Real Life Horror: Josef Fritzl

Josef Fritzl is an Austrian criminal who held his daughter, Elisabeth, captive in his basement for over two decades.

Fritzl was born on April 9, 1935, in Amstetten, Federal State of 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. His father, 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 broke into the home of a nurse while her husband was away and raped her while holding a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her if she screamed. He also attempted to rape a 21-year-old woman that same year, but she managed to escape. Fritzl was arrested and served an eighteen-month prison sentence. 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 and known for indecent exposure. After his release, 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.

His daughter Elisabeth was born in 1966, he reportedly began abusing her in 1977 when she was just 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 3 weeks and returned to her parents. She rejoined her course; in mid-1984 she finished and was offered a job in nearby Linz. On August 29, 1984, Elisabeth’s 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 sect. Elisabeth revealed that in her first few days, she banged on the walls and clawed at the ceiling, howling for help. She broke her fingernails and clawed away her skin until blood was dripping down her forearms. Sometimes she pretended she was on a hiking holiday. She picked a spot on a distant mountain she had seen before, plotted in her mind how long it would take to get there and then set off. She turned off the lights as she paced the dungeon as she knew the number of steps by heart. After two hours, she turned the strip lighting on, pretending a bright dawn had come up and was reflecting the snow-capped mountain she imagined. When drifting off to sleep she would hum an old Austrian carol, “Still, Still, Still.”

Over the next 24 years, Fritzl visited her in the hidden cellar every 3 days on average, to bring food and other supplies. After his arrest, he admitted that he repeatedly raped her. Elisabeth gave birth to 7 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. When he applied for the adoption of children to whom his daughter Elisabeth had given birth, his criminal record was not made available to local social service authorities since it had been expunged in accordance with Austrian law. Officials said that 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, Fritzl enlarged the prison for Elisabeth and her children from 35m2 (380 sq ft) to 55m2 (590 sq ft). The captives had a television, radio, and video-cassette 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, Fritzl shut off their lights or refused to deliver food for days at a time to punish them.

Fritzl told Elisabeth and the three kids 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. Fritzl stated after his arrest that it was sufficient to tell them they would receive an electric shock and die if they meddled with the cellar door. According to his sister-in-law Christine, Fritzl went into the basement every morning at 9, ostensibly to draw plans for machines which he sold to firms. Often he stayed down there for the night and didn’t 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 Fritzl explained were from the gas heating system.

On April 19, 2008, eldest daughter Kerstin fell unconscious and Josef Fritzl agreed to seek medical attention. Elisabeth helped Fritzl 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 (Landesklinikum Amstetten) and admitted in serious condition with life-threatening kidney failure. Fritzl 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 to be puzzling and alerted the police on April 21, 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 then reopened the case file on missing Elisabeth. Fritzl 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. The news covered some of these issues and Elisabeth watched the story on the cellar television. She pleaded with her father to be taken to the hospital. On April 26, Fritzl released Elisabeth from the cellar along with her sons Stefan and Felix, bringing them upstairs. Fritzl told his wife that Elisabeth had decided to return after a 24-year absence. Governor Lenze told ORF that Fritzl had telephoned him and thanked him and the social services for looking after his family during his granddaughter Kerstin’s illness. Fritzl and Elisabeth went to the hospital where Kerstin was being treated on April 26, 2008. Following a tip-off from Dr. Albert Reiter that Fritzl 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. Then, over the next 2 hours, she told the story of her 24 years in captivity. Elisabeth recounted that Fritzl raped her and forced her to watch pornographic videos, which he made her re-enact with him in front of her children in order to humiliate her.

Shortly after midnight, poJosef Fritzl was arrested on suspicion of serious crimes against family members, facing possible charges of false imprisonment, rape, manslaughter by negligence, and incest. During the night of April 27, Elisabeth, her children and her mother Rosemarie were taken into care. Josef Fritzl confessed on April 28, 2008 to having imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and having fathered her seven children. Police said Fritzl told investigators how to enter the basement prison through a small hidden door, opened by a secret keyless entry code. Fritzl’s wife, Rosemarie, had been unaware of what had been happening to Elisabeth. On April 29, 2008, it was announced that DNA evidence confirmed Fritzl as the biological father of his daughter’s children. Fritzl’s defence lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said that although the DNA test proved incest, evidence was still needed for the other allegations: “The allegations of rape and enslaving people have not been proven. We need to reassess the confessions made so far.”

In their May 1, 2008 daily press conference, Austrian police said that Fritzl 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. In the same press conference, police spokesman Franz Polzer said the investigation would probably last a few months, as police planned on interviewing 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, a toilet, a bed, a hot plate and a 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 5m (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 55m2 (590 sq ft). The ceilings were no more than 1.70m (5ft 6in) high. The hidden cellar had two access points: a hinged door that weighed 500kg (1,100lb) 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 300kg (650 lb) and measured 1m (3.3ft) high and 60cm (2ft) 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.

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 neighbours 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 behaviour 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.

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 July 11, 2008. Christiane Burkheiser, a state prosecutor, and Josef’s lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, in an adjoining room took part in the process. Josef Fritzl was not present but remained in the Sankt Pölten jail. The testimony, which was not made public, was presented at Fritzl’s trial in March 2009. 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 organized by fire-fighters 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.

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 July 11, 2008. Christiane Burkheiser, a state prosecutor, and Josef’s lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, in an adjoining room took part in the process. Josef Fritzl was not present but remained in the Sankt Pölten jail. The testimony, which was not made public, was presented at Fritzl’s trial in March 2009. 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 organized by fire-fighters 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 November 13, 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. Excerpts of Elisabeth’s diary were leaked to the media on March 11, 2009. Prosecutors confirmed that the diary was part of their evidence against Josef Fritzl. The trial of Josef Fritzl commenced on March 16, 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 74cm (5ft 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 March 19, 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. 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. A local government official speculated on the need to give members of the Fritzl family new identities but emphasized that it was a choice for the family to make. Owing to their lack of exposure to sunlight, the former captives were extremely pale and could not endure natural light. They were reported to have vitamin D deficiencies and were anemic. They were expected to have underdeveloped immune systems. The clinic head, Berthold Kepplinger, said that the family members needed to stay at the clinic for several months, and 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 center. 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 June 8, 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 (5ft 8in), forced to stoop in the 1.68m (5ft 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 “the huge issue of Rosemarie’s passiveness during Elisabeth’s upbringing – a tortured time when, she says, her father Josef began abusing her when she was just 11 years old.” 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 March 18, 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. In June 2009, an Austrian newspaper reported that Elisabeth Fritzl had begun a relationship with one of her bodyguards, identified only as Thomas W. The couple are living together. According to a March 2010 article 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 recognizing 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 construction would cost €100,000 and would take a week to complete. The house was to be sold on the open market. While most neighbours approved of the proposal, some preferred that the property be demolished due to its sordid history. Asylum seekers were offered the house to live in. The house was sold for €160,000 in December 2016, with the buyers voicing their intention to convert the building into apartments.

In May 2017, Josef Fritzl changed his name to Josef Mayrhoff, probably due to getting into a prison fight that resulted in several of his teeth getting knocked out after other inmates set up a fake dating profile with his name and picture. Mark Perry, a British journalist who interviewed Fritzl in his cell, says he has shown no remorse for his crimes. He recalls he kept saying “just look into the cellars of other people, you might find other families and girls down there.” In April 2019, it was reported that Fritzl’s health was declining and that he did not want to live anymore.

In September 2021, a decision was made to release Fritzl from a psychiatric detention facility to a regular prison, where he was to continue to serve his life sentence. That decision was based on a psychiatric report which said he no longer posed any danger. The ruling was appealed, and in late April 2022, a panel of three judges decided that Josef Fritzl could be moved. The decision was based on a supplementary psychiatric report submitted in March. However, a court ruled that he will remain in the psychiatric facility until an appeal to the Higher Regional Court in Vienna is heard. There are reports that he is suffering from dementia. The move to a regular prison means that Fritzl, who received a life sentence, will be eligible for parole in 2023, having served the initial 15 years of his sentence.

“I am not a monster, I could have killed all of them, then nothing would have happened. No one would have ever known about it.” Josef Fritzl

If you want to watch a documentary on Josef Fritzl then just check out the video below:

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