, Elisabeth is doing her best to claw back meaning and quality to the days that remain to her. She faces a lifetime of therapy, as do her eldest children Kerstin, 20, and Stefan, 19, who, along with Felix, now six, had spent all their lives underground until they were freed last April. Felix is young enough to forget the cellar. Elisabeth and the others cannot.

They suffer from a severe form of chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome and cope with the flashbacks and panic attacks with a multitude of drugs and therapy sessions. Part of the therapy involves them being encouraged to confront the distress they feel by returning to the painful memories for "emotional processing" – a laundering of the past that, doctors hope, will give them a better chance for normality in the life left remaining to them.

The family try to pinpoint objects or memories of pain and neutralise them. All fear closed doors. All have a phobia, not unnaturally, of rooms below ground level. All have nightmares. All have abnormal behaviour patterns; obsessive-compulsive traits ranging from a need to continually check there is enough food – because there never was enough in the cellar – to disturbed sleep patterns.

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When Elisabeth was released from the cellar last year, she developed an addiction to washing, sometimes showering up to 10 times a day as she physically tried to remove the corruption, the stench, the touch of the monster who stole her life. She has trouble falling asleep and she is hyper-vigilant when she wakes up.

But the maternal feelings she has for her children are what keeps her going. She has made it her task to bind the downstairs children with the upstairs clan – Monika, 15, Alexander, 12, and Lisa, 12. The upstairs children are angry: they resent having lost the normality of their lives and have had to be placed in new schools to save them from bullying. But they are still called Fritzl. Whether they will get new identities remains uncertain. They are all said to be close to Elisabeth but have problems relating to the cellar tribe. "They have nothing in common," said a source. "But they do feel pity for what their siblings underwent."

Elisabeth has turned down 5m from an international media company and wants to be left alone to raise her family in the house in the village of Mitterkirchen, 25 miles from Amstetten, that has been given to the family by the authorities. Money means nothing to her, and, besides, Austria has promised them all the financial help they need as well as unstinting medical support.

Elisabeth has told her carers she wants to reach a stage where she can walk down a street and go shopping without fearing that someone is following her to kidnap her. That is some way off. So, too, is the healing of a rift with her mother Rosemarie, the other, sometimes forgotten victim of the case; the woman who endures the unending suspicion that she must have known something of her daughter's ordeal.

Elisabeth doesn't care about that: she cares that Rosemarie took her father back into the family home when she was a toddler and he was a convicted rapist. A rapist then free to channel his violent sexual appetites towards her. This is the elephant that now sits in the room with mother and daughter.

This is the true legacy of Josef Fritzl; smashed minds, wrecked lives, scorched love. If ever a criminal deserved what was coming to him, there can be no doubt that Fritzl is that man.