A Brief Criminal History of Austria

Jun 20, 2013 - by Faye Karavasili - 0 Comments

From Austria’s first serial killer, Hugo Schenk, to the internationally shocking case of Joseph Fritzl.       

by Faye Karavasili

Austria is widely known mostly for its flowing waltzes and tasty schnitzel. When one walks through its cobbled pavements it is very hard to imagine that this is the same country that, alongside Mozart and Freud, has unleashed depraved monsters such as Jack Unterweger and Joseph Fritzl.

That slightly more disturbing side of the country can be visible to those who want to see throughout history. An excellent record of the country’s criminal history is preserved and reaches all the way to the Habsburg dynasty times with verdicts published in the local newspapers. Within it, both the criminal history of the land and the ensuing legislative adjustments brought about unfold.

During the Habsburg years of the monarchy, 1809 – 1918, crime seems to have been limited to common robberies going wrong or wretches with rat poison doing away with their husbands or rivals for the attention of a gentleman. Often charges were complimented by sorcery accusations.   Executions of violent offenders of either gender were rather commonplace.

Austria’s First Serial Killers

Austria’s first serial killer, at least on record, appears on the scene around 1883. Hugo Schenk began his criminal career with petty frauds at the age of 21. He was sentenced but later pardoned and when he teamed up with Karl Schlossarek, whom he met in prison, murder was not too far away.

Together the pair murdered four domestic helpers. A handsome lad, Schenk had no trouble attracting the attention of the ladies. Charming them into believing his intentions were honorable was not a difficult task for the experienced conman. During a puritanical time when such affairs of the heart needed to be conducted in secrecy, he could move in the shadows.

His method was simple. He would charm the girl, make her believe marriage was imminent and ask her to gather all her belongings (including all of her savings) and meet him at a remote part of the city, or indeed, in the countryside. Then he would rape and rob her. With Schlossarek’s help he would then murder the woman and conceal her body in the wilderness or throw it into the Danube. Both men were arrested and hanged on April 22, 1884. (An almost copycat killer, Max Gulfer, adopted a very similar modus operandi in the 1950s.)

Martha Marek

Another sensational for the time case was this of Martha Marek and her husband Emil. It started out as a routine insurance related case when, in 1925, Emil lost one of his legs due to an accident. Shortly before the accident, he and his wife Martha had taken out an insurance policy worth a hefty sum of money. The experts, however, insisted there was conclusive evidence that the limb was removed deliberately and not only refused to pay the money but they also ensured Martha Marek landed in prison for attempted fraud. Soon enough a compromise was achieved and Martha was allowed to return home to her husband. In the meantime, and while in prison, she had become acquainted with Leopoldine Lichtenstein who had murdered her husband with rat poison. It was later widely rumored that it had been this meeting which had inspired Martha to murder her entire family.

Shortly after she was released from prison, her husband Emil unexpectedly died. He had been suffering from ill health as a consequence of his leg’s amputation – intentional or not – so nobody suspected foul play and sympathy for the young widow poured in, along with the money to support the headless family. She played her role impeccably and took it a notch further, poisoning her own daughter, prompting further expressions of support, monetary or otherwise, after her death. Still, that was not enough and soon the widow found herself in dire need of more cash. It is assumed that her pathological greed was linked to a poor childhood. She had the need to maintain a high standard of living, one she could not really afford. She would get into debt habitually. 

Desperate again for money, she grew careless and resorted to the same scam which had landed her in trouble in the first place. She took an insurance policy in the name of her tenant, Felicitas Kittenberger, who, unsurprisingly enough died after a short and unexpected illness. This time around though, there was an autopsy, the results of which proved that the strikes of fate around Marek had not been fate at all. All bodies were exhumed and the evidence piled against her.

Loyal to Austrian tradition, her death sentence was converted to life imprisonment because she was a woman. This was overturned when Adolf Hitler seized power and her original penalty was reinstated. Martha Marek was decapitated on December 6, 1938.

Alfred Engleder – “The Hammer Rapist”

Prompted by an “intense hatred and contempt” towards women, the first major case of serial rape and murder after the war was that of the aptly named “hammer rapist,” Alfred Engleder, who was born in 1920 in the rural area of Steyr, Austria. He would follow the same pattern every time. He would approach his unsuspecting victims riding a bike, he would then hit them on the head with a hammer, rendering them unconscious. He would then rape them. One of his, altogether six, victims succumbed to the injuries sustained during the attack and shortly afterward Engleder was apprehended after yet another – this time unsuccessful – attempt. Later on, life was to play a somewhat ironic game on the man who hated women as he met his own demise after being stabbed by his latest girlfriend. He had previously been convicted to a life sentence, being conditionally released after 26 years in custody.

Murders in Favoriten

The most sensational story of the 1980s was no doubt incorporating every parent’s worst fear. Three consecutive years, three young girls found murdered and sexually molested in similar fashion and within a close radius from one another in the otherwise peaceful district of Favoriten. Year by year the victim was getting younger, starting with 20-year-old Alexandra Schriefl, found naked, abused, and choked with her own pantyhose tied to a tree on October 27, 1988. The murder shocked the close knit community but efforts to discover the identity of her killer were initially unsuccessful.

In 1989, another gruesome finding came to remind Vienna that a killer was on the loose. Choked in a similar fashion, sexually molested and tied to the railings of a building’s staircase, 10-year-old Cristina Beranek was discovered by her own father on February 2, 1989. The child, just like Alexandra, had been strangled with her own clothing. That murder too went unresolved, in spite of a massive investigation launched by Vienna’s criminal police, including the offering of a significant bounty.

The third victim was 8-year-old Nicole Strau, found on December 22, 1990 in a wooded area. She too had been raped and strangled with her own shoelaces. Efforts intensified and the area was gripped by fear at the, almost inescapable certainty that a sadistic serial killer was operating in the area. However, this was proven not to be the case. After the random arrest of an individual named Herbert P. for an unrelated offense in 2000 and the obligatory DNA samples obtained by him, linked him directly to the rape and murder of Alexandra Schriefl. As it turns out he had been – erroneously – classified in the wrong blood group by mistake when he had been examined back in 1988, thus excluding him from the pool of suspects. Once again, the investigation was reopened and, while Herbert P. was found not to have been the perpetrator of the other two murders, the resolution of the murder of 8-year-old Nicole was not far off. A man named Michael P., at the time romantically linked to the girl’s aunt was questioned once again. Back then, it had appeared that he had an alibi, but authorities reexamined evidence and deemed his refusal to provide with a DNA sample suspicious. Indeed, the man refused a second time around until a judge signed court order brought about the inevitable and the second killer was identified.

What was really extraordinary in these cases was the utter confusion of the jury of lay people concerning DNA science and its application. Especially in the case of Nicole. A certain and crystal clear conviction was almost lost for the prosecutor as jurors struggled with the scientific evidence before them. Regarding the rape charges, and even though a perfect DNA match was available, one juror voted for the defendant’s innocence, not entirely convinced that a one in a billion chance for two individuals to have the same DNA sequence was conclusive enough. Two additional jurors refused to find the accused guilty on the grounds that the DNA evidence only indicated he was the perpetrator of the rape and not necessarily the murder. The trial prompted fierce debate around the problem of extreme reliance on DNA evidence exclusively by jurors who may be inclined to believe trial depictions on fictional shows such as “CSI” are entirely accurate.

The murder of Christina Beranek was never found, as no DNA evidence was available to link either man to her murder. It had also been assumed at some point that the girl was one of the victims of serial killer Wolfgang Ott who was terrorizing and murdering young girls throughout Austria, but this too could never be positively proven.

“Angels of Death”

A slightly different criminal affair stirred a different kind of controversy in the 1980s. The sheer volume of the death toll was, at the time, as unimaginable for the country, as its perpetrators were unlikely. When a rumor began to circulate about a series of murders taking place underneath the nose of the establishment within the sanctuary of the hospital of Lainz the management did not quite believe it. Especially since those boasting the act seemed rather amused by their wicked deeds and eager to find even more victims.

The truth turned out to be uglier than anyone could imagine. It all began when one of the terminally ill patients asked nurse Waltraud Wagner, 23, to help her end her life in dignity. She complied and administered the patient a lethal dose of morphine, viewing her act as a “mercy deed” and thus perfectly justifiable. She did not stop there. Joined by three female colleagues, the murderous company would habitually seek out the meek and the frail and murder them in cold blood. Sometimes they would use insulin, other times sedatives.

Wagner was eventually charged with 32 separate counts of murder (even though she confessed to more than that. Expert testimonies indicate the group’s victims may have been more than a hundred), after bodies were exhumed and the real cause of their death was determined. The women rightfully earned their press nickname, “angels of death,” and insisted their actions were motivated purely by empathy for the terminally ill whose quality of life had deteriorated beyond salvation or even tolerance. All four women were eventually convicted and incarcerated. Today all four of them have been released on probation, relocated and changed their names in an attempt to start a new life. They were released in 2008 after remaining in prison for 17 years.

Modern times are certainly not lacking in either gore or violence, and even though savaged by the World War II, Austria had plenty a moment when a criminal case has attracted international attention or has prompted vigorous debate and parliamentary interventions. Prominent cases include amok killings of the innocent, serial offenders and, of course, the notorious abduction cases of Natascha Kampusch and Josef Fritzl and celebrity serial killer Jack Unterweger.

 “The Vienna Woods Killer” – Jack Unterweger

Jack Unterweger, otherwise known as ‘the Vienna woods killer’ is possibly Austria’s most prominent serial killer. Indeed, his murderous activities spread well beyond the borders of Austria, reaching even the United States. He murdered numerous prostitutes by choking them with their own panty hose or brassiere and mostly dumped their bodies around the Vienna woods area (which earned him his nickname), between 1990 and 1994 when he was finally arrested.

Unterweger spent much of his youth in and out of prison, sustaining convictions mainly for sexual assaults. In 1976 he was sentenced to life with no parole for the murder of a woman. He spent 15 years in prison, developing a charming persona and secured the support of Vienna’s intellectual elite. He was released in 1990, as a stellar example that rehabilitation works, and proceeded to become a celebrity. He murdered four women just on the year of his early release. His killer’s trademark had been the unusually tied knot on the women’s undergarments used to choke them found on every crime scene. He committed suicide before a conviction was secured, leaving the ultimate proof behind him as he hung himself: the same unusual knot.

The Abduction of Natascha Kampusch

The abduction of 10-year-old schoolgirl Natascha Kampusch in 1998 shook Austria to its foundations. The child was taken by a man in a white van while she was on the way to school. In spite of intensive searches and extensive publicity she was not to be found. A deranged man, Wolfgang Priklopil, had kidnapped her and kept her locked in his cellar for eight years. He used the young girl as his own personal slave. Initially, Kampusch was not allowed to leave the tiny cellar underneath the perpetrator’s garage, but gradually she was allowed into the main house where she also interacted with a friend. She even took a ski trip with her abductor at some point but Kampusch felt unable to escape since she was under constant surveillance and she was being threatened. She finally managed to escape on August 23, 2006, and to seek refuge at a neighbor’s home. Priklopil committed suicide by throwing himself on the train tracks to avoid apprehension and Kampusch achieved celebrity status.

A Symbol of Pure Evil – Josef Fritzl

Josef Fritzl went from example of a respectable elderly family man to synonym for pure evil when a series of events led to the unveiling of a gruesome tale of captivity, rape and incest which catapulted him to notoriety. When his eldest daughter Elizabeth disappeared, nobody believed anything bad had happened to her. She had always been rebellious and often clashed with her strict father. Besides, a number of letters written by her indicated she had just run away. In reality, Elizabeth was being kept captive in a soundproof cellar underneath her family’s condominium complex by her own father who raped and terrorized her regularly.

In the course of 24 years, Fritzl had fathered a total of seven children with his daughter. One of them, a boy named Michael died, as he did not receive proper medical care, and was incinerated by Fritzl on his property. Three of the children were removed from the cellar and lived in the family home. Fritzl had claimed to have found the children on his doorstep with notes written by his daughter pleading with him to raise them for her as she was herself unable to. Three more children were kept captive in the basement along with their mother. The tragedy was revealed when Fritzl was forced to take the eldest of these children to a hospital after a serious illness. He was subsequently arrested and convicted to life imprisonment.

Although Austria is, relatively speaking, a peaceful and safe country, it, like human nature, possesses two distinct faces, the elegant and more sophisticated one concealing the darker, more sinister side of the same coin. But when the dark side makes an appearance in the person of Jack Unterweger or Josef Fritzl, it seems the whole world notices.

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