Amstetten, Niederösterreich – Austria.
In 2008, the world paused in horror as the news broke. A man in Austria was discovered to have kept an incestuous family in a dungeon beneath his home. The Fritzl case would be one of the worst cases of abuse the world had ever witnessed, and become the most famous instance of humans held captive.
Lead up to Crime
Josef Fritzl grew up in poverty. His father constantly cheated on his mother, and she threw him out of the house when Josef was four-years-old, thereafter raising the boy on her own. She only gave birth to the child to prove to her husband that she was not infertile. Josef grew up in the Nazi era where ruling parties demanded strictness, as did his mother, who ignored him except when she often beat him. He attended school in Amstetten, two years older than his classmates, he proved to be highly intelligent.
As a teenager Fritzl would indulge in sexual fantasies about his mother, and considered himself her husband. He met Rosemarie in 1956, and married her a year later.
As Rosemarie gave birth to their first child in 1957, Fritzl rode his bike around town, peering in people’s windows, but claimed he was working late at the steel factory to support his family.
Elisabeth was born on April 6, 1966; she was the fourth of seven children. She was a painfully shy child, timid to approach adults. Fritzl often beat his daughter, and Rosemarie claimed he didn’t like Elisabeth.
On October 6, 1967, he was arrested for raping a woman in her apartment at knifepoint in Linz, and served 12 months of an 18-month sentence. He had also committed other attacks on local women. When released from prison, Rosemarie forgave him.
In 1973, having established himself as a successful businessman, Fritzl bought the Seesteern Guesthouse at Mondsee, in the lakes district of Upper Austria. During this time he imprisoned his elderly mother in the attic of the family home, until she died in 1980.
Fritzl began sexually abusing Elisabeth at the age of 11. In 1981/82 (when Elisabeth was around 15 years old) Fritzl began making plans for the cellar beneath their family home at Ybbstrasse Number 40, Amstetten, Lower Austria. He planned to transform it into a homemade prison.
The guesthouse was destroyed by fire in 1982. Police arrested Fritzl on suspicion of arson and held him for 14 days, but the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Fritzl collected the insurance money.
As Elisabeth matured, she became more assertive, much to her father’s displeasure. In 1983 she ran away from home with a friend, fleeing to Vienna. The pair was caught by police after three weeks and returned to Josef Fritzl.
In the same year, planning permits were approved for Fritzl to commence additional work on his cellar, and he enlisted the help of his brother-in-law to carry out the works. He had very specific plans; including that the ceiling should be only 1.7 metres (5.5 feet) high. Only Fritzl himself knew the true purpose of his plans.
On August 28, 1984, when Elisabeth was 18, Fritzl lured her downstairs by asking her to help carry the door that would seal the dungeon. He drugged her with ether, and held her captive. Fritzl chained his daughter to a wall, unlocking her only to rape her. He wrote fake letters, claiming Elisabeth had joined a cult. Cults had gained a negative reputation during the 1970/80s, with mass media portraying them as groups that isolated and brainwashed their members. Fritzl’s story seemed plausible, especially when it came to the troublesome and wayward girl Fritzl made his daughter out to be.
Fritzl warned Elisabeth that if anyone touched the cellar door they would be electrocuted. Inside the cell, measuring four-and-a-half metres squared (15 x 15 feet), was Elisabeth’s world for nine years. Josef Fritzl visited the dungeon every few days, using a remote control to open the heavy door, providing supplies and raping his daughter. She was raped over 3,000 times, violently inserted her with objects that caused permanent physical injuries, and forced her to re-enact scenes from pornographic films.
Fritzl was suspected of the unsolved murder of Martina Posch, 17, who was found wrapped in plastic near the guesthouse in 1986. He continued running the guesthouse until 1996.
Elisabeth gave birth in isolation to seven children. Kerstin was born in 1988. Three unfortunate children — Kerstin, the eldest, Stefan and Felix — grew up in the dungeon.
On April 28, 1996, Elisabeth gave birth to twin boys, Michael and Alexander. Michael died three days later, Fritzl cremated his body in the furnace and scattered his ashes throughout the garden.
Three children — Lisa, Monika and Alexander — would live seemingly normal lives upstairs. Everyone was led to believe Elisabeth, unable to care for her children while she lived her cultish lifestyle, had dropped them off on the doorstep in the dark of night.
As Fritzl’s underground family grew, so did the dungeon as he covertly constructed additional rooms. The small confines of the cell were filled with stale air, leaving the captives listless, barely able to move. A rancid, sick smell engulfed the cavern. Condensation dripped from the tiled walls. The two-bedroom dungeon was soundproofed and included a bathroom, toilet, and kitchen. The lack of natural light would leave the children weak, sickly, and pale. The moisture provided a perfect environment for mould to grow, causing fungal infections for the captives. They suffered malnutrition, vitamin D deficiencies, and severe dental problems. Stefan suffered from motor neurone problems. The children’s only understanding of the outside world came from what they watched on an old television, and from what their mother taught them.
In 1998 Fritzl went on a four-week holiday to Thailand, leaving Elisabeth and her three children behind in the cellar. He bought her dresses, claiming they were for his girlfriend. Rosemarie was unaware of the secret family her husband hid beneath her feet.
Kerstin, now 19, became desperately ill, suffering from uncontrollable screaming fits and lapsing into unconsciousness. On April 19, 2008, she was taken to hospital by ambulance, along with a letter Fritzl made Elisabeth write, begging the hospital to take care of her daughter. With no medical records or personal documentation, the hospital became suspicious of Kerstin’s identity.
The young woman presented to doctors was suffering from multiple organ failure and placed in an induced coma as doctors worked to help her recover. Doctors made a public appeal over Austrian television on April 21, asking for Elisabeth to contact authorities. Elisabeth watched the story ignite, and begged her father to take her to the hospital.
On April 26, Fritzl decided to release his captive family from their underground prison. Elisabeth, Stefan, and Felix made their way upstairs, where Fritzl told Rosemarie their prodigal daughter had returned home. Elisabeth Fritzl had been missing for 8,516 days. After nearly 24 years she was finally free.
Once in the hospital grounds, Josef and Elisabeth were detained. Elisabeth refused to provide information on her circumstance until she was promised she would never have to see her father again. In the early hours of the morning, on April 27, 2008, Josef Fritzl was arrested. By nightfall, Rosemarie and all the children were taken into state care.
Three hundred officers initially worked on the Fritzl case. On March 16, 2009, the trial against Austria’s incest dungeon master began.
Josef Fritzl, 73, pleaded guilty to false imprisonment, incest, and rape; but pleaded not guilty to enslavement and murder by neglect.
Elisabeth testified via an 11-hour pre-recorded video presented to the court. Josef Fritzl sat in the courtroom in St Pölten and listened to his daughter’s testimony. Neither Rosemarie nor Elisabeth’s children testified. Jurors found the case especially difficult, and extra jurors were kept on standby in case any original jurors could not continue.
During the four-day trial, Elisabeth dressed in a wig and entered the courtroom to watch the proceedings. Her father turned around and saw her. He began to weep.
After watching Elisabeth’s testimony, Fritzl changed his plea to “guilty” on all charges. On March 19, 2009, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, to be detained in a psychiatric hospital.
Fritzl must serve 15 years before he is first eligible for parole in 2024. He will be 89 years old. He is currently held in a secure ward for the criminally insane at Garsten Abbey in Upper Austria; a former Benedictine abbey, with a near millennia long history, converted to a high security prison. He is prisoner number 4546765. Fritzl is permanently isolated because of his risk of being attacked by other prisoners. He suffers from dementia.
Elisabeth Fritzl and her basement children spent months in a secure psychiatric hospital while they recovered from their torturous ordeal. Elisabeth had aged far beyond her years. She attempted to re-establish a relationship with her mother, but her anger boiled over when she questioned why Rosemarie never tried to help. Elisabeth threw her mother out of their villa nestled in the grounds of the psychiatric hospital.
The captives took on new names, and were moved to a secure location only known as “Village X,” a short distance from Amstetten. Security personnel and CCTV guard her home. Local villagers are only too willing to contact police if sightseers are spotted.
The upstairs and downstairs family has reunited, and all have undergone psychological therapy and schooling. Elisabeth decided to discontinue with psychiatric care. She now understands that her mother was also a victim and the pair has mended their relationship. Rosemarie lives in a small flat in Linz, sells homemade bags to supplement her pension, and visits her family each week.
After their release, Elisabeth would shower several times a day, and became compulsive about cleaning. Closed doors distressed the children, and doors were fixed to remain open or removed from the hinges altogether. Treatment is expected to be on going with all the children.
Elisabeth has worked to gain her drivers licence. Despite her shying away from media attention, paparazzi have photographed her shopping, something which she enjoys doing. She was reported to have fallen in love with Thomas Wagner, a bodyguard 14 years her junior. A fulltime carer resides at their house, looking after Elisabeth and the children, especially when moments of panic overwhelm them.
Josef Fritzl wrote a series of letters to Elisabeth, requesting she send him money so he could defend himself by studying law. She no longer accepts his communications. In 2012, he divorced Rosemarie because she never visited him in prison.
As a means of reaching out, fellow Austrian and former captive, Natascha Kampusch, gave Elisabeth Fritzl 25,000 euros from funds publically donated to assist kidnap victims.
By David Phoebe.