Austria Squirms in Limelight of the Cellar Incest Trial

Austria Squirms in Limelight of the Cellar Incest Trial

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.”

Fritzl 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. He pleaded not guilty to murder and
enslavement, and although he admitted that he did have sex with his daughter
against her will, he insisted that she did not resist him. But 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.”

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. 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.
See top 10 crime stories of 2008.