Crime story writer, television host, playwright, author and poet… Johann Unterweger had quite an impressive resume for a serial killer. And, in a very odd way, in the end he beat the system.
Born in Austria of a local woman and a U. S. soldier, he spent his early life in poverty, committing petty crimes. Soon a violent streak showed itself, and Unterweger spent some time in jail for assaulting prostitutes.
His first murder came at age 18, when he strangled a German woman with her own brassiere. That led to his arrest and conviction and a sentence of life in prison.
While incarcerated, Unterweger began writing plays and poetry. He also completed his autobiography. After 15 years or so, these activities caught the attention of intellectuals, who began to campaign for his release. When he got out, he parlayed his celebrity status into a television hosting position.
And within one year, he had killed six more prostitutes in Austria and one in Czechoslovakia.
In 1991, Unterweger was hired by an Austrian magazine to write about crime in Los Angeles, with special attention to the differences between American and European attitudes regarding prostitution. He interacted with local police and was even taken on a tour of the city’s red light districts.
While in Austria, Unterweger was considered to be a possible suspect in the prostitute murders, and had in fact been under surveillance until he left for the United States. Investigators were unable to observe anything that would connect him to the crimes.
During his stay in Los Angeles, three prostitutes were found beaten, sexually assaulted with tree branches, and strangled with their own brassieres. Authorities finally made the connection, but by then Unterweger had left town. After a chase that led law enforcement through Europe, Canada and the United States, the FBI finally took him into custody in Miami.
While Unterweger was on the run, he had contacted the Austrian media, attempting to make a case for his innocence. He got nowhere with that ploy, and he was charged with 11 killings (including the one in Prague).
The jury found him guilty of nine murders, and on June 29, 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But by that very night, Unterweger managed to fashion a rope from shoelaces and a track suit cord and hang himself. He reportedly used a knot that was identical to the one used on the murder victims. Because of a technicality in Austrian law, he was legally considered to be an innocent man – because he died before he could appeal his sentence.