Austria Squirms in Limelight of the Cellar-Incest Trial

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Josef Fritzl is seen during a break on the second day of his trial in Sankt Poelten, Austria

The authorities in Sankt Poelten are making the most of their sleepy, baroque town's misfortune of being the venue for perhaps the most grotesque trial in Austria's history. A large marquee reminiscent of a beer tent, flanked by sausage stands and a mobile sweetshop, has been erected outside the courtroom to accommodate the hundreds of journalists who've arrived here to follow the trial of Josef Fritzl. The septuagenarian engineer is charged with repeatedly raping his daughter over the 24 years that he kept her locked in a prison beneath his house and fathering seven children by her, one of whom he is accused of murdering. But lest the journalists grow tired of focusing on the ugly details of the case, folders handed out in the press tent helpfully list gourmet restaurants and fashionable new nightclubs in town and include brochures from the local tourism board. At a lavish media reception in the town hall on Monday, Mayor Matthias Stadler sought to promote his town as a tourism and cultural center, enthusing, "Sankt Poelten has never been in the spotlight like this before, and I hope to use this opportunity to make good contacts with the media for the future." (Read Josef Fritzl's side of the story.)

After initially pleading not guilty on some of the charges, Fritzl on Wednesday changed his plea to guilty on all charges — among them rape, incest, enslavement and murder. He is accused of imprisoning his daughter from age 18 in a tiny, windowless, unheated, rat-infested basement that reeked of mold and lacked warm water, and repeatedly raping her in front of their children, three of whom had never seen the light of day. The murder charge arose from the death shortly after birth of one of the seven children he fathered with his daughter. The ailing baby was not allowed the medical care it needed. But when he addressed the court on Monday, the accused spent more time talking about himself. "I had a very difficult childhood," Fritzl told the court, his voice trembling. "My mother didn't want me. I was beaten." His attorney, Rudolf Mayer, added that a "man who put so much effort into keeping two families cannot be called a monster," urging the jurors to "keep emotion out of this." (See pictures of Austria's house of horrors.)

After opening statements by the prosecution and defense, reporters were ushered out of the courtroom for the duration of the trial. A verdict is expected by the end of the week.

Mayor Stadler's efforts to use the occasion to promote tourism in Sankt Poelten may be emblematic of Austria's inclination to evade the uncomfortable questions raised by the Fritzl case. It came to light just two years after Austrians learned of a surprisingly similar case: that of Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped at age 10 by another engineer and kept in a purpose-built cellar prison for eight years before she escaped in 2006. The form of incarceration wasn't the only thing the two cases had in common: not a single social worker, police officer or government official has taken any responsibility for the failures that enabled either crime.

Prior to his alleged crimes, Fritzl had been arrested three times in connection with sex offenses — he was never charged in the cases of attempted rape and public exposure, but he served a sentence for a rape conviction in the late 1960s. (He was also acquitted for lack of evidence on a charge of arson related to insurance fraud in the 1980s.) Yet when Fritzl told police that his daughter had joined a cult, they apparently believed him, despite the fact that he was a convicted sex offender and that there was no evidence that such a cult was operating in Austria. Fritzl also claimed that the three children he and his wife were raising in the house above the basement prison had been dumped on his doorstep by his runaway daughter — an unlikely account that also went unquestioned.

Elisabeth Fritzl had been abused by her father as a child, and at 16 she ran away but was returned home by police. When social workers came to the house, they spoke only to her father. Later, when she was kidnapped, the police launched only a limited investigation, and no official suspicions were raised when, three times in two years, Fritzl approached courts seeking to adopt or be recognized as the foster parent of the three children he claimed had been left on his doorstep in cardboard boxes.

Many officials, all the way up to the Chancellor, have insisted that the Fritzl case is an isolated affair, although one of the chief investigators in the case has expressed a belief that there may be other cellars in Austria where captives are being held.

Fritzl is expected to be sentenced to at least 15 years in prison, but he will most likely be sent to an institution for the criminally insane, where he will probably spend the rest of his life receiving therapy and counseling, in circumstances far more comfortable than those of high-security prisons normally reserved for repeat sex offenders. And then, as Stadler hopes, the press pack will remember Sankt Poelten for its pear brandy and its wine, and its new nightclubs and gourmet restaurants.

  • Bojan Pancevski is a co-author, with Stefanie Marsh, of The Crimes of Josef Fritzl: Uncovering the Truth, to be published following the trial by Penguin in the U.S. and HarperCollins in the U.K.

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