AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 19/2008

Constructing Hell How Josef Fritzl Created his Regime of Terror

Part 2: Carefully Planning a Place to Commit his Crimes


Josef Stefan Fritzl was born in Amstetten -- today a town with 23,000 inhabitants -- in 1935. His parents were Josef and Maria Fritzl, he was raised Roman Catholic and he attended school in Amstetten. A photograph depicts him with his class of 1951, a boy wearing a traditional Austrian knit jacket, looking into the camera from a serious, narrow and withdrawn face. "He grew up without a father, and his mother raised him with her fist, beating him until he was black and blue almost every day," says Fritzl's sister-in-law, Christine R.

At 21 he married Rosemarie, the woman with whom he would spend the next 51 years. She was 17, poorly educated, trained as a kitchen help, and he was all she had. Fritzl, an electrical engineer, was highly intelligent, as some would later say. But it was precisely his intelligence and resourcefulness that prevented him from taking his wife seriously. He was the one who was completely in control in their marriage. She had to put up with his solo vacations to Thailand's budget sex paradise, Pattaya. She accepted it when, as her sister recalled in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Österreich, he stopped having sex with her. She also said nothing about his constantly disappearing into the basement, where he told her he did not wish to be disturbed, because he was supposedly drawing machine plans there. Who else but this woman would have been so submissive?

When Fritzl went down to his basement, "Rosi wasn't even allowed to bring him coffee," claims the sister-in-law. "Rosi," in other words, was the ideal wife for Fritzl, the ideal first wife, that is. She was a woman accustomed to knowing nothing. She was mother to seven children. She was a housewife and sometimes ran a guesthouse. She was the wife for the part of the house that could be opened up to outsiders without arousing any suspicion that there were also dark chambers in the house and in the soul of its owner.

As little as this first wife was a match for Fritzl, she was just as incapable of satisfying his needs. In the fall of 1967, after Rosemarie had already given him four children, Fritzl allegedly raped a woman in the northern Austrian city of Linz. He had apparently attempted to rape another woman earlier. He is believed to have spent one and a half years in prison, but his sentence was purged from the police record after 15 years.

An aerial view of the house on Ybbsstrasse.
DPA

An aerial view of the house on Ybbsstrasse.

After that, Fritzl never again attracted attention for his hidden obsessions, but not because he had learned to control them, as everyone believed. A man used to tinkering and DIY, he had apparently decided that his future attempts to find a second wife, one who would be at his mercy at all times, and who would submit to his moods and his desires, had to be more carefully planned. His new approach was more circumspect, precise and intended for the long term. He realized that all he had to do was to properly design the environment in which he would commit his crimes, minimize the potential sources of error and make the necessary arrangements for supplies -- food and beverages, at first, followed by diapers.

"It's the kind of thing he would do," says Franz Haider, 58, who worked next to Fritzl for three months in 1969 at a local cement and building supply company, Zehetner Baustoffhandel und Betonwerk. Although Haider insists that he would never have believed a crime like Fritzl's to be possible in Amstetten, now that it has occurred, he says, he can't imagine anyone more capable of concealing it for 24 years.

When Fritzl was working with Haider, their department was developing a machine to pour concrete pipes, such as those used in sewage systems. It was a large and complicated construction, five meters tall, three meters wide and three meters deep. Fritzl, the technical director of the project, had already spent months developing it. Haider joined the project as an assistant, and all that he learned from Fritzl, other than the status of the machine, was that his boss was married. Other than that, Fritzl remained tight-lipped about his private life. He never had any personal phone calls and there were no family photos on his desk. He didn't even tell Haider that he had children. Haider is convinced that Fritzl was the kind of man capable of keeping a secret for years, even a monstrous one. Haider also says that Fritzl would have been well able to build the kind of basement dungeon where he kept his daughter imprisoned. "Concrete technology was Fritzl's specialty. He could have built anything himself."

But first he had to find the woman who was to obey him and submit to his wishes, and he found her in the place where the risk of being discovered was the lowest for sex offenders like him -- in his own family. He chose Elisabeth.

She was still a girl at the time, and he raped her. But even when she was questioned just over a week ago, Elisabeth was still unable to talk about how and where she was first raped, except that it happened in 1977, or possibly 1978. She was only 11 or 12 at the time, and she told no one. She was unable to defend herself, nor could anyone else have defended her. Even her older siblings were powerless against Fritzl.

Nothing but His Flesh and Blood

When he came home from work, the children's friends had to leave the house immediately, and the children were required to remain silent when he walked into a room. If they failed to comply, or if they forgot to say "please" or "thank you," he would hit them so that they would continue to toe the line. But Elisabeth had to do more than merely toe the line. She was afraid of the days when he came to her, when he would mercilessly take possession of her because, in his eyes, she was nothing but his flesh and his blood.

In 1972, Fritzl and his wife purchased an inn and an adjacent campsite on Mondsee Lake in Upper Austria. He had decided to enter the hospitality -- and possibly the insurance fraud -- business. There were two fires at the inn, but it was never proven that Fritzl was involved. Later on, he sold real estate and ran a mail-order lingerie business. But the application for a building permit that he submitted in 1978, shortly after he had raped Elisabeth for the first time, was not for the inn, but for an "extension with basement" to the Fritzl family's new home in Amstetten. Five years later, he reported that he had completed the work, and when the building inspectors came to the site, they confirmed that Fritzl had indeed build the new extension in accordance with the permits he had been issued.

The police now believe that he managed to conceal the rooms he had built for the dungeon from the authorities. Presumably, he excavated enough space to accommodate a much larger basement but then built walls to conceal the dungeon. Later on, he apparently dug a passageway to a forgotten basement under the main house, which he would later use to expand the dungeon to its current size.

There is one reason to suggest that he had already developed the idea for his incest dungeon early on. Time was running out for Fritzl, because his daughter was threatening to slip out of his control.

Please click here to read the second half of this SPIEGEL cover story.

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