Cellar Incest Case Shocks Austria

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73-year-old Josef Fritzl confessed to having held his daughter captive in the basement of his house for 24 years

For almost a quarter of century, as life unfolded in the quiet Lower Austrian town of Amstetten, Elisabeth Fritzl was enduring an unimaginable ordeal behind the plain gray walls of a nondescript house there.

Her 73-year-old father, Josef, today confessed that he held his now 42-year-old daughter captive for 24 years in a concealed, windowless basement hideout, where he repeatedly had sexual intercourse with her and where she gave birth to seven of his children. The shocking case has reminded many Austrians of the fate of Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped at the age of 10 and kept in a narrow basement for eight years until she managed to flee in August 2006. But the senior investigator in Amstetten, Franz Polzer, said that the cruel deliberateness of Josef Fritzl's deed outstripped the Kampusch case "by far." Though cases of such longstanding hidden crimes have cropped up elsewhere in recent years, the revelation of two in less than two years has set about a round of public soul-searching in Austria.

The police became aware of the family after Elisabeth's critically ill and confused 19-year-old daughter, Kerstin, was admitted to the local hospital. Kerstin, together with her brothers Stefan, now 18, and Felix, 5, had shared their mother's miserable life in the basement and had never seen the daylight. The hospital's urgent request for medical information from Kerstin's family triggered an anonymous tip, and Josef and Elisabeth were seized by police.

Having been promised protection from her tormentor, Elizabeth Fritzl told the investigators her nightmarish story. She says she was 11 years old when her father raped her for the first time. But it was only after she had turned 18 that, according to colleagues, she disappeared from her job at a highway rest stop and never returned. A former colleague told the Austrian Kurier newspaper that the parents showed up at their daughter's former workplace a few days later appearing very worried.

Another child born in the basement died shortly after its birth due to lack of medical care. The other three, Lisa (15), Monica (14) and Alexander (12) lived in the house, attended the local school, and appeared to be normal. Josef allegedly told his wife that their daughter had run away to join a cult and had left the babies on the doorstep of the house. He produced a letter allegedly from her, which was quoted in the Austrian press: "Don't try to find me, it would be pointless and would increase my suffering and the suffering of my children. Also too much education and too many children are unwanted there."

Polzer said Elisabeth looked very pale and thin and "much older than she actually is." Kerstin is described as being in stable but serious condition, while Elisabeth and the other two children who lived with her are under the care and observation of psychologists.

Josef Fritzl appears to have meticulously carried out his deed while acting like a caring father. The former electrical engineer carefully prepared what would be his daughter's and her three children's prison. The basement consisted of four windowless rooms and was equipped with a shower and a toilet, as well as a television. The electronically secured door to the prison could be opened only by entering a code number, which was known only by Fritzl. His wife, who insists that she had no idea what was going on in the house, was never allowed to set foot in the basement.

The neighbors, none of whom noticed anything unusual, are now asking lots of questions. "I was railing against the neighbors in the Kampusch case," a businessman who lives across the street told the Kurier. "Now I am in the same situation." So, perhaps, is all of Austria. "It won't be possible after this case to just go back to the usual course of things," wrote the Vienna daily Der Standard in an editorial today. "A whole country has to ask itself what it was that has gone so fundamentally wrong."