Unterweger: Poet of Death
Unterweger was jailed for murder but became a literary sensation
while in prison. Out on parole, he killed nine prostitutes before
being caught once more.
Jack Unterweger was
Austria’s most prominent serial killer who, while serving prison
time for his first murder, wrote poetry, a novel and an
autobiography. He received success and celebrity from his writing
and was eventually given parole in 1990. After he was released he
continued to attack and kill prostitutes both in his home country
and America. Unterweger was eventually arrested and extradited back
to Austria, where he was found guilty of nine murders. A twist to
the tale is that he cheated final justice in prison when he hung
himself less than 24 hours after being sentenced to life for a
Looking back on
Unterweger’s upbringing it was not difficult for the authorities to
see a connection between the man’s early environment and his
possible hatred of prostitutes. The killer was actually the
illegitimate product of an Austrian prostitute and, it is believed,
an American soldier.
knew the identity of his father and for seven years as a boy lived
with his alcoholic grandfather. He developed a predisposition
towards crime at an early age getting arrested at just sixteen for
violently assaulting a prostitute. He also acted as a pimp to a
woman he forced on to the streets.
On September the
15th, 1990, some passers by walking along the river Vitava River in
Czechoslovakia, near Prague came across the grisly sight of the body
of a young woman. Blanka Bockova was the first victim of Jack
Unterweger. She was left in a degrading state, lying on her back,
nude, with a pair of grey stockings knotted around her neck. Her
legs were open and she had been covered with leaves.
The night before she
had gone out with friends for a drink in the upmarket Wenceslas
Square and had remained in a bar while the others left around
11.45pm. She was last seen talking to a man, aged around 40, but
no-one could offer any other details.
Bockova was a fun
loving girl and was not a prostitute.
Several weeks later
Brunhilde Masser, a well known prostitute from Graz, was reported
missing. As Austria had very few problems with prostitutes the
authorities became concerned. Two months later in early December
another prostitute, Heidemarie Hammerer, also went missing. On New
Year’s Eve, almost a month after her disappearance, her body was
found by hikers in a wood outside of the town.
Like the first
murder she was also found on her back and covered with dead leaves
and bramble. It appeared that the body had been redressed and then
dragged through the woods. Although not naked, her legs were bare
and a missing piece of material from her slip was found inside her
mouth. Hammerer, like Blanka Bockova, had been strangled with a pair
of tights and also displayed bruises and ligament marks on her
wrists, suggesting that she had been tied up. Several red fibres on
her clothing that didn’t match anything she was wearing appeared to
be possible evidence left by the killer.
A few days later the
body of missing prostitute Brunhilde Masser was discovered. Her
badly decomposed body was also found in a quiet wood in Bregenz.
Again, there were no signs of robbery and her manner of death
matched the previous two murders.
The Austrian Federal
Police investigating the cases found it difficult to unearth details
about the prostitutes’ clients. There had been no witnesses to the
murders and the police found themselves without any leads to go on.
At this particular stage the Austrian police, unaware of Blanka
Bokova’s murder in Prague, had no indication that they were dealing
with a serial killer.
This view would soon
begin to change when another prostitute, Elfriede Schrempf,
disappeared from Graz on March 7th, 1991. Schrempf’s parents
contacted the police to notify them that a man had called the family
home several times and taunted them about their daughter’s
occupation. What concerned them and the police was the fact the
girl’s telephone number was unlisted and suggested that the person
who may be responsible for her disappearance made the calls.
On the 5th October
1991, Schrempf’s body was found like the others in a woodland area
just outside Graz. Her remains were skeletal and again she was
covered in leaves. The police, if they hadn’t realised then that
they were in the midst of a serial killer soon did when four more
prostitutes vanished, this time from Vienna.
Sabine Moitzi, Regina Prem and Karin Eroglu had all vanished within
a month time period.
Moitzi’s body was
discovered on the 20th May, 1992 followed by Karin Ergolu. Both
women had been strangled and dumped in woodland outside the city of
Vienna. Again the MO of the killer was the same; the victims had
been asphyxiated with an article of their own clothing.
suddenly came to the fore when retired seventy-year old investigator
August Schenner, recalled a series of murders and attacks he had
dealt with in the 70’s. The crime scene and cause of deaths was
remarkably similar to the murders now being committed in Austria.
The culprit, Johann ‘Jack’ Unterweger had been caught and
The former murders
of two women had led Schenner to a prostitute, Barbara Scholz who
had admitted that she and Unterweger had abducted one of the
victims, eighteen-year-old Margaret Schaefer and taken her to a wood
where she was tied up and assaulted. Unterweger had demanded sex and
when the girl refused he bludgeoned her to death with a steel pipe.
He then strangled and left her nude body face up in the wood covered
At the trial
Unterweger had confessed to the crime but revealed that as he hit
the victim he had seen a vision of his mother, which had fuelled his
anger and hatred resulting in him continuing to strike the victim
until she was dead.
declared insane by a psychologist who described him as being a
‘sexually sadistic psychopath with narcissistic and histrionic
tendencies, prone to fits of rage and anger.
He is an incorrigible
Despite finding the
body of the second victim, Marcia Horveth, who had also been
strangled and dumped into Lake Salzachsee near Salzburg, Unterweger
denied responsibility. He was also now serving time in prison for
had known that Unterweger was incredibly manipulative and used such
skills to influence those around him. On investigation he discovered
that the killer had secured a parole board and managed to get
himself released only fifteen years into his sentence. Not only had
Unterweger been freed early but in the time he had also become a
best selling novelist and celebrity.
incarceration in 1976, Unterweger who was originally illiterate
spent his time in jail learning to read and write. He not only
became well read but ventured into writing himself and rather
incredibly created a ‘best seller’ with his autobiography Fegefeur
(Purgatory) followed by another self examination ‘Endstation
Zuchthaus’ (Terminus Prison) which won a prestigious literary award.
His books proffered
self-confessional tracts such as Untweger’s memoirs were filled with
self-indulgent documentation of the state of his own disturbed mind
and his urges to kill. No doubt the poetic and lyrical quality of
such writing coupled with his infamy as a ‘damaged’ killer impressed
publishers and the parole board alike. For Untweger’s literary
efforts had done more than give him awards and celebrity, it had
also secured his freedom in that the authorities were quick to
believe that ‘art’ had brought about redemption.
The now famous lifer
was upheld as an example of how an evildoer, and in Unterweger’s
case a sadistic killer, can alter themselves for the better and
contribute to society. After countless interviews with the press,
Unterweger, now showing that he was a reformed man, found himself at
the centre of a public campaign to release him. On the 23rd May,
1990 his endeavours to hoodwink the authorities and members of the
public saw him become a free man once again.
One of the most
bizarre and disturbing aspects of this case is that while Unterweger
was being feted by the chattering classes and invited to glitzy
soirees and parties, he was also been asked for his opinions and
advice on the latest disappearance of prostitutes that he alone was
responsible for. The killer by this time was now known as ‘The
Courier’ and Unterweger not only participated on television talk
shows about the matter but even conducted broadcast interviews on
the street himself.
In reality, while
the devious Unterweger was basking in the spotlight of celebrity and
seeing his books rise up the best sellers list, he was still
continuing his sickening obsession with brutalising women.
investigators had become suspicious of Unterweger, but they had to
tread carefully as the former killer was now a popular literary
figure and symbol of redemption for a liberal community.
Dr Ernst Geiger, a
detective on the Austrian Federal police force had never been
convinced by Unterweger’s act as a reformed man. A discreet
surveillance was kept on the killer. When Unterweger was invited to
Los Angeles to write articles it wasn’t just Geiger who noticed that
the latest murders suddenly stopped. Now he realised that he would
have to look seriously into Unterweger’s movements and either
eliminate or arrest him. It was just a question of getting the right
The police began to
trace all of Unterweger’s paper trail activities from credit cards
to receipts and rental car agencies. After several months they had
accumulated many links to the man’s movements and places where the
victims had been murdered. Records showed that Unterweger was in
Graz when Brunhilde Masser was found strangled and also in Bregenz
when victim Heidemarie Hammerer disappeared off the radar. A witness
also testified that Unterweger was similar to a man she had seen
with Hammerer just before she disappeared and that he had been
wearing a brown leather jacket and red scarf. Sightings of
Unterweger with the other victims in Vienna were also established.
Unterweger’s return to Austria, where he realised he was now a
suspect, he wrote articles criticising the police force’s effort to
track down the killer. Because so many people had taken a great risk
in believing that Unterweger was a reformed character they supported
him in his crusade against the police.
It was important
that Dr Ernst Geiger collected as much circumstantial evidence that
he could, which he did from various Austrian prostitutes who
Unterweger had visited under the pretext that he was a journalist.
Dr Geiger was able
to carry out forensic tests on a BMW that Unterweger had bought on
his release from prison. A hair fragment was found and DNA tests
proved that it belonged to Blanka Bockova, the first victim from
Prague. This evidence allowed a warrant search of the suspect’s flat
in Vienna where they discovered a brown leather jacket and red
scarf. They also came across a menu and receipts from a Malibu
seafood restaurant, together with home snapshots of Unterweger
posing with female members of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Geiger, on a hunch, thought that something might also turn up in LA.
He contacted the police there and discovered that they were in the
throes of investigating three killings of prostitutes.
that all of the murders in LA were identical to those in Austria.
They had all been killed while Unterweger was in the city
masquerading as a journalist and requiring the LA police to assist
him with his research. More importantly, receipts from the
Unterweger’s apartment correlated to hotels near where the
prostitutes were murdered.
development for the police was that Unterweger had acquired an
impressionable girlfriend, Bianca Mrak, who was now missing from
home. It now became an urgent crusade to track down Unterweger
before anything happened to her.
Tipped off by
friends that the police were now searching for him Unterweger left
Austria with Mrak and managed to enter into America. He then started
a campaign to make him look like a victim of police persecution and
contacted the Austrian press. The manipulative Unterweger managed to
persuade Austrian newspapers to publish his case for defence.
Playing the wronged man role and a victim of police vindictiveness,
some of the papers agreed and even paid him for an exclusive
revealed that she was happy to be with Unterwegger and the picture
created was that they were fugitives facing persecution from the
Austrian police who had singled him out as a scapegoat.
had lied to get into the US, he could technically be arrested for
this alone. When Mrak’s mother wired some money to her daughter US
marshals saw this as an opportunity to arrest him at a Western Union
office in South Beach, California.
After Mrak collected
the money she and Unterwegger walked out of the building while the
marshals followed. But Unterwegger twigged something was up and
bolted. He was chased through a restaurant, but finally cornered in
a back parking bay, handcuffed and arrested. It is alleged that when
the police officers informed him he was wanted for murders in
Austria, Unterwegger broke down and wept.
A search of
Unterwegger and Mrak’s Malibu apartment revealed many incriminating
items that could be linked to the murdered LA prostitutes. The
police also recovered a diary written by Unterwegger which suggested
he had plans to dispose of Mrak.
preferred to be tried in California as he knew that he would be
facing a charge of murder against just three victims as opposed to
many in Austria. However, realising that he could also be facing the
gas chamber he quickly agreed to extradition. Unterweger was
deported on the 28th May, 1992.
on logic to defend himself. Why as he pointed out would a man such
as himself, who had been rewarded so well with fame and money,
suddenly decide to destroy his privileged life by murdering women?
But before the court
case commenced, Dr Geiger enlisted Thomas Mueller, Chief of the
Criminal Psychology Service in the Federal Ministry of the Interior,
to accompany him to America and learn all they could about the
psychology of compulsive serial killers.
Through a briefing
with the Behavioural Science Unit (BSU) at Quantico, Virginia,
Geiger and Mueller discovered that there were standard forms of
behaviour relating to murderers like Unterwegger, who also displayed
deviant sexual obsessions that usually followed a pattern. Although
most serial killers rarely move from one country to another the
details of the deaths of the LA prostitutes were too close to those
in Austria to be purely coincidental.
But there was more
tangible evidence to come against Unterwegger when analysis on the
knots to tie ligatures on the three LA prostitutes, matched the
pantyhose knots used on the victims in Austria.
In June 1994, in
Graz, Austria, the trial began. Unterweger as an Austrian citizen
was to be tried of all murders in LA, Prague and Austria. The man
himself played to the gallery and utilised his well-honed skills of
manipulation by appealing to the jury and the public’s sense of fair
play. When he admitted he was ‘a rat’ and an ‘inveterate liar’ who
‘consumed women rather than love them’ how could they fail to
dismiss such self-deprecating honesty?
What the defence
didn’t count on was the response to such questioning from the
prosecution based on psychiatric reports and the FBI investigative
analysis that pointed out that a man such as Unterweger was not
rational. As someone who suffered from uncontrolled compulsions and
fetishes, it really didn’t matter what status he held in life. He’d
still kill, as it was an addiction.
such as the crime lab reports on the ligature knots; Blanka
Bockova’s hair strand recovered in the BMW and red fibres found on
Brunhilde Massar’s body from Unterweger’s scarf, finally added up to
a compelling case against the defendant.
But Unterweger was
Two and a half
months later even the most supportive press of Unterweger began to
change their views. The devious sociopath also began to lose support
from the literary establishment and his girlfriend, Bianca Mrak
Jack Unterweger was
found guilty of nine counts of murder—the Prague victim, all three
Los Angeles victims, and five in Austria. The court sentenced him to
life in prison.
The final twist in
this macabre and dark tale is that Unterweger, being a man who like
many serial killers had a preoccupation with control, couldn’t
handle not being in the driver’s seat. He took the opportunity while
guards were out of sight to hang himself using the string from his
prison jumpsuit. Ironically he used the same knot he had so cruelly
practiced on his victims.
The Crime & Investigation Network
The Vienna strangler
Fifteen years after being jailed for killing a young girl, Jack
Unterweger walked free, a reformed character. A year later, 11 more
women had been murdered.
By John Leake - The Guardian
Saturday November 10, 2007
On the morning of July 11 1991, there was a solar eclipse in the sky
over Los Angeles. A couple of men and their children drove up to
Corral Canyon Road in Malibu, north-west of the city, to watch.
Turning off at an old fire road, they headed for a vantage point at
the top of a steep hill. They were too horrified by what they saw
lying on the ground to pay attention to the sky.
The body of a woman was lying face up, 20 yards west of the dirt
road, underneath a laurel sumac shrub. Her face was obscured by
maggots streaming out of her nose, mouth, eyes and ears. Her T-shirt
was hiked up to her shoulders. Around her neck was a tightly knotted
bra. Police identified her by her fingerprints. She was Sherri Long,
In the pathologist's estimation, the victim had
been dead for four to seven days. When detective Fred Miller at LAPD
homicide heard the story of the girl murdered in Malibu, he figured
the killer he'd been hunting had struck again.
The killer had struck first on the night of June
19 1991. Twenty-year-old Shannon Exley had called her father before
she went to work and told him she was trying to get her life in
order. Her last customer picked her up on Seventh sometime after
midnight and drove east, across the LA river to the Girl Scout
Centre on Seventh and Fickett. In the vacant lot behind it,
surrounded by eucalyptus trees, no one saw his car or heard her
screams. She, too, was strangled with her own bra. The pathologist's
report revealed her identity and her record of arrests for
A week later, Miller saw a teletype about a dead
girl found in a freight company parking lot in Hollenbeck. A
homeless man foraging for firewood in the industrial zone along the
LA river had found her lying on her back underneath a big rig
trailer with a bra tightly knotted around her neck. Most of her
clothing was missing; a sock, T-shirt and hypodermic syringe were
lying near her body. Her fingerprints and a follow-up investigation
revealed she was 33-year-old Irene Rodriguez, who had arrived in LA
in April 1991 on a Greyhound bus from El Paso, Texas, where she'd
been living with her common-law husband and their four children.
Dr Lynne Herold at the LA County sheriff's
department crime lab had trained in one of the busiest forensic
pathology labs in the world, which dealt with thousands of possible
homicide victims every year. She had seen victims bound with all
kinds of tape, rope, extension cords, speaker cable, telephone cords
and electrical wire, but nothing quite like this.
On July 16 1991, three bras were delivered to
Herold in brown paper bags (plastic, which traps moisture and breeds
bacteria, is used only in movies). They had each been made into a
noose. "For all three, I think you should be looking for the same
guy," she said, confirming what Miller already suspected. The killer
struck three times in LA within a 14-day period, with nine days of
cooling off between the first and second, and five days between the
second and third. The detectives braced for a fourth murder, but it
Serial killers are rare. In the 80s, the FBI
estimated that, at any given time, there were about 35 in the US
(then a nation of about 240 million people) who had committed
murders but had not yet been detained. Countries with smaller
populations, such as Austria, may not experience a single one for
"Prostitute in Vienna murdered: three still
missing" read the front-page headline of the Kurier newspaper on May
22 1991. Crime reporter Peter Grolig got the scoop. From his
contacts in the Vienna police, he learned that the four women had
disappeared from the same part of the red-light district in April
and the beginning of May.
The first body was found in the Vienna Woods on
May 20. A retired man walking a path through the Scots Woods (a
section of the Vienna Woods), near the Sign of the Cross Meadow,
noticed the smell first. Scanning the forest floor, among the stumps
and dead leaves he saw a corpse. The young woman was naked except
for a leotard pulled up around her shoulders. Lying face down with
her legs spread wide apart, she appeared to be melting into the
compost of the forest floor. Foxes had chewed the flesh off her
right leg. Her killer had arranged her corpse to cause outrage. An
autopsy later confirmed she had died from strangulation with her own
The Vienna Woods, which arc around the western
half of the city, are in places dense and primeval. In no other
major city in Europe does the urban zone so abruptly give way to
forest - a clear boundary between civilisation and wilderness across
which no prostitute would willingly drive with a client at night.
What tricks had the killer used on her?
It didn't take long to identify the victim; her
husband had filed a missing-person report the previous month. Sabine
Moitzi, 25, was a bakery salesgirl by day but, unknown even to her
husband, she occasionally worked as a "secret prostitute" (not
registered with the Office of Health, as prostitutes are required to
be by law in Vienna). She had become addicted to heroin, and her
wages at the bakery didn't cover the cost. At around 11pm on the
night of April 16, her friend Ilse dropped her off at an
intersection near the railyard of the West Train Station. When Ilse
passed by 10 minutes later, Sabine was gone. Her body was found five
weeks later; its state of decay indicated she had been dead about
The second body was found three days later, on
May 23. A woman looking for her guinea pig's favourite food found
the naked corpse of Karin Eroglu. She had disappeared on the night
of May 7 from her corner, just a few blocks from where Sabine had
last been seen. She'd been driven 10 miles outside the city, even
deeper into the woods. Her body lay in a grove of spruce trees, 30
yards from the nearest road. Most likely her killer had forced her
to walk to the spot where her corpse would later be found. The
trauma to her face indicated he had beaten her. From her leotard, he
had fashioned the same kind of ligature that had been found around
Sabine Moitzi's neck.
Two women murdered in the same way - officer
Ernst Geiger knew it was only a matter of time before the corpses of
the other two missing women, Silvia Zagler and Regina Prem, turned
Geiger's experience with murderers was small
compared with that of an American big city cop such as Miller. At
the time the prostitutes disappeared, he was a 36-year-old police
lawyer who had just been appointed head of homicide. In 1991, Vienna
was (and still is) a mellow city of coffee houses and classical
music. It is reckoned one of the cleanest and safest cities in the
world. While prostitution is a high-risk occupation in most cities,
in Vienna the homicide rate among prostitutes was no higher than
that of the general population. That all changed in the spring of
1991, when the "Vienna Woods Killer" (as the press called him)
In the days and weeks following the discovery of
the first body, investigators spent hours talking to prostitutes and
pimps, noting descriptions of violent or perverse customers and
trying to track them down for an interview.
Conspicuously absent from the media coverage were
mourning relatives. Like many prostitutes, the murdered and missing
women had little contact with their families, or had grown up in
orphanages. No one came forward to talk about them, except Rudolf
Prem, husband of the still missing Regina. She had grown up in an
orphanage and held various menial jobs; according to Rudolf, two
years after she met him she realised she could make a lot more money
turning tricks. They had a child and got married, and Rudolf quit
his job as a plumber to stay at home and look after the boy, who was
under the impression his mother worked as a waitress. With her
earnings she had furnished their apartment and built a playroom.
"She was an insanely good mother," Rudolf told Profil magazine.
"She'd let herself be torn into pieces for the boy."
At 9.45pm on Sunday, April 28 1991, Rudolf
dropped Regina off for an appointment with a regular client, a wine
salesman. Usually she finished work around 2am and called Rudolf to
pick her up. When she didn't call that morning, he drove to her
corner and saw she wasn't there.
On Monday, June 3, 10 days after the second body
was found, a reporter for the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting
Corporation) arrived at police HQ for an interview with chief Max
Edelbacher about the murders. The reporter introduced himself as
Jack Unterweger and said he was producing a story for Journal
Panorama (a respected current affairs radio programme). He was a
freelance reporter, he said, who'd been given the assignment because
his aunt had been a prostitute who was murdered by her last customer
in 1967. From her he had learned about the lives of prostitutes;
from losing her, he understood what the women in the red-light
district were going through. The previous Friday, he had interviewed
a few of them while they stood on their corners.
On June 5, his story, The Fear In The Red-Light
Milieu, was broadcast. All over the country, people driving home
from work or sitting at home tuned in and heard the prostitutes
talking about their fears. Among those listening was police chief
At dinner a couple of days earlier, Edelbacher
had been surprised by his wife's reaction when he mentioned he'd
been interviewed about the murders by an ORF reporter with the
unusual (in Austria) name "Jack". Jack Unterweger was his full name.
"Jack Unterweger!" his wife exclaimed. "Don't you
know who that is?"
"Mensch, Unterweger is that guy who got a life
sentence for murdering a woman and who wrote a crazy book in prison.
He was released last year."
It was true - on May 23 1990, Jack Unterweger had
been released after serving 15 years in jail.
"He is a bestselling author, has written seven
books, and wants to film his novel Purgatory a second time. The talk
is of Jack Unterweger, 40 years old, ex-prisoner in Stein, with a
life sentence for the murder of an 18-year-old girl. In his cell he
became a literary figure. Today, after more than 15 years of
incarceration, the prison doors have opened for him."
Most of the newspapers in the country ran similar
stories in their culture sections. Not only was he a renowned
author, he was also the country's most high-profile rehabilitated
offender. In his youth he'd been a thief and pimp. At 25, he was
convicted of murder and sentenced. He passed the time in his cell by
writing and taking correspondence courses on literature and
narrative writing. He began submitting children's stories to the
radio, which ultimately broadcast about 50 of them.
One woman, a music teacher and single mother, was
so moved by them that she visited him in prison and later testified
at his parole hearing that a man who wrote such tales was "full of
love". He wrote a play and a volume of poetry; then in 1982 his
autobiographical novel, Purgatory, was published. Unterweger became
a celebrated author. In 1988 Purgatory was presented to the public
in a film adaptation, first in cinemas, then on ORF television.
Jack's mother, a country girl named Theresia
Unterweger, left home in her late teens and worked as a waitress and
barmaid, falling in with American soldiers occupying her country.
She became pregnant and was then briefly jailed for fraud. She was
released a few weeks before Jack was born. She named the infant
after his absent father, who she claimed was an American soldier
named Jack Becker whom she'd met in Trieste.
When Jack was two, his mother was again arrested
and he was placed in the care of his grandfather in the alpine
countryside of Carinthia, the southernmost state of Austria.
Unterweger claimed that he was abandoned with his violent,
schnapps-swilling grandfather in the middle of nowhere, without
proper food and clothing, and, above all, with no motherly love.
A recurring theme in the novel is Jack's quest
for his mother. He yearns for her to come and take him away, but she
never does. His grandfather tells him she is a "tramp with no time
for you". Later in the story, he travels to Salzburg to search for
his mother, and although he doesn't find her, he does track down her
sister, Anna, a Salzburg prostitute. Aunt Anna is kind to him, and
later in the story he is overwhelmed with grief when he learns that
she has been "murdered by her last customer".
Unterweger gave televised readings in the prison
auditorium which were attended by intellectuals and government
officials. Later he was allowed to attend the premiere of his play,
End Station Prison, at the Vienna People's Theatre. A short, slender
man with delicate, youthful features, he had a particularly strong
effect on women, many of whom have described him as looking like a
A campaign was launched to free Unterweger. He
reminded his advocates of the French criminal and author Jean Genet;
they believed writing his life story, and the self-reflection it
required, had transformed him. At a parole hearing, his lawyer
presented a statement calling for his release signed by a who's who
of the country's writers and artists. The statement concluded with
the assertion that "Austrian justice will be measured by the
On May 23 1990, after 15 years and four months in
jail, he walked free. He was nearly 40. Various magazines ran
features on him, some portraying him as a dandy, some as an ex-con
wearing only blue jeans, his body covered in prison tattoos.
When Edelbacher requested a background check on
Unterweger, he learned that in the year since his release - before
the prostitute murders began - he had published two novels and
produced two plays, with the help of subsidies from the culture
ministry. He also happened to be on the list of possible suspects
for the murders.
On June 10 1991, Unterweger appeared at
Edelbacher's office again and said he was about to leave for Los
Angeles, where he intended to do a story on crime and law
enforcement. He said he wanted to meet some police officers, perhaps
drive around on patrol, and wondered if Edelbacher had any contacts
at the LAPD.
In LA, Unterweger stayed at the Hotel Cecil on
Seventh and Main, an area popular with prostitutes and close to the
downtown police department headquarters. While he was in LA, he was
eager to meet the writer Charles Bukowski. On the morning of June 20
(a few hours after Shannon Exley was picked up by her last customer,
down the road from the Hotel Cecil), Unterweger had a meeting with a
photographer who was friendly with Bukowski and who, he hoped, might
give him an introduction.
On Monday morning, June 24 , Unterweger visited
the LAPD Parker Center to obtain permission to ride with patrol
officers. He also wanted to arrange an interview with Chief Daryl
Gates to discuss racial tensions in LA following the Rodney King
The next morning, equipped with a "Homes of the
Stars" map, he found Zsa Zsa Gabor's house in Bel Air and rang the
bell. Her husband answered the door and told him his wife gave
interviews to Austrian journalists only for money. He then drove out
to Cher's house on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and didn't
get beyond the gate. He also visited the film-maker Robert Dornhelm,
a fellow Austrian, to pitch his autobiography as a movie. They had a
long talk but Unterweger clearly sensed Dornhelm wasn't interested.
He left LA without clinching a film deal.
Back in Austria, Unterweger was interviewed on
the radio a few days after his return from LA, but made no mention
of the trip. Two weeks later, on August 4, the body of Silvia
Zagler, who had disappeared on the night of April 8, was found in
the woods five miles from Vienna.
The investigation into the murders was crawling
along. The police had received a tip - from the inspector, now
retired, who had investigated Unterweger before - that they should
focus their attentions on him. When Unterweger turned up at
Edelbacher's office to talk about a story he was writing on
homelessness in Los Angeles and Vienna, Edelbacher told him he was
one of 130 possible suspects. Unterweger said it was absurd. "After
all those years in Stein, there's no way I would commit a crime."
A few days later, a teletype arrived at
headquarters. Inspectors in Graz were investigating the murders of
two prostitutes that preceded the Vienna murders, and they were
wondering if the Vienna police could assist.
Then a 19-year-old prostitute, Joanna, came
forward to say that she had been picked up in Graz by a man in a BMW
- numberplate W JACK 1 - who'd driven her out of town. He'd made her
take off her clothes and lie on her belly, then he'd handcuffed her
wrists behind her back. She screamed in pain and fear, and the
louder she screamed, the more he moaned. Then he drove her back to
Graz. It happened in October 1990, days before the first of the two
Graz prostitutes was murdered. Joanna recognised Unterweger from a
When reporter Hans Breitegger heard Joanna's
report, he knew the Unterweger story was about to get hot and he
wanted an interview before it boiled over. He needed someone bookish
to help with the ruse and approached his friend Bernd Melichar.
"What do you know about Jack Unterweger?" he
"The usual story. Killed a girl in his youth,
became a writer in prison. I read Purgatory; I thought it was a
"What do you think about him murdering a bunch
more women since he got out?"
"No way," Melichar said.
"Yes," Hans replied, and told the story of Jack
Unterweger the travelling playwright, poet, and prostitute killer.
"I can't believe it," Melichar said.
They hatched a plan. They would pose as
journalists from the Culture section, trying to get a scoop on
Unterweger's latest book (whatever that was).
When they met in a bar, Unterweger was warm and
polite, and very articulate. "After 20 years in prison, I've not
lost my sense of humour. I drove down here from Vienna voluntarily.
I knew I was going to be interrogated about the Graz murders, but
why should I murder prostitutes? ... I don't have a bad relationship
with the cops. They received a tip and it's their job to check it
out, but I don't think they appreciate how hard I've tried to become
a better man..."
"Generally speaking, how's your life been since
your release from prison?" Breitegger asked.
"Wonderful. I'm not stuck in the past, and I'm
always ready for spontaneity. The reality, though, is that one
doesn't only have friends. There are also the envious out there who
say you don't deserve what you have."
"What are you working on now?"
"A book called The Power Of The Pigs. It's about
the men who exercise power without legitimately possessing it. It's
about a man who observed the world through the media for 16 years
and how he returned to society. It's about what he sees has changed
in human development."
"What has changed?"
"I'm struck by the indifference, the egotism in
love. People are incapable of loving each other any more."
Melichar was persuaded of his innocence.
Breitegger was not, and through his contacts in the press he was
able to trace whether Unterweger had been in Graz or nearby, doing a
reading or producing a play, at the time of the murder. The dates
Geiger was discovering that getting on
Unterweger's trail was one thing, persuading the Vienna DA to
prosecute him was something else; he ruled that there was too little
evidence. While Vienna hesitated, Graz decided to go for it. But
Unterweger disappeared. A headline on the front page of the Graz
paper explained why: "Murder series: an arrest warrant for Jack
At 4.50 pm the next day, February 15, Graz
headquarters got a call from Unterweger, asking to speak with
officer Hütter (he had cruised around the red-light district with
him in September 1990). "Why are the Graz police persecuting me?
They have no evidence, so what is the meaning of this arrest
warrant?" Hütter told him that it would go better for him if he
"No, I won't. I cannot bear going back into a
cell, and this news has already destroyed me socially. There's no
sense in my staying in Austria."
Unterweger had decided it was best for him to
disappear into a big American city for a while. He and his
girlfriend, Bianca, drove to Orly, near Paris, and took a flight to
Miami. They had no choice but to travel on their own passports and
to book the tickets on his Visa card.
The morning after they arrived, Unterweger read a
newspaper employment section. Miami Gold was seeking go-go dancers -
a perfect position for Bianca, he thought. And so they settled into
a routine. Mornings at the beach; afternoons strolling around,
people-watching and window-shopping; evenings, Bianca dancing at
Miami Gold while Unterweger worked on his defence.
He also kept in touch with one of his other
girlfriends back in Vienna, Elisabeth. He'd run out of money, was
sleeping on the beach, and his life was in grave danger without his
thyroid medication, he told her. Could she send it to him and
whatever money she could scrape together?
The next day, February 26, something glorious
happened. Elisabeth told him on the phone that her boss at Success
magazine, Gert Schmidt, would pay him $10,000 for an exclusive "on
the run" interview. He would wire him a small advance and pay the
rest at the time of the interview. Unterweger agreed, and gave him
instructions for wiring the money. He was overjoyed: "10,000 for
interview?! Crazy!" he wrote in his diary. (It was a ruse. Schmidt
had tipped off Geiger and gave him a slip of paper: USA Money
Exchange, 207 Eleventh Street, Miami Beach. "She's wiring the
advance today. It'll be there for him to pick up tomorrow.")
The next day US marshal Shawn Conboy and his team
sat on a hotel terrace on Eleventh Street. Their orders were to
watch the USA Money Exchange across the street to see if a European
male - 5ft 6in, early 40s, with pale skin and tattoos on his upper
arms - arrived with his girlfriend to pick up a wire transfer.
The immigration service confirmed that Jack
Unterweger had entered the country on a tourist visa without
disclosing his felony conviction. It was a civil offence, but it was
enough to detain him.
As he arrived, Unterweger picked them out right
away. The girl went in while he waited outside, occasionally
glancing over at them. When she emerged, he started to walk away,
then bolted down an alley as they rose to follow.
Unterweger did not fight extradition. On March 2,
he petitioned the US Federal Court in Miami "to institute my
Three days later, on March 5 1992, detective Fred
Miller of the LAPD got a call from the Department of Justice.
Interpol Washington were reporting that the US Marshals office in
Miami had arrested one Jack Unterweger, wanted in Austria for the
murder by strangulation of seven prostitutes. According to the
Austrian police, the suspect had been in Los Angeles from June 11 to
July 16 1991.
Miller contacted the Austrian police and followed
the trail of a credit card statement they had found. First on the
list was Marathon Rent-a-Car, whose records showed Unterweger had
rented a blue Toyota Corolla on June 11, 1991. He returned the car
on June 20 with a broken windscreen on the passenger side. On the
damage report Unterweger said a rock had struck the windshield. Was
it really a rock? Or was it Shannon Exley's head hitting the
passenger-side glass as she struggled for her life?
On the rental agreement Unterweger gave his
address in Los Angeles as the Hotel Cecil on Main Street, a few
blocks from where Exley and Irene Rodriguez had disappeared. The
hotel records showed he'd checked in on June 11 and out on July 2 -
three days after Rodriguez disappeared and one day before Sherri
On March 12 1992, detectives Miller and Harper
flew from Los Angeles to Miami to interrogate Unterweger. "He'll be
expecting you," Geiger told them. "We think he's more afraid of
California justice than of ours. Especially your gas chamber." They
came with an affidavit for a search warrant for taking blood and
hair samples. Unterweger's blood could be compared with the sexual
assault kits from Rodriguez and Exley. At 6pm, they were led into
the visitors' area of the prison.
"Have a Coke, it'll keep you cool," Miller said.
"Thanks," said Unterweger, grinning like a kid.
Such a little guy, Miller thought. Did this squirt really do that to
"Jack, I know you want to go home and take your
chances with your own justice system, but we're not going to let you
do that. We're going to take you with us back to California and put
you on trial for murdering our girls, and in California we have the
"All right," said Unterweger. "What do you want
"I want to know the purpose of your trip to LA,
where you stayed, who you met, what you were doing. And more than
anything, I want to know why you were wearing that godawful outfit."
Unterweger thought for a moment, and then
grinned. "You didn't like my cowboy outfit?"
"Not at all. I'm from Texas. I don't wear that
Unterweger laughed and sat back in his chair. "I
went to LA to write stories on prostitutes and homeless people..."
He gave a thorough statement of his activities in LA, and Miller was
impressed by the preciseness of his memory. "While I was in LA," he
went on, "I dated the receptionist at the Hotel Cecil, a girl named
Carolina. I also dated three prostitutes, one white, the other two
Latina... I killed no one in Los Angeles."
Geiger imagined the uproar in Austria if
Unterweger was sentenced to death in the US. He doubted it was going
to happen. The DNA test result wouldn't be available before
Austria's 90-day extradition period expired on May 27, and without
the DNA result Geiger knew it was unlikely the Los Angeles DA could
On May 28 1992, Unterweger arrived at Vienna
airport. As he stepped off the plane, flanked by two US marshals, he
seemed relaxed, as though he'd just returned from a holiday in
When the case finally came to court on April 20
1994 (Hitler's birthday), the press billed it the "Trial of the
Century" - never in Austrian history had one man been accused on so
many counts of murder. In a way it was three trials rolled into one,
because the accused was alleged to have murdered not only seven
Austrians but also three Americans and one Czech. Witnesses from Los
Angeles and Prague were scheduled to give testimony, as were top
forensic scientists from Switzerland, Germany and the US.
Unterweger gave the final summation - an
advantage, given that his words were the last the jury would hear
before it went into deliberation. Under Austrian law, a simple
majority was sufficient for a conviction. He needed to succeed with
at least four of the eight main jury members if he was not to spend
the rest of his life in prison.
Geiger went for a walk. With 11 counts to
consider, he knew the jury would deliberate for a while. Over the
previous two years, he'd had recurring nightmares of Unterweger
beating the rap.
It was past 8pm when the jury foreman announced
they had reached a verdict. At 8.50pm, just as everyone had
reassembled, an electrical storm broke. Lightning flashes lit up the
courtroom and thunder like cannon shots created a horror-film
atmosphere for the reading of the verdict.
"Is the accused, Jack Unterweger, guilty of the
murder of Blanka Bockova?" Judge Haas asked.
"Six yes, two no," replied the foreman. And so it
went down the list. The jury found him guilty of nine of the 11
counts of murder.
"Do you have anything to say?" the judge asked.
"I will appeal," Unterweger said.
At the DA's office a wild celebration got under
way. After much cheering and embracing and backslapping, the whole
gang moved to a beer cellar a few blocks away, the taps were opened
and all the tension of the previous months was released. They
stumbled into the night at 3am.
At six that morning, Austrian radio reported that
Jack Unterweger had committed suicide. He was found hanging in his
cell in the Graz court at 3.40am, from a noose he'd made using a
thin metal wire and the drawstring of his jogging pants. ·
· This is an edited extract from The Vienna
Woods Killer: A Writer's Double Life, by John Leake