The case of Josef Fritzl in Austria broke in 2008. A news story so shocking and so unbelievable people questioned whether it was possible. In 1984 Josef Fritzl kidnapped his 18-year-old daughter in Amstetten in Austria and locked her in a purpose built cellar beneath his home for 24 years. Elisabeth Fritzl gave birth to seven of his children during that time, losing one child at just 66 hours old when Fritzl refused to seek medical help for him.
At 42-years-old she had spent over half her life captive in a dark damp cellar and her children until their release had never looked at the sun or experienced the wind on their faces. Upstairs in the family home, her father lived with her mother giving the impression of an everyday family man when all the while under their feet, she lay chained to a wall. Josef Fritzl lived a double life within one house with devastating consequences for his own flesh and blood.
In April 2008, 19-year-old Kersten Fritzl, who had been born in the cellar along with all her siblings, became very ill and Elisabeth managed to convince her father to take Kristen for medical care. At the hospital, Fritzl tells lie after lie to try and cover the true story of his family life but the doctors need detailed medical information about Kristen in order to help her, information that only her mother Elizabeth could tell them.
Fritzl caves in and allows Elisabeth to go to the hospital. When the medical staff realise there is something very wrong with this family set up, Elizabeth eventually confesses everything and tells shocked doctors the truth about her father, her life in captivity and the birth of her seven children.
The arrest of Josef Fritzl sparked a media storm that gained momentum as his trial date approached. Fritzl was charged with enslavement and incest against his daughter and the murder of their young baby through ‘homicide by neglect’ for not seeking medical attention which could have saved the child’s life. Fritzl admitted the kidnapping and imprisonment of Elizabeth and his repeated rape of her over 24 years. He did not, however, admit to murder and would not accept responsibility for the death of baby Michael Fritzl.
“I have realised I had an evil side. But I managed to contain myself for quite a long time, for someone who was a born rapist.”
Josef Fritzl is a man who showed signs of deviant sexual behaviour before he kidnapped and imprisoned his own daughter. In 1967 Fritzl raped a nurse inside her own home, a crime he was convicted of and served prison time for. This experience of acting out his urges but getting caught and punished is thought to have prompted his planning for keeping his daughter locked up beneath his home to allow him to carry out his sexual urges whenever he wanted while still living a normal family life upstairs.
The elaborate cellar he purpose built in the years before kidnapping Elisabeth consisted of three damp and cramped rooms with no natural light and barely enough room to stand up fully. The rooms were hidden behind five separate areas including Fritzl’s workshop and were accessed through a concealed door. To him, his daughter was a possession he could do as he wished with. He had no empathy and no compassion for his own flesh and blood and clearly no realisation as time went on the damage he was causing his own child. He is a man who selfishly wanted his own sex slave and he gave no thought to what he was putting his daughter through in order to achieve it.
In the 11 months leading up to the trial of Josef Fritzl the media circled around this horrific case publishing details as they emerged of the abuse suffered by Elisabeth Fritzl, and the photographs of the dark cellar she was kept in while the public wondered what would become of the man who was that depraved and twisted to do such a thing to his own daughter.
On 16 March 2009, Josef Fritzl arrived at St Poelten in the State of Lower Austria for the first day of his trial. Hiding behind his court paperwork, he was keen for photographers not to capture an image of his face. “He is ashamed”, his lawyer Rudolf Mayer told reporters as they shouted question after question to an unresponsive and silent Fritzl. Once inside the court, Josef Fritzl pleaded guilty to rape, incest, coercion and deprivation of liberty but not guilty to murder and enslavement.
On day two the videotaped testimony of Elisabeth Fritzl began. Reporters and the public were asked to leave the court so that her harrowing testimony was not heard and then broadcast across the nation. In the months after her release from the cellar, Elisabeth Fritzl had given hour after hour of detailed testimony telling her story from the moment she was kidnapped aged 18-years-old and across the long 24 years that followed.
A neo-natal specialist also appeared to give evidence on what is believed to have happened with baby Michael Fritzl when he began displaying respiratory distress. If Fritzl had sought medical help, this little baby would not have died but his fear of being discovered, having to explain the presence of this baby potentially leading to the discovery of his daughter and children who he had locked in the cellar, prevented him from doing so. Elisabeth Fritzl it was revealed later was in the visitors’ gallery wearing a disguise on that day, wanting to see the man who had destroyed her life in person now he was standing trial for offences against her. Furthermore, she wanted justice for the death of her son.
The following day on 18 March 2009, Josef Fritzl was asked by the judge how he felt after watching the video evidence of his daughter, to which Fritzl replied, “I plead guilty”. To the surprise of the court and his own lawyer, Josef Fritzl changed his plea to his remaining charges and pleaded guilty to all the charges held against him. He told the judge, “I was hoping the little one would survive but I should have done something”.
Josef Fritzl it is understood recognised his daughter in the gallery the day before and according to his lawyer her testimony had a deep impact on him. “He was really destroyed in his emotion. It was possible for him to feel for the first time the feelings of his daughter,” he said.
“I regret from the bottom of my heart what I did to my family. Unfortunately I can’t make amends for it. I can only try to find ways to limit the damage that has been done.”
Court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Adelheid Kastner also testified on that day telling the court that Josef Fritzl had an “overwhelming need to dominate and control”, something most likely caused by trauma in his childhood where he was an unloved and unwanted child and this resulted in him growing into an adult who felt the need to have somebody that belonged to him and only to him.
She highlighted that in her opinion without treatment Josef Fritzl would remain a very dangerous predator and would most likely reoffend. He knew what he was doing and his continued and maintained deception over 24 years keeping his secret and concealing his daughter and their children showed he knew his actions were wrong.
On the final day of the trial on 19 March 2009, both the defence and prosecution gave their closing statements. State prosecutor Christaine Burkheiser made it clear the apparent remorse shown by Fritzl during the trial was fake and urged the jury not to be swayed by it. “At the last curtain call in the last act of this drama he is showing his true face in trying to exploit people’s gullibility. Do not be deceived. Do not be manipulated.” she said.
The prosecution highlighted the report of psychiatrist Dr. Kastner demanding that Josef Fritzl be contained and locked up in a psychiatric unit for the criminally insane for the rest of his life. In his defence Rudolf Mayer said, “Extenuating circumstances must be taken into consideration”. He told the jury “My client was responsible for his actions, but his personality had psychological abnormalities. He didn’t choose to be the way he is.”
Although Fritzl had pleaded guilty to all charges, the jury was still required to give their verdict. After just four hours they returned to the courtroom and gave a guilty verdict on all charges, an agreement they reached unanimously. Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in prison for murder by neglect, 20 years for enslavement, 15 years for rape, 10 years for deprivation of liberty, 5 years for coercion and 1 year for incest. He was sent to Garsten Abbey, a converted monastery in Upper Austria which is now a prison holding prisoners who have been sentenced to life. In it is a separate wing for the criminally insane, a wing that is now occupied by Josef Fritzl and will be until the day he dies.
Josef Fritzl is not the first twisted man to decide on a plan of kidnap and enslavement to meet his sexual desires. In June 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her own bedroom and held captive by Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee who subjected her to nine months of sexual abuse before she was discovered and rescued.
More recently the case of Ariel Castro broke in the news with the discovery that he had kidnapped Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus between 2002 and 2004 in Cleveland, Ohio. He kept them locked inside his house where he controlled every aspect of their lives and repeatedly abused them. They escaped in May 2013 along with Berry’s daughter who at 6-years-old had been born in captivity.
The door of a home is a barrier to the outside world. It can conceal acts and behaviours behind a wall of privacy. No one really knows what goes on in the minds of others and whether the behaviour they have chosen to display to the world is a real reflection of who they are as a person. While the case of Josef Fritzl was a story to most, for those involved this was a horrific case of betrayal; of deeply woven lies and pretences from an individual they thought they knew. An individual they thought they understood. It is a reminder that people only show others what they want them to see and in some cases, the true reality of what lies behind this mask is more horrific than we can imagine.