The Fritzl case emerged in April 2008 when a 42-year-old woman, Elisabeth Fritzl (born 6 April 1966), told police in the town of Amstetten, Austria, that she had been held captive for 24 years in a concealed corridor part of the basement area of the large family house by her father, Josef Fritzl (born 9 April 1935), and that Josef had physically assaulted, sexually abused, and raped her numerous times during her imprisonment. The abuse by her father resulted in the birth of seven children; four of whom joined their mother in captivity (one dying just days after birth), while the other three were raised by Josef and his wife, Rosemarie, having been reported as foundlings.
Elisabeth Fritzl’s confinement
Three of Elisabeth’s children were imprisoned with their mother: 19-year-old daughter Kerstin and sons Stefan, 18, and Felix, 5. Another, Michael, died of respiratory problems three days after birth, having been deprived of all medical help; his body was incinerated by Josef Fritzl on his property. The three other children were raised by Josef and his wife Rosemarie in the upstairs home. Josef claimed that he had discovered the children outside his house as foundlings: Lisa at 9 months in 1993, Monika at 10 months in 1994, and Alexander at 15 months in 1997. When the eldest daughter, Kerstin, became seriously ill, Josef acceded to Elisabeth’s pleas to take her to a hospital, triggering a series of events that eventually led to their discovery.
Josef Fritzl was born on 9 April 1935, in Amstetten, Austria. In 1956, at age 21, he married 17-year-old Rosemarie and they had seven children: two sons and five daughters, including Elisabeth, who was born in 1966. He reportedly began abusing her in 1977 when she was 11. After completing compulsory education at age 15, Elisabeth started a course to become a waitress. In January 1983, she ran away from home and went into hiding in Vienna with a friend from work. She was found by police within three weeks and returned to her parents. She rejoined her course, finished it in mid-1984 and was offered a job in nearby Linz.
On 29 August 1984, when Elisabeth was 18 years of age, her father lured her into the basement of the family home, saying he needed help carrying a door. This was the last piece needed to seal the chamber. Elisabeth held it in place while Josef fitted it into the frame. Then he held an ether-soaked towel on Elisabeth’s face until she was unconscious, and threw her into the chamber.
After Elisabeth’s disappearance, her mother filed a missing-persons report. Almost a month later, her father handed over a letter to the police, the first of several that he had forced Elisabeth to write while in captivity. The letter, postmarked Braunau, stated that she was tired of living with her family and was staying with a friend; she warned her parents not to look for her or she would leave the country. Her father told police that she had most likely joined some religious cult.
Over the next 24 years, Josef visited her in the hidden cellar every three days on average, to bring food and other supplies. After his arrest, he admitted that he repeatedly raped her. Elisabeth gave birth to seven children during her captivity. One child died shortly after birth, and three—Lisa, Monika and Alexander—were removed from the cellar as infants to live with Fritzl and his wife, who became their foster parents with the knowledge of local social services authorities. Officials said that Josef Fritzl “very plausibly” explained how three of his infant grandchildren had appeared on his doorstep. The family received regular visits from social workers, who saw and heard nothing to arouse their suspicions.
Following the fourth child’s birth in 1994, Josef enlarged the prison for Elisabeth and her children from 35 m2 (380 sq ft) to 55 m2 (590 sq ft). The captives had a television, radio, and videocassette player. Food could be stored in a refrigerator and cooked or heated on hot plates. Elisabeth taught the children to read and write. At times, Josef shut off their lights or refused to deliver food for days at a time to punish them.
Josef Fritzl told Elisabeth and the three who remained (Kerstin, Stefan, and Felix) that they would be gassed if they tried to escape. Investigators concluded that this was just an empty threat to frighten the captives; there was no gas supply to the basement. He stated after his arrest that he told them that they would receive an electric shock and die if they meddled with the cellar door.
According to his sister-in-law Christine, Josef went into the basement every morning at 09:00, ostensibly to draw plans for machines which he sold to firms. Often he stayed down there for the night and did not allow his wife to bring him coffee. A tenant who rented a ground-floor room in the house for 12 years claimed to hear noises from the basement, which Josef explained were from the gas heating system.
On 19 April 2008, Kerstin, the eldest daughter, fell unconscious and Josef agreed to seek medical attention. Elisabeth helped him carry Kerstin out of the dungeon and saw the outside world for the first time in 24 years. He forced her to return to the dungeon, where she would remain for a final week. Kerstin was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, the Landesklinikum Amstetten, and admitted in serious condition with life-threatening kidney failure. Josef later arrived at the hospital claiming to have found a note written by Kerstin’s mother. He discussed Kerstin’s condition and the note with Dr. Albert Reiter.
Medical staff found aspects of the story puzzling and alerted the police on 21 April, who then broadcast an appeal via public media for the missing mother to come forward and provide additional information about Kerstin’s medical history. The police reopened the case file on missing Elisabeth. Josef repeated his story about Elisabeth being in a cult, and presented what he claimed was the “most recent letter” from her, dated January 2008. It was posted from the town of Kematen. The police contacted Manfred Wohlfahrt, a church officer responsible for collecting information on religious cults. Wohlfahrt raised doubts about the existence of the cult. He noted that Elisabeth’s letters seemed dictated and oddly written.
Elisabeth pleaded with her father to be taken to the hospital. On 26 April, Josef released her from the cellar along with her sons Stefan and Felix, bringing them upstairs. He and Elisabeth went to the hospital where Kerstin was being treated on 26 April 2008. Following a tip-off from Dr. Albert Reiter that Josef and Elisabeth were at the hospital, the police detained them on the hospital grounds and took them to a police station for questioning.
Elisabeth did not provide police with more details until they promised her that she would never have to see her father again. Over the next two hours, she told the story of her 24 years in captivity. Elisabeth confessed to the police that her father would rape her and force her to watch pornographic videos. To humiliate her, he would make her reenact scenes from the videos with him in front of her children. Shortly after midnight, police officers completed the three pages of minutes of the interrogation. Josef Fritzl, aged 73, was arrested on 26 April 2008 on suspicion of serious crimes against family members and went on trial in Sankt Pölten, Austria on 16 March 2009. He was charged with incest, rape, coercion, false imprisonment, enslavement and the negligent homicide of the infant Michael, all of which he pleaded guilty to. After a four-day trial from which the public and the media were largely excluded, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
During the night of 27 April, Elisabeth, her children and her mother Rosemarie were taken into care. Police said Josef told investigators how to enter the basement prison through a small hidden door, opened by a secret keyless entry code. Josef’s wife, Rosemarie, had been unaware of what had been happening to Elisabeth.
On 29 April 2008, it was announced that DNA evidence confirmed Josef as the biological father of his daughter’s children. Josef’s defence lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said that although the DNA test proved incest, evidence was still needed for the allegations of rape and enslavement. In their 1 May 2008 daily press conference, Austrian police said that Josef had forced Elisabeth to write a letter the previous year indicating that he may have been planning to release her and the children. The letter said that she wanted to come home but “it’s not possible yet”. Police believe Fritzl intended to pretend he had rescued his daughter from her fictitious cult. Police spokesman Franz Polzer said police planned to interview at least 100 people who had lived as tenants in the Fritzl apartment building in the previous 24 years.
The Fritzl property in Amstetten is a building dating from around 1890 and a newer building, added after 1978, when Fritzl applied for a building permit for an “extension with basement”. In 1983, building inspectors visited the site and verified that the new extension had been built according to the dimensions specified on the building permit. Fritzl had illegally enlarged the room by excavating space for a much larger basement, concealed by walls. Around 1981 or 1982, according to his statement, he started to turn this hidden cellar into a prison cell and installed a washbasin, toilet, bed, hotplate and refrigerator. In 1983, he added more space by creating a passageway to a pre-existing basement area under the old part of the property, of which only he knew.
The concealed cellar had a 5 m (5.5 yd) long corridor, a storage area, and three small open cells, connected by narrow passageways; and a basic cooking area and bathroom facilities, followed by two sleeping areas, which were equipped with two beds each. It covered an area of approximately 55 m2 (590 sq ft). The ceilings were no more than 1.70 m (5 ft 6 in) high.
The cell had two access points: a hinged door that weighed 500 kg (1,100 lb) which is thought to have become unusable over the years because of its weight, and a metal door, reinforced with concrete and on steel rails that weighed 300 kg (650 lb) and measured 1 m (3.3 ft) high and 60 cm (2 ft) wide. It was located behind a shelf in Fritzl’s basement workshop, protected by an electronic code entered using a remote control unit. In order to reach this door, five locking basement rooms had to be crossed. To get to the area where Elisabeth and her children were held, eight doors in total needed to be unlocked, of which two doors were additionally secured by electronic locking devices.
The key events are as follows:
Fritzl begins sexually abusing his 11-year-old daughter Elisabeth.
Fritzl begins to turn the hidden cellar into a prison cell.
|29 August 1984||
Fritzl lures 18-year-old Elisabeth into the basement and imprisons her.
Elisabeth has a miscarriage in the 10th week of pregnancy.
The second child, Kerstin, is born, and lives in the cellar until 2008.
Stefan is born. He also stays in the cellar until 2008.
Lisa is born. In May 1993, at 9 months old, she is discovered outside the family home in a cardboard box, allegedly left there by Elisabeth with a note asking for the child to be looked after.
The fifth child, Monika, is born.
After repeated requests by Elisabeth, Fritzl allows the enlargement of the prison, putting Elisabeth and her children to work for years digging out soil with their hands. The prison was enlarged from 35 m² (380 sq ft) to 55 m² (600 sq ft).
10-month-old Monika is found in a stroller outside the entrance of the house. Shortly afterwards, Rosemarie receives a phone call, asking her to take care of the child. The caller sounds like Elisabeth, but it’s assumed that Fritzl used a recording of her voice. Rosemarie reported the incident to the police, expressing astonishment that Elisabeth knew their new, unlisted phone number.
Elisabeth gives birth to twin boys. One dies after 3 days and Fritzl removes and cremates the body. The surviving twin, Alexander, is taken upstairs at 15 months old and “discovered” in circumstances similar to those of his two sisters.
Felix is born. According to a statement by Fritzl, he kept Felix in the cellar with Elisabeth and her two eldest children because his wife could not look after another child.
|19 April 2008||
Fritzl arranges for critically ill 19-year-old Kerstin to be taken to a local hospital.
|26 April 2008||
During the evening, Fritzl releases Elisabeth, Stefan and Felix from the cellar and brings them upstairs, informing his wife that Elisabeth had decided to come home after a 24-year absence. Later that evening, after an anonymous tipoff during a visit to the hospital, Fritzl and Elisabeth are taken into police custody where she reveals her decades-long imprisonment during questioning.
|14 March 2009||
After a 4-day trial in the town of St. Pölten, Fritzl pleads guilty to the charges of the murder by negligence of his infant son/grandson, Michael, as well as the enslavement, incest, rape, coercion and false imprisonment of his daughter Elisabeth, and is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Josef Fritzl was born on 9 April 1935, in Amstetten, Austria, to Josef Fritzl, Sr. and Maria Fritzl. He grew up as an only child raised solely by his working mother. His father had deserted the family when Fritzl was four, and never again came into contact with him. Josef Fritzl, Sr. later fought as a soldier in the Wehrmacht during World War II, and was killed in action in 1944. His name appears on a memorial plaque in Amstetten. After completing his education at an HTL Technical College with a qualification in electrical engineering, he obtained a job at Voestalpine in Linz. In 1956, at the age of 21, he married Rosemarie, 17, with whom he had two sons and five daughters. In 1967, he was convicted of rape, and served an 18-month prison sentence. Afterwards, he obtained a job in a construction material firm in Amstetten where he worked from 1969–1971. Later, he became a technical equipment salesman, travelling throughout Austria. In 1972, he purchased a guesthouse and an adjacent campsite at Lake Mondsee. He ran it, together with his wife, until 1996. He retired from active employment when he turned 60 in 1995, but continued some commercial activities thereafter. In addition to the apartment house in Amstetten, where he lived, he owned several other properties which he rented out.
– Criminal history
In 1967, he broke into the Linz home of a 24-year-old nurse while her husband was away and raped her while holding a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her if she screamed. According to an annual report for 1967 and a press release of the same year, he was also named as a suspect in a case of attempted rape of a 21-year-old woman, and known for indecent exposure. Fritzl was arrested and served an 18-month prison sentence. In accordance with Austrian law, his criminal record was expunged after 15 years. As a result, more than 25 years later, when he applied for the adoption of one child and foster care for two others, of children to whom his daughter Elisabeth had given birth, the local social service authorities did not discover his criminal history.
– Self-portrayal and psychiatric assessment
After his arrest, Josef Fritzl claimed that his behavior toward his daughter did not constitute rape but was consensual. His defence lawyer Rudolf Mayer forwarded extracts from the minutes of his talks with his client to the Austrian weekly News for publication. According to these statements, Fritzl said that he “always knew during the whole 24 years that what I was doing was not right, that I must have been crazy to do such a thing, yet it became a normal occurrence to lead a second life in the basement of my house.”
Regarding his treatment of the family he had with his wife, he stated, “I am not the beast the media make me to be”. Regarding his treatment of Elisabeth and her children in the cellar, he explained that he brought flowers for Elisabeth and books and toys for the children into the “bunker”, as he called it, and often watched videos with the children and ate meals with Elisabeth and the children. Fritzl decided to imprison Elisabeth after she “did not adhere to any rules any more” when she became a teenager. “That is why I had to do something; I had to create a place where I could keep Elisabeth, by force if necessary, away from the outside world.” He suggested that the emphasis on discipline in the Nazi era, during which he grew up, might have influenced his views about decency and good behavior. The chief editors of News magazine noted in their editorial that they expected Fritzl’s statement to form the basis of the defence strategy of his lawyer. Critics said his statement may have been a ploy to prepare an insanity defence.
Reflecting on his childhood, Fritzl initially described his mother as “the best woman in the world” and “as strict as it was necessary”. Later, he expressed a negative opinion of his mother and claimed that “she used to beat me, hit me until I was lying in a pool of blood on the floor. It left me feeling totally humiliated and weak. My mother was a servant and she used to work hard all her life, I never had a kiss from her, I was never cuddled although I wanted it – I wanted her to be good to me.” He also claimed that she called him “a Satan, a criminal, a no-good”, that he “had a horrible fear of her”. In 1959, after Fritzl had married and bought his house, his mother moved in with them. Over time, their roles reversed, and his mother came to fear him. Eventually, he also admitted he had later locked his mother in the attic and bricked up her window after telling neighbors that she died, and kept her locked up until her death in 1980. It is unknown how long Fritzl kept his mother locked up in his attic, but newspapers have speculated that it may have been up to 20 years.
In a report by forensic psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner, Fritzl’s mother is described as unpredictable and abusive. Fritzl referred to himself as an “alibi” child, meaning that his mother only gave birth to him to prove that she was not barren and could produce children. Fritzl claims that his pathological behavior is innate. He admits that he planned to lock his daughter up during his prison stint for the earlier rape conviction so that he could contain and express his “evil side”. He said, “I was born to rape, and I held myself back for a relatively long time. I could have behaved a lot worse than locking up my daughter.” The forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Fritzl as having severe combined personality disorder which included borderline, schizotypal, and schizoid personalities and a sexual disorder and recommended that Fritzl receive psychiatric care for the rest of his life.
Recent reports have brought to light Fritzl’s premeditated plan to lock his daughter up not for discipline but for his own gratification.
– Prosecutor’s investigation
In keeping with the agreement that she would never have to see her father again, Elisabeth Fritzl gave a videotaped testimony before Austrian prosecutors and investigators on 11 July 2008.
Judge Andrea Humer, who presided over the trial, stated medical experts reported Elisabeth Fritzl and her children were in “relatively good health”.
Lawyer Christoph Herbst, who represents Elisabeth Fritzl and family, said, “Fortunately, everything is going very well,” as they spend time to answer the hundreds of letters sent from all over the world. Felix, Kerstin, and Stefan, brought up underground with their mother, have learned to swim for the first time. And all of Elisabeth’s children attended a four-day summer camp organised by firefighters with 4,000 other young campers in the later part of the summer in August 2008. The children along with their mother also made day trips, including swimming outings, on which care was taken to keep them out of reach of the paparazzi and to protect their privacy.
On 13 November 2008, authorities in Austria released an indictment against Josef Fritzl. He would stand trial for the murder of the infant Michael, who died shortly after birth, and face between 10 years and life imprisonment. He was also charged with rape, incest, kidnapping, false imprisonment and slavery, which carry a maximum 20-year term.
Trial of Josef Fritzl
The trial of Josef Fritzl commenced on 16 March 2009, in the city of Sankt Pölten, presided over by Judge Andrea Humer.
On day one, Fritzl entered the courtroom attempting to hide his face from cameras behind a blue folder, which he was entitled to do under Austrian law. After opening comments, all journalists and spectators were asked to leave the courtroom, whereupon Fritzl lowered his binder. Fritzl pleaded guilty to all charges with the exception of murder and grievous assault by threatening to gas his captives if they disobeyed him.
In his opening remarks, Rudolf Mayer, the defending counsel, appealed to the jury to be objective and not be swayed by emotions. He insisted Fritzl was “not a monster,” noting that Fritzl had brought a Christmas tree down to his captives in the cellar during the holiday season.
Christiane Burkheiser, prosecuting her first case since being appointed Chief Prosecutor, pressed for life imprisonment in an institution for the criminally insane. She demonstrated for jurors the low height of the ceiling in the cellar dungeon by making a mark on the door to the courtroom at 1m 74 cm (5 ft 8.5in), and described the cellar as “damp and mouldy,” passing around a box of musty objects taken from the cellar, whose odour made jurors flinch.
On the first day of testimony, jurors watched an 11-hour testimony recorded by Elisabeth in sessions with police and psychologists in July 2008. The tape is said to have been so “harrowing” that the eight jurors did not watch more than two hours at a time. Four replacement jurors were on standby to replace any of the regular jurors in case they could not bear to hear any more of the evidence.
Besides the video testimony, Elisabeth’s older brother Harald testified, as did a doctor specialising in neonatal medicine and the court psychiatrist. Josef’s wife, Rosemarie, and Elisabeth’s children refused to testify.
Fritzl’s attorney, Rudolf Mayer, confirmed that a disguised Elisabeth sat in the visitors’ gallery during the second day of proceedings, at the time her video testimony was aired. “Josef Fritzl recognised that Elisabeth was in court and, from this point on, you could see Josef Fritzl going pale and he broke down,” Mayer said. “It was a meeting of eyes that changed his mind.” The next day, Fritzl began the proceedings by approaching the judge and changing his pleas to guilty on all charges.
On 19 March 2009, Fritzl was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 15 years. He said that he accepted the sentence and would not appeal. Fritzl is currently serving out his sentence in Garsten Abbey, a former monastery in Upper Austria that has been converted into a prison. He is in a special section of the prison for the criminally insane.
– Austria’s reputation
Describing the “abominable events” as linked to one individual case, then-Chancellor of Austria Alfred Gusenbauer said he planned to launch an image campaign to restore the country’s reputation abroad.
After being taken into care, Elisabeth, all six of her surviving children and her mother were housed in a local clinic where they were shielded from the outside environment and received medical and psychological treatment. Members of the Fritzl family were offered new identities but emphasized that it was a choice for the family to make.
Berthold Kepplinger, head of the clinic where Elisabeth and her children were being treated, said that Elisabeth and the three children held captive in the cellar required further therapy to help them adjust to the light after years in semi-darkness. They also needed treatment to help them cope with all the extra space that they now had in which to move about.
In May 2008, a handmade poster created by Elisabeth, her children and her mother at the therapy facility was displayed in the Amstetten town centre. The message thanked local people for their support. “We, the whole family, would like to take the opportunity to thank all of you for sympathy at our fate,” they wrote in their message. “Your compassion is helping us greatly to overcome these difficult times, and it shows us there also are good and honest people here who really care for us. We hope that soon there will be a time where we can find our way back into a normal life.”
Kerstin was reunited with her family on 8 June 2008, when she was awakened from her artificially induced coma. Doctors said that she would make a full recovery.
It was revealed that Elisabeth and her children were more traumatized than previously thought. During captivity, Kerstin tore out her hair in clumps, and was reported to have shredded her dresses before stuffing them in the toilet. Stefan could not walk properly, due to his height of 1.73 m (5 ft 8 in), forced to stoop in the 1.68 m (5 ft 6 in)-high cellar. It has also been revealed that normal everyday occurrences, such as the dimming of lights or the closing of doors, plunge Kerstin and Stefan into anxiety and panic attacks. The other three of Elisabeth’s children who were raised by their father are being treated for anger and resentment at the events.
In late July 2008, it emerged that Elisabeth Fritzl ordered her mother Rosemarie out of the villa they have been sharing in a secret location set up for them by a psychiatric clinic. Elisabeth Fritzl was upset about Rosemarie’s passiveness during Elisabeth’s upbringing.
In March 2009, Elisabeth and her children were forced to move out of the family’s hide-away home and returned to the psychiatric clinic where medical staff had started trying to heal the family and unite the upstairs and downstairs siblings during the previous year. She was reported to be distraught and close to a breakdown after a British paparazzo had burst into her kitchen and started taking photographs.
On 18 March 2009 Elisabeth Fritzl attended the second day of the criminal trial against her father Josef, in preparation for a book she is to write about her ordeal. She does not plan to see her father again.
After the trial, Elisabeth and her six children were moved to an unnamed village in northern Austria, where they are living in a fortress-like house. All of the children require ongoing therapy — the “upstairs” children who learned the truth about the lies that their father told them about their mother abandoning them and the abuse they received from their (grand)father during their childhood, the fact that their siblings were imprisoned in the cellar which none of them knew about at first, and the “downstairs children” for their deprivation from normal development and lack of fresh air and sunshine and the abuse that they also received, as their mother Elisabeth had, from their father/grandfather when he visited them in the basement. All of the children might possibly have genetic problems common to children born of an incestuous relationship. Although Elisabeth is said to be estranged from her mother, Rosemarie — who accepted Fritzl’s story about Elisabeth joining a cult and did not pursue the matter further — Elisabeth allows her three children who grew up in Josef and Rosemarie’s house to visit their grandmother regularly. Rosemarie lives alone in a small apartment.
According to an article in March 2010 in The Independent, Elisabeth Fritzl and her children coped with their recovery remarkably well, given the difficult lives they endured for so long. According to Fritzl’s sister-in-law, Christine, Elisabeth enjoys spending her time shopping, taking frequent showers, and driving. She has passed her driving test without difficulty. Her relationship with Thomas, one of her bodyguards, was reported to be ongoing, with him becoming a big-brother figure to her children. All of Elisabeth’s children have developed normal sibling relationships with each other, and after having trouble dealing with the traumatic events, the three “upstairs” children slowly began recognising Elisabeth as their mother. The children enjoy being outdoors, playing video games, and spending time with their mother and grandmother. Despite their strained relationship, Elisabeth and her mother Rosemarie started visiting each other more, and Elisabeth has reportedly forgiven her mother for believing her father’s story and not pursuing the matter further.
On 28 June 2013, workers began filling the basement of the Fritzl home with concrete. Estate liquidator Walter Anzboeck stated that the cost of the construction would be 100,000 euros and would take a week to complete. The house is planned to be sold on the open market. While most neighbours approved the proposal, some preferred that the property be demolished due to its sordid history. Since the day of being for sale, it has not been sold. The house was up for sale at a price of £145,000, but no buyers came forward with an acceptable offer, so asylum seekers have been offered the house to live in since September 2015.