Incest Case Shocks Austria Woman Held in Dungeon for Two Decades

An Austrian woman was kept in her father's basement for 24 years behind a concrete door locked with an electronic code. She bore seven of his children, but relatives, neighbors and officials all deny any knowledge of the case. Many are wondering how that was possible.
Von Marion Kraske

It's one of the most spectacular cases in Austrian criminal history: A father in the eastern town of Amstetten pretended for years that his daughter had run away to live with a sect, only to return, now and then, to leave one of her unwanted children at his door, so the grandparents could raise them.

Now it seems the story was a massive, sophisticated deception, which went undiscovered for over two decades. Neither the man's wife, the rest of his family, nor his next-door neighbors -- much less the relevant local officials -- knew a thing. Supposedly.

Elisabeth F., now 42, was never a member of a sect. She also never ran away. Instead, she was forced to live in a dungeon-like cellar for 24 years, held captive -- so police believe -- by her own father, a former electrician.

The house where the now 73-year-old man reportedly harassed his family is crumbling on the outside, just a gray unadorned block. Stickers are attached to one window, but except for these dabs of color the place looks bleak and sad.

Somewhere inside this house -- where other tenants also occasionally lived -- a human tragedy that transgresses all boundaries played out over more than two decades. Josef F. reportedly sired seven children with his daughter. They now range in age from five to 19 years old. Police have now taken DNA samples from the man so they can check the charges. Federal police chief Franz Lang has told Austrian television that they believe they're "on the right track."

An Unholy Dungeon, Behind a Shelving Unit

Late on Sunday evening, police succeeded in entering the dungeon. Investigators had to first go through a narrow corridor just 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) high. On the other side, they found a fully equipped kitchen, bedrooms with posters on the wall, a television and a shower. They also found a padded cell connected to the rooms. None of the rooms had any natural light and were lit using lamps. There was also a vent to bring in air.

Invisible at first glance, hidden as it was behind a shelf in a workroom, the wing appears to have been extended several times. The dungeon was secured by a door made of reinforced concrete that could only be opened using an electronic code that apparently only the presumed perpetrator knew.

According to psychiatrists, the mother and children, who are currently under psychological care, appear to have been deeply traumatized by their years of captivity and isolation. Until their release, three children had never seen daylight. Josef F. is believed to have burned the corpse of another child, who apparently died because of a lack of medical attention shortly after his birth.

Just a few steps away, a sense of feigned normalcy was the order of the day. The other three children lived above with their grandparents -- they went to school and were members of fire department and police groups. They were considered happy and successful as well as good students. Josef F. and his wife adopted one, and cared for two others as foster children. The authorities had made the usual inquiries and nothing unusual had turned up.

All three children had been left, one at a time, in front of the family's house as apparent foundlings -- that, at least, was the version of the story told by the father of the 42-year-old to conceal the truth. Each time, he left a letter from his daughter in the place where the child was "found," in which she supposedly expressed her worries about the children and asked for help for them. In this way, the man could maintain the story of his runaway daughter over all the years.

But can it really be the case that not only the man's 69-year-old wife, but also his first six children, who are now adults, did not notice the man's terrible activities? That they didn't even feel a hint of suspicion, even when they came to visit the family? Or did they all look away, out of fear or lack of courage to act?

'A Perfectly Constructed Framework of Lies'

Experts have certified that Josef F. is highly intelligent. The 73-year-old is regarded as an authoritarian figure. He repeatedly complained to the police about the fact that they were unable to track down his supposedly runaway daughter. He created, in the words of police chief Lang, "a perfectly constructed framework of lies."

In this respect, the criminologist sees a contrast with the case of the kidnapping victim Natascha Kampusch, in which -- as is emerging more and more -- errors had taken place in the police investigation, with far-reaching consequences. Kampusch had also been held in a sunlight-free dungeon for years. Unlike in the Kampusch case, Lang believes, given the current state of affairs, the police would have had no chance of uncovering the Amstetten case.

Nevertheless, there were warning signs. Josef F. apparently sexually abused Elisabeth for the first time when she was 11 years old. The girl twice tried to escape from her ordeal by running away, first at the age of 16 and then when she was 18. When she returned, Josef F. lured his daughter into the basement, put her in handcuffs and locked her up -- apparently out of fear that she would report his abuse.

Today Elisabeth is pale and her hair has turned white, says Heinz Lenze, the district commissioner in Amstetten who is visibly shocked by what has happened in his community. You can tell by looking at her what she has suffered all these years, he says.

Anonymous Tip Leads to Rescue

It was pure chance that her ordeal ended at all. Last week her 19-year-old daughter Kerstin became very ill, and Elisabeth was able to persuade her father and tormentor that he should bring the teenager to the hospital immediately. It is possible that the illness was a serious hereditary disease that was a result of incest. That would at least explain why the authorities began to appeal through the media for the supposedly missing Elisabeth to contact them immediately -- they said they urgently required information from her.

Then the usually cool and calculated perpetrator made a mistake. Elisabeth persuaded Josef F. to take her to the hospital. On the way there a police patrol stopped them and arrested the pensioner after receiving an anonymous tip-off. It would seem that there was indeed someone who knew what was going on -- someone who had kept quiet all these years. Apparently the web of lies that he had spun in Amstetten was not as perfect as it seemed.

During his interrogation, Josef F. did not prove to be particularly forthcoming. He just said he was "sorry" for his family. And then he announced that he wanted to be left in peace.

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