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Mr. Fritzl, 73, had kept one of his daughters imprisoned for 24 years in a basement dungeon, where s

April 29, 2008
Austria Says Man Locked Up Daughter

AMSTETTEN, Austria — With his Mercedes-Benz and the rings on his fingers, Josef Fritzl looked every inch a property owner, neighbors in this tidy Austrian town said Monday. Even when running errands, they said, he wore a natty jacket, crisp shirt and tie.

Mr. Fritzl’s apartment house, its back garden obscured by a tall hedge, was his kingdom, one neighbor said, and interlopers were not welcome. On Monday, investigators in white jumpsuits combed the house and garden for clues. The authorities said Sunday that Mr. Fritzl, 73, had kept one of his daughters imprisoned for 24 years in a basement dungeon, where she bore him seven children.

The daughter, Elisabeth, now 42, is in psychiatric care, along with two of her children. Her eldest daughter, Kerstin, 19, who was also kept in the basement and whose illness pulled apart Mr. Fritzl’s secret after he had her taken to a local hospital, was in a medically induced coma and was in critical condition, the authorities said.

April 29, 2008    
Police Niederoesterreich, via Associated Press

Josef Fritzl, in a photo released by the Austrian police.

The authorities said Mr. Fritzl confessed Monday to imprisonment, sexual abuse and incest. The case has left this town of 22,000 people, 80 miles west of Vienna, in stunned disbelief. Neighbors milled around the three-story apartment building on Monday, watching the investigation unfold and asking how such an atrocity could have occurred in their midst.

“One cannot comprehend the dimension of this,” said Doris Bichler, 34, a neighbor who was walking with her daughter. “Natascha Kampusch was bad, but this is of a totally different scale.” Ms. Bichler was referring to the notorious kidnapping of an Austrian schoolgirl, who was hidden in a windowless cellar for eight years until she escaped in August 2006. Until now, the Kampusch case was considered by many as the epitome of depravity in the post-World War II history of this country.

But as details of this latest case filter out, it seems even harder to fathom than Ms. Kampusch’s abduction, involving nearly a quarter-century of confinement and sexual abuse, and the birth of seven children, three of whom never emerged from the cellar into daylight until last week.

It also raises a troubling question: Why did two such horrifying crimes occur in the same period in Austria, known as a tranquil, picture-book land?

There seems no easy answer — and Austrian officials, while insisting that similar crimes had occurred in other countries, said they were struggling to make sense of Mr. Fritzl’s singular misdeeds.

“He was man of stature,” Franz Polzer, the chief of the criminal investigations unit for the Province of Lower Austria, said at a news conference here, holding up a photograph of Mr. Fritzl, a heavyset, gray-haired man dressed in black.

“He led a double life,” Mr. Polzer continued, “with one family of seven children, with his wife, and a second family of seven children, with his daughter.”

The police described Mr. Fritzl as an authoritarian figure who had brooked no dissent.

Trained as an electrician and an engineer, Mr. Fritzl owns the small apartment building, renting out a few apartments and living on the top floor. Over many years, he built an underground world for his captives in a warren of cramped, windowless rooms. He provided them with food and clothing, bought outside town to avoid suspicion.

Photographs show a miniature bathroom, finished with tile and wood trim on the ceiling. A claustrophobic passageway leads to a bedroom. The chamber was accessible through a four-foot-high door that opened with a remote-control device, for which only Mr. Fritzl held the code.

The police said his wife, Rosemarie, 68, had no inkling of his secret life, believing that their daughter had fled the family for a cult and was unable to take care of her children. Mr. Fritzl forced Elisabeth to give up three of the children as babies, and he and his wife raised them. A seventh child, a twin boy, died soon after being born; Mr. Fritzl told the police he threw the body in an incinerator, the authorities said.

“You have to imagine that this woman’s world fell apart,” a local official, Hans-Heinz Lenze, said of Rosemarie.

At the news conference, officials came under sharp questioning about how the situation could have remained unknown to the authorities. After Mr. Fritzl and his wife began taking care of Elisabeth’s children, social workers visited their home several times.

Officials defended themselves hotly, saying that if Mr. Fritzl was able to keep his wife ignorant of his crimes when she lived upstairs from the cellar, how could outsiders have guessed?

Neighbors expressed similar bafflement.

“You’re amazed that something like this could happen in your neighborhood,” said Günther Pramreiter, who runs a bakery next door to the Fritzls’ building. He said the couple, or their adopted children, came in every other day to buy rolls.

By most accounts, the three children who grew up in the Fritzls’ care were well-adjusted, each learning to play a musical instrument.

Karl Dattinger, 20, a volunteer firefighter, recalls that one of the daughters, Monika, had received a perfect score on a test of fire safety he gave at their school.

Matthias Sonnleitner, who manages a hardware store, said his children had taken martial arts classes with the Fritzl children. Rosemarie Fritzl occasionally came to his store to buy curtains, he said.

Even two of the three children imprisoned in the cellar were surprisingly healthy, if pale, according to the authorities. Elisabeth taught them to speak German, and they had access to a television.

The television played a key role in untangling the case, the police said. After the 19-year-old, Kerstin, was taken to the hospital, authorities appealed for her mother to come forward. Elisabeth saw the broadcast and persuaded her father to release her and the other two children living with her. Officials declined to give a prognosis for Kerstin.

Among people in the Fritzls’ neighborhood, there was a disquieting sense that more could have been done.

“I think the authorities are overworked and weren’t able to follow up every lead,” said Franz Jandl, 50, who owns a shop across the street from the apartment. “For a little country, to have this kind of thing happen a second time is a catastrophe. It’s just very sad.”

Sarah Plass contributed reporting.
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