The Vienna Strangler and the Crime Writer

Nov 1, 2010 - by Mark Pulham

Johann "Jack" Unterweger

Johann "Jack" Unterweger

With the help of future Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek and other prominent Austrian literati, Jack Unterweger wrote his way out of a lifetime sentence for murder. Paroled in 1990, and now a famous crime writer himself, he embarked on a wide-ranging killing spree, murdering women in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Los Angeles

by Mark Pulham

Vienna. People sitting in cafés eating Sachertorte, listening to the music of Mozart and Strauss, walking through the Vienna Woods, and if you are a film buff, thinking about The Third Man. Vienna is synonymous with culture. It is not the first place anyone thinks of when you mention serial killers. Yet in the spring of 1991, particularly in the red-light district, the fear of a killer on the loose gripped the city.

It began on April 8, 1991, when a young prostitute named Silvia Zagler vanished. When last seen, she had been standing on her regular corner around 10:30 p.m. Sabine Moitzi worked in a bakery during the day. At night, unknown to her husband, she occasionally boosted her income by working as a “secret prostitute,” which meant that she was not, as is required by the laws of Vienna, registered with the Office of Health. Eight days after Zagler’s disappearance, Sabine’s friend, Ilse, dropped the 25-year-old woman off near the rail yard of the West Train Station. A short while later, she disappeared.

Regina Prem was 33. As well as a street corner that she worked from, she also had a regular customer, a wine merchant, and on Sunday, April 28, she had an appointment with him. Regina’s husband, Rudolf, dropped her off around 9:45 p.m. and then left. Regina usually finished work around 2 a.m., and then she would call Rudolf and he would pick her up. This time, there was no call. Worried, Rudolf went to look for her. A porter at the Hotel Rudolfshohe said he had seen her heading up the street to her corner, but that was around 11:30 p.m. A sausage vendor across from the hotel confirmed this. That was the last anyone saw of her. Not long after this, Rudolf Prem began receiving taunting phone calls about his wife and her profession.

A fourth prostitute, Karin Eroglu, disappeared from her corner on May 7. She was just a few blocks from where Sabine Moitzi vanished.

In Vienna, prostitution is legal, though it is highly regulated. The red-light districts are not dangerous, as in other cities, you can walk around them just as safely as you could in any other part of the city. Murder is rare in Vienna, as are sex crimes. The disappearance of four prostitutes in the space of a month was very disturbing.

The month of April had been miserable; heavy rains had kept people from walking through the woods right through until early May. But warmer weather had come and people were getting out again, hiking through the famous Vienna Woods. A 62-year-old hiker noticed a smell, and soon came upon the source. Sabine Moitzi was naked, except for a leotard pulled up to her shoulders. She was laying face down with her legs spread apart and her arms extended in front of her. There was a grey fungus on her body, and animals had chewed off the flesh on her right leg. Her killer had tied a stocking in an elaborate noose around her neck. It was May 20, and she had been missing for almost five weeks. Had this been a robbery? Her money was missing, but police found her clothing and her handbag a few yards away.

The front-page headline of the Vienna Kurier on May 22 read “Prostitute in Vienna Murder; Three Still Missing.”

The day after the headline appeared, a woman found Karin Eroglu. Beaten ferociously and strangled with her leotard, her naked body was deeper in the woods, in a grove of Spruce trees. The ligature was the same as that found around the neck of Sabine Moitzi. Whoever had killed Karin had taken away her clothing. When her body was moved, investigators found the torn off tip of a rubber glove. It was apparent her killer had planned the murder. As Karin still wore her jewellery, it was obvious that this was no robbery.

On Monday, June 3, a reporter for the Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF) interviewed Chief Max Edelbacher. The reporter, Jack Unterweger, was producing a story about the murders for “Journal Panorama,” the highest quality current events program in Austria. At the same time, Unterweger was co-writing an article on the murders for Falter, a weekly newspaper. ORF did a radio broadcast of Unterweger’s story, “The Fear in The Red-Light Milieu” on June 5. Among the listeners was a very interested Max Edelbacher. Only a couple of nights before, he had mentioned the interview to his wife, who surprisingly asked if he knew who Unterweger was. Edelbacher confessed that he did not. She told him. Jack Unterweger was the man sentenced to life in prison in 1975 for murdering a woman. He was released the year before.

Johann “Jack” Unterweger was born in Judenburg on August 16, 1950. His mother, Theresia, was a barmaid and waitress, who was not above theft and fraud when she was short of cash. When she discovered that American G.I.’s had far more money than the Austrian boys, she spent her time with them, and eventual became pregnant with Jack. When Jack was 2 years old, Theresia was arrested and so Jack was sent to live with his grandfather, whom Jack later described as a violent alcoholic who frequently brought prostitutes back to the small cabin they shared.

As Jack got older, he got into more and more trouble. Petty crimes, theft, and assaulting local prostitutes, resulted in him spending time in and out of prison. On December 11, 1974, Jack and his girlfriend, Barbara Scholz, drove from Frankfurt to Ewersbach. Their plan was simple: get into her parent’s house and steal money. When they found the house locked, Jack suggested they rob someone instead. Barbara spotted her neighbour, 18-year-old Margret Schäfer, returning from a night of bowling with her friends. Barbara got out of the car and walked toward Margret and the two women chatted for a few minutes. Then Barbara suggested they all hang out together. They both got in the back seat, and Jack drove off.

They parked across the street from a bar, and without warning, Jack grabbed Margret by the shirt and dragged her into the front seat. He tied her hands behind her back and pushed her down to the floor between the front and back seats, then Jack went through her purse and found 30 Marks. Jack asked if she had more money, and she replied that she had 100 Marks at home, so they drove to her home, sneaked in, and took the money. For the next hour, they drove until they came to a country road and drove into the forest. Jack ordered her to take off her clothes, but the frightened Margret refused. Jack punched her in the face. Jack and Barbara pulled off all of Margret’s clothes.

Jack pulled the naked woman from the car and dragged her deeper into the woods. He also took along a steel truncheon. Barbara stayed behind in the car and waited. Fifteen minutes passed before Jack returned, alone, the steel truncheon covered with blood and hair. Jack told Barbara, “There’s no way she can betray us now.” Three weeks passed before hunters discovered Margret’s body. Her autopsy showed she had been repeatedly struck on the body, neck, and head with a blunt instrument, then strangled with her own bra.

Shortly after, Jack, Barbara, and a 16-year-old Austrian girl named Maria, robbed a jeweller and fled to Switzerland. In Basel, Jack came up with a scheme to ransom Maria. He gave instructions to her parents for wiring money to a local bank. When Jack showed up to collect the money, Swiss police arrested him.

Jack Unterweger in 1976

Jack Unterweger was caught and at his trial, he confessed to the murder. He told the court that as he hit Margret, he had a vision of his mother who had abandoned him. His anger was fueled by this, resulting in his bludgeoning of his victim. If he expected sympathy, he was disappointed. Unterweger was sentenced to life in prison.

In prison, Jack began a correspondence course on narrative writing, urged on by author and journalist Sonja Eisenstein, who had met him while he was awaiting trial. Jack passed easily, and so began his literary career. Sonja came to know him, but she became troubled by his success. She felt her initial impression of Jack was not right, he showed a callous side to his character. When she researched the murder of Margret Schäfer, she was horrified.

Jack used his newly discovered talents, writing short stories, plays, poems, and his autobiography Fegefeuer (Purgatory), which was later made into a motion picture. Fegefeuer, which originally appeared in serial form in the esteemed literary magazine Manuskripte, was published to critical acclaim. The literati embraced this imprisoned poet, whose awful upbringing by his hated grandfather after his mother’s abandonment was revealed in the autobiography. In the eyes of the intellectuals, Jack was transformed from the young criminal who was jailed for murder, to a thoughtful and gentle author, more sinned against than sinner. Among the many supporters were Elfriede Jelinek, who would later win the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Ernest Bornemann, the most renowned sexual researcher in Austria. Even within the Justice Ministry itself, Jack had supporters, including Dr. Wolfgang Doleisch, who at the time was director of the Justice Ministry Section for Penal Executions.

There had been a reform of the criminal justice system in Austria in the early 1970s, including the idea of resozialisierung or resocialization, where the prisoners were not in prison for punishment but for training and rehabilitation, such as a hospital treats sickness. To his supporters, Jack was the ideal example of resocialization, and they vowed to have Jack released as soon as possible. However, Austrian law states that a prisoner sentenced to life cannot be made eligible for parole until 15 years have been served. As soon as possible, he was up for a parole hearing. His supporters submitted a statement, the court appointed psychiatrist Dr. Gerhard Kaiser gave a favorable prognosis, and on May 23, 1990, Jack Unterweger walked free.

Jack was the darling of the literati, travelling across the country giving readings and talks, even going to Prague in Czechoslovakia.

Jack Unterweger center

He appeared on talk shows, including “Club 2,” a freethinking discussion show where he talked about penal reform. Jack, working for the ORF as a reporter, was particularly interested in the prostitute murders because, as he revealed in his book, his aunt was a prostitute and in 1967, her last customer had murdered her.

Someone else was taking a particular interest in the prostitute murders. August Schenner called police headquarters and suggested a possible suspect for the killings. Schenner was a retired police inspector who had investigated a murder 18 years before. The body of a young woman found in the Salzach Lake, north of Salzburg, naked from the waist down, her wrists bound with a red necktie with black and silver checked stripes. Her killer had beaten her severely, and then drowned her in the lake. The woman, Marica Horvath, was 25 years old. The case went unsolved, but two years after her murder, Schenner heard of a young man who had been arrested. The young man had assaulted a girl after tying her hands behind her back, and then used a steel rod to rape her. By luck, she had escaped, and she had identified her attacker – Jack Unterweger.

Schenner interrogated Jack at the prison. Jack could not prove that he was not in Salzburg at the time of Marica’s murder. On the other hand, Schenner could not prove that he was either. Nevertheless, Schenner was convinced that Unterweger committed the killing. The killing was similar to those of the Vienna Strangler, enough to make Schenner believe that Unterweger was the murderer. On Friday, May 31, 1991, Schenner called Vienna Homicide and advised them to examine Jack Unterweger as a suspect in the murders. Edelbacher was not immediately told of Schenner’s tip. It was considered doubtful. After all, Jack was a successful writer and journalist, drove a good car, had a big apartment, and was surrounded by women. Why would he risk all that. Moreover, younger officers considered Schenner himself eccentric. Was Schenner an overly zealous cop who was obsessed by a long unsolved cold case? When Edelbacher finally heard about the tip, he was not convinced. However, with a lack of suspects, he put a surveillance team of Unterweger, and what they observed seemed to confirm the general thought, that Jack Unterweger had been rehabilitated.

On June 10, Edelbacher had another visit from Jack. The journalist was heading for Los Angeles. He was going to write a story on crime and law enforcement there and hoped that Edelbacher had some contacts there. He did not. Edelbacher did not tell Jack about the tip from Schenner.

Jack arrived in Los Angeles on June 11, 1991 and stayed until mid July. While there, he interviewed the police, went on ride-alongs with the LAPD, and interviewed prostitutes for his story “The Dark Side of Los Angeles.” He had met a group of Germans and Austrians who worked in the film industry, and met Frances Schoenberger, the Hollywood correspondent for Stern magazine. She tried to get him interviews with Cher and Charles Bukowski, but she told him it would be impossible. She was right. She tried to help him find his father, but was unsuccessful. While he was out of the country, the investigation into the prostitute murders had ground to a halt, the police were at a loss.

The village of Wolfsgraben is five miles from Vienna. On August 4, 1991, a couple strolling in the woods near there came across a body of a woman lying on her belly, badly decomposed and covered with a thin layer of dirt and some branches. There was no clothing, no handbag, but her dental work and her two small earrings identified her. It was Silvia Zagler, the first of the prostitutes to go missing.

Jack planned to celebrate his 41st birthday by giving a reading in the Wimitz Valley, where he had grown up. One of the locals who planned to attend was Charlotte Auer. She had read Purgatory, how his abusive, cruel alcoholic grandfather raised Jack. Incensed by what she read, Charlotte wanted to confront Jack because she knew that Jack’s account of life with his grandfather was a lie. Jack’s grandfather, Ferdinand Weiser, was Charlotte’s stepfather.  Charlotte’s mother, Maria Springer, had lived with him for 20 years. Rather than the violent alcoholic that Jack portrayed him as, Ferdinand loved Jack and spoiled him. Jack’s claim that he had to sleep in the same bed as his grandfather, and that his grandfather constantly brought prostitutes back to share the bed, were untrue; Maria Springer lived at the cottage at the time Jack was there, and Jack had his own room.

When Charlotte confronted Jack in a local restaurant, he denied that he even knew her, even though the day before he had driven to her home and sat in the car glaring at her. As Charlotte continued to confront him, Jack stood, and with his back to his guests at the table so they could not hear, said in a low voice, “Be quiet or something may happen to you.” It was a clear threat, and Charlotte turned and left in fear.

Peter Grolig was a crime reporter, the best in Vienna. Shortly after Schenner’s tip had come in to police headquarters, one of Grolig’s contacts told him about it. Grolig began investigating the life of Jack Unterweger. He too became convinced of Unterweger’s guilt. Knowing that some investigators felt the same, he wondered why the investigation of Unterweger was not more aggressive. He suspected it was due to Unterweger’s status with the intellectuals of the city. He was not far wrong. All that they had against Jack was that the prostitute murders bore a similarity to the one murder that had led to his arrest and imprisonment, not enough to justify an aggressive investigation into a man who was now a famous and influential writer.

Grolig wrote an article for the September 1 edition of the Kurier in which he suggested the police already knew who the murderer was. In it, he calls the killer “Jack the Struggler,” a play on Jack the Ripper. A few days after the article appeared, Unterweger visited Edelbacher. He told him of his trip to Los Angeles and showed photographs, all the while cheerful and relaxed. Edelbacher gave nothing away and played dumb. He put Jack under surveillance once more.

The ORF Youth program Zick Zack broadcast Unterweger’s Los Angeles report, “The Dark Side of Los Angeles” on September 16. Three weeks later, on October 7, Jack appeared again at Police Headquarters. He told Edelbacher that he was writing a story on homelessness in Vienna and Los Angeles. At this point, Edelbacher decided to tell Jack of the investigation. Jack said that he wasn’t surprised he was a suspect, and said that he knew the tip came from Schenner. Jack said it would be stupid of him to commit these crimes and lose his freedom. It would also embarrass and disappoint those supporters who had campaigned for his freedom. Edelbacher said he understood, but asked him to reconstruct his movements on the nights the women disappeared. Two weeks later, Jack presented his alibis. They did not prove anything.

A few days later, Police Headquarters received a teletype from Graz, less than 100 miles to the south. The police there were investigating a series of prostitute murders, could the Vienna police help.

Brunhilde Masser was 39 and had worked Graz’s red-light district for over 10 years. A taxi driver who knew Brunhilde saw her at 12:15 a.m. on October 26, 1990. He stopped and asked why she was still working when everyone else had gone home. Shortly after this encounter, she disappeared. On January 5, 1991, just over two months after she vanished, children playing in the woods found Masser’s remains. Her naked body was lying facedown in a brook, partially covered by branches from a tree. Her clothing and purse were missing, but she still had her jewellery. Forensics determined she had been strangled.

Back in Graz, another prostitute went missing. On the night of March 7, 1991, Elfriede Schrempf vanished from her spot near the Volksgarten, not far from where Brunhilde Masser was last seen. Listed as a missing person, the police believed that the same person who killed Masser had also killed her. A few days later, her family started to receive taunting telephone calls. The calls were reported to the police. The family’s telephone number was unlisted, so the caller must have taken the number from Elfriede.

Almost seven months later, on October 5, the skeletal remains of Elfriede Schrempf were found, covered in leaves, in a woodland area 14 miles south of Graz. She was naked, except for her red socks and jewellery, similar to the others. As only the skeleton remained, the pathologist was unable to determine the cause of death. The skeleton showed no marks of bullet, knife, or blunt force trauma, which suggested strangulation as the cause of death.

Earlier, in May, Viennese Magazine had published an article about the murder of Masser, and the suspected murder of Schrempf, and linked them to two other murders that took place in January and October of 1989. Both earlier murders took place in their apartments. It was a natural assumption given that prostitute murders were so rare. However, Hans Breitegger disagreed. Breitegger was chief crime reporter for Kleine Zeitung and he believed that this was two different killers, one who killed in apartments, and one who preferred the woods. The last two bore close resemblance to the murders now being carried out in Vienna. After hearing about Unterweger, Breitegger began looking at him more closely and saw that the second pair of murders, the ones in the woods, started just after Jack was released. Breitegger shared his knowledge with the Graz police, who informed Vienna. The Vienna police were still reluctant to pursue Jack, there was no real evidence linking him to the murders.

On November 16, 1991, Jack was in the trendy nightclub Take Five. Bianca Mrak was also there. Bianca noticed the good looking man sitting a few stools down and soon they were sitting together. The 18-year-old had heard of Jack and thought he was fascinating. Soon, they were living together. Jack suggested that she do part-time work to help with the bills, and got her to apply for a job at an escort service. Bianca, who had an unclear idea of what an escort does, agreed. However, at her interview when it became clear that it was thinly disguised prostitution, she left angrily and confronted Jack. A few days later, Jack found her another job, as a barmaid.

A few days before Christmas, Bianca and Jack visited Munich, where Jack asked Bianca to marry him. Stunned, she said yes. On Christmas Eve, back in Vienna, they prepared for the party Bianca’s mother was throwing that evening. It would be the perfect time to announce the engagement. Jack took off during the afternoon to visit his other girlfriend, Elisabeth, and made plans to go skiing with her on Christmas Day, when Bianca would be at work. He couldn’t be with Elisabeth on Christmas Eve, he told her he would be working in the soup kitchen for a homeless shelter.

Breitegger and another reporter, Bernd Melicar, tried to get an interview with Jack, and left several messages. When Jack finally got back to them, he accused them of working with the police. They denied this and Jack agreed to the interview. But Jack knew he was right, and he called the police himself, and on the way to the interview, dropped into Graz police headquarters and spoke with Inspector Brandstätter, who informed Jack that his name had come up during the investigation. Asked about his movements on the night of the murders, Jack gave an account and said that he never had any contact with the prostitutes in the red-light district. Brandstätter pointed out that this was not true, a witness had come forward, a prostitute named Joanna whom he had picked up and had sex with, during which he handcuffed her behind her back. He changed his story to include Joanna.

The story Joanna told bore a very close resemblance to what had been done to the murder victims, except that she had lived. The area that Jack took her to seems to be completely isolated, a perfect place to murder someone. However, it is actually a thoroughfare for the people who live further up on the hill, and traffic passes through there frequently. Did Joanna live because a passing car spooked Jack enough to abandon his plan. Joanna, it seemed, was lucky to be alive.

Jack’s alibi for March 7 was a girlfriend named Katarina. When the police questioned her, she had a clear recollection of March 7. She definitely was not with Jack, they had already broken up. The alibi was false.

The interview with Breitegger and Melicar was an exercise in PR for Jack. He knew that Brandstätter was building a case, and he wanted to make sure that the public believed him to be innocent. Breitegger held off on publishing the interview. He remembered something about a prostitute murder in Vorarlberg, Austria’s westernmost state, close to the Swiss border. Breitegger called the New Vorarlberg Daily and spoke to a contact there. There was an unsolved murder, that of Heidemarie Hammerer.

On December 5, 1990, Hammerer vanished from her spot near the train station in Bregenz. She was not missing for long. In a wooded area just south of Bregenz, near the village of Lustenau, hikers found her body. It was New Year’s Eve. She was not naked, but her legs were bare, and she had been strangled with her own pantyhose. Bruises found on her body suggested that she had been beaten, and bruises around her wrists indicated that she had been tied up. Forensics found red and black fibres on her clothes that matched nothing that she was wearing. The killer must have left them. Breitegger discovered that Jack was at the ORF studio in Dornbirn on the morning of December 6, recording a performance of his play Dungeon. Dornbirn is eight miles from Bregenz, and only three miles from Lustenau. Breitegger also discovered that Jack gave a reading in Köflach, 20 miles west of Graz, on March 7, 1991, the night Elfriede Schrempf vanished.

Police were also now convinced that Jack was the killer, but there was still not enough proof. Jack was aware of the police interest, and on February 2, 1992, he and Bianca left Vienna for Switzerland, where Bianca got a job as a waitress in a pub. Back in Vienna, Dr. Ernst Geiger submitted a report to the D.A. Geiger was the second in command in the Austrian police, and he had never been convinced of Jack’s reformed character. He had also noticed that the murders stopped when Jack was in Los Angeles. The report to the D.A. pointed to the evidence that connected Unterweger to the killings, but the D.A. concluded that it wasn’t enough for an arrest. A Special Commission was created by the Interior Ministry to investigate Unterweger further, with Geiger as its head. Their first meeting was on February 14, 1992.

The day before, the Graz Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Unterweger, based on the false alibi for March 7. Breitegger was informed, and he would get the scoop as long as the story didn’t run until Saturday, February 15. By then, they would have arrested Jack and he would be in custody. Brandstätter arrived in Vienna only to be told that the team who were keeping Jack under surveillance had lost him in traffic. Unconcerned, they would pick up his trail later, but he never turned up anywhere. It soon became apparent why. On the front page of the Kleine Zeitlung was the headline “Murder Series: An Arrest Warrant for Jack Unterweger.”  As promised, Breitegger held off on publication until Saturday, but the newspaper was distributed on Friday evening. Clearly, Jack had seen the headline.

The next day, investigators searched Jack’s apartment, finding three pairs of handcuffs, a can of mace, a switchblade, and a pump-action 12 gauge shotgun, which, as a convicted felon, he was not allowed to own. Jack had to document his expenses and had saved all his receipts. These could be used to construct his movements during the times the killings occurred. Also found were Jack’s diaries. Meticulously kept, he recorded everything. What was most telling was that the diaries covering the period when the murders took place were missing. It seemed clear that Jack had gotten rid of these diaries because they contained incriminating evidence.

Jack fled to Switzerland, a habit from his youth whenever he was being investigated, arriving in Gossau where Bianca was working late that evening. The next day, he called Graz headquarters and asked why they were persecuting him? They tried to persuade him to come in. Jack also called Peter Grolig, claiming that the police had no evidence and he was being persecuted for his past. Asked what he intended to do, Jack told Grolig he would get a pump gun and do himself in. This was not the first time Jack had hinted that he would commit suicide.

Police had no idea where Jack was until Bianca’s mother contacted them. She told them that Bianca was with Jack, and she was working in a pub in Switzerland. Swiss investigators rushed to the pub, but by that time it was too late. Bianca had been paid up and had left with her boyfriend.

Articles began to appear questioning the way Unterweger had got paroled. Breitegger reported on the murder of Marica Horvath and how Unterweger had not been charged with the killing. Jack’s capture and conviction would create an enormous scandal. The thought that the most famous example of the resocialization program, the best model of rehabilitation, had been freed because of intellectual and political patronage, and had been going around the country murdering prostitutes, while all his expenses were being paid for by the State, was beyond an embarrassment. The case was becoming a political disaster.

Jack and Bianca left Switzerland and drove to France where they slept overnight in the car. The next day, they drove to Orly and got a flight to Miami, where Bianca got a job as a go-go dancer. Jack went on the counteroffensive. Just after 9 p.m. on Thursday February 20, 1992, he contacted ORF. He said he would call the following day at 5 p.m. for a live interview. During the interview, he restated that he was being persecuted because of his past and that the police having no suspects were trying to pin the murders on him. Asked why he fled when he was innocent, he said he will not go back to a jail cell. Sympathizers who heard the broadcast believed what he said. Jack talked for hours with his lawyer and informants in Vienna. Bianca became suspicious over one of his “confidents” and confronted him. She realized it was another woman. His face told him she was correct. It was Elisabeth. A fight broke out between them, which carried on to their apartment. She became more passive after he gave her some heavy slaps.

On February 26, he got some good news from Elisabeth. She worked for Success magazine, and her boss, Gert Schmidt, said he would pay Jack $10,000 for an exclusive interview. Jack was happy. He knew Schmidt, having written a couple of articles for the magazine. Schmidt would send him an advance, and Jack gave instructions for wiring the money to the money exchange at Miami Beach. That same day, Geiger and Inspector Windisch of the Lower Austrian police, met at the Café Landtmann with someone with information. It was Gert Schmidt. The previous autumn, Schmidt had met Jack, and took an instant dislike to him. He was worried about his assistant’s devotion to Unterweger, and so had set up the fake interview story, the truth of which Elisabeth was unaware. He gave Geiger the wiring instructions, telling them the money would be available for pick up the next day. Geiger rushed back to his office and, with no time to go through Interpol, his office contacted Miami police directly. Inspector José Grenado explained that they couldn’t pick him up, but the federal marshals could. The warrant was faxed to Miami and delivered to the federal marshals’ office.

A team was set up to watch the money exchange, but the Austrian warrant wasn’t enough to pick him up. A provisional U.S. warrant would have to be issued, and that took time. Their orders were to follow and see where he was staying. Jack and Bianca turned up, and he immediately saw the marshals. Bianca went in and got the money. As they walked away, Jack suddenly took off down an alley. The marshals radioed for assistance and soon, several Miami Beach squad cars arrived, blocking off a large area. Moments later, one of the marshals emerged holding Jack by the back of the neck. Although the Austrian warrant was not enough, the INS had informed the marshals that Jack had entered the country on a tourist visa, and had not disclosed his felony conviction. It was enough to detain him, but not for long. He could easily post bail, and disappear. However, the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a provisional warrant for the next day.

The Special Commission had 90 days to prepare their case to extradite Jack. Everyone who had been in contact with Jack since he was set free was interviewed, everything found in his apartment was examined, and every receipt and log he’d made was used to work out his movements.

The Viennese Der Standard headline “Jack Unterweger Wants to Return” ran on March 2, 1992. Jack felt that he had sympathy in Austria, and that the evidence against him was flimsy. On March 5, LAPD Detective Fred Miller got a message to call the Department of Justice. Interpol, Washington had informed them of Unterweger’s arrest, and had given them details of what they suspected him of in Austria. They revealed that Unterweger had been in Los Angeles and part of his method was to get a ride-along. Miller and partner James Harper got the driving logs and confirmed that Jack was there. Credit card charges showed that Jack had hired a car on June 11, 1991, and returned it on June 20 with a broken windshield on the passenger side. Miller recognized this date.

Shannon Exley was 20 years old. A crack addict, she had become a prostitute to pay for her habit. Sometime after midnight on June 19, 1991, she was picked up and drove to the Girl Scout Center on Seventh and Fickett. She was discovered the next morning by girls picking up litter. Other than her blue socks and the T-shirt that had been pulled up over her breasts, she was naked and her clothes were missing. She had been strangled with her own bra.

On June 30, 1991, a homeless man looking for firewood found Irene Rodriguez, with a bra tied around her neck. Most of her clothes were missing. The 33-year-old had last been seen at 8 p.m. on Friday June 28 by her roommate. Three days after the discovery of Irene’s body, Sherri Long went missing. Eight days later, a couple of men and their children climbed an old fire road to a steep hill just off Corral Canyon Road. They wanted to see the solar eclipse that began at 10:12 that morning. Instead, they found the bloated body of Sherri Long, her face covered with maggots. Her bra that the killer used to strangle her was still tightly knotted around her neck.

Dr. Lynne Herold at the crime lab examined the bras. They shared some distinct characteristics. Each one had been cut to make it a more effective murder weapon, and the cuts were in the same place. Each was left around the neck of the victim, and each had a complex knot. She confirmed that all were killed by the same man. It was clear that a serial killer was on the loose in Los Angeles, and the detectives waited for the next body to show up. But it never did.

Miller and Harper flew to Miami and interviewed Jack, and took hair and blood samples. They left convinced that he was their killer. On April 9, the Special Commission arrived in Los Angeles and along with the LAPD traced Unterweger’s movements. Everything matched the murders in Austria.

The Special Commission was still in Los Angeles on April 19 when a retired policeman and his wife went for a walk in the Vienna Woods. On the highest hill in the woods, the Hermannskogel, the man kicked a dead branch. He noticed that there was some fabric on it, and he looked closer. It wasn’t a branch, but a femur. Almost a year had passed, but finally, Regina Prem had been found.

Jack was returned to Austria on May 28, a U.S. marshal escorting him from the plane. Jack seemed happy and smiled for the cameras. Geiger wasn’t there to greet Jack. He was in Prague attending a Central European Police Association conference. Although he looked forward to meeting his colleagues, he had another reason for attending. The search of Jack’s apartment had uncovered an “auto book” that he’d used to record his road trips around the country. In it, Jack had written “Vienna – Prague – Vienna” covering September 14 - 16, 1990. A request for information on prostitute murders in Prague on those dates came back negative, but a few days before the conference, Vienna headquarters were contacted again. There was an unsolved murder. Because it had been investigated by the Central Czech Police, who handled crimes outside the city, it had not been included.

On September 15, 1990, walkers discovered the body of 30-year-old Blanka Bockova in the Brezany Brook, a tributary of the Vltava River just outside of the city of Prague. She was married and worked in a butcher’s shop. Although she wasn’t a prostitute, she did pick up men on occasion. The night before, she had been drinking in Wenceslaus Square with a friend named Martin. They had an argument, and she left. When Martin came out a few minutes later, she was nowhere to be seen. It was just before midnight. A reliable witness placed Jack in Wenceslaus Square at 11:45 p.m. that same night.

Examining magistrate Wolfgang Wladkowski visited Jack on Monday, June 29, 1992 and told him they didn’t need a confession from him. He told him the results of the American DNA tests had come back that proved he was the killer. In actual fact, the results were inconclusive. The DNA test, using the polymer chain reaction method, could prove only who didn’t do it. Although the DNA alpha marker HLA-DQ found on the Los Angeles victims proved to be the same as that found in Jack’s blood, one in 10 men in Los Angeles also have the same marker.

That night, Jack cut his arm with a razor. But this was no suicide attempt. He didn’t cut an artery in his wrist, but had opened up veins in his arm. The result was a lot of blood, but certainly not life threatening. It was an old trick that prisoners used, and Jack had even told friends about it. Open up a vein, and get transferred to hospital or a psychiatric ward. Once there, where security was less tight, you could make an escape attempt. It didn’t work this time, but it did get him sympathy.

Jack’s prized Mustang Mach 1 had been found. He had abandoned it at the end of March, 1991 for an unknown reason. When it was found, its condition was excellent, and there was no reason for getting rid of it, unless keeping the car posed a risk to him. But forensic examination of the car turned up nothing. However, Geiger believed there must be a reason why the car had been abandoned.

At the end of May, lack of evidence forced the Los Angeles D.A. not to prosecute. Austrian police feared the same would happen there. They were convinced of Jack’s guilt, it could not be just coincidence that he was present where all the murders took place.

Dr. Andrea Berzlanovich worked at the Vienna Institute of Forensic Medicine. In the spring of 1991, she began a study on prostitute murder in postwar Vienna, wondering if the current murders were part of a growing trend of violence against women. Her study spanned the years 1960 – 1991. Her year long study was completed in May 1992. One murder was left out, that of Anna Unterweger in 1967. There was a reason for this. Anna Unterweger was 46 when she was murdered in a wooded area near Salzburg, but despite what Jack said in his autobiography, Purgatory, Anna was not a prostitute. And she was also not Jack’s aunt. Jack had read an account of the murder in the newspapers when he was 16, and saw that she shared the same name. The rest was all Jack’s imagination.

In August, 1992, the Austrian police called in Special Agent Gregg McCrary from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. McCrary examined the files on all 11 murders. He was stunned at the distance travelled by the killer. This was extremely rare. McCrary saw a pattern in the killings and concluded that whoever had committed one of the murders, had committed them all. Jack’s timeline and the method of killing Margret Schäfer confirmed it. Lynne Herold’s analysis of the knots in the bras that the killer used on the three California prostitutes was identical to the knots used on the Austrian victims.

Jack’s trial began on April 20, 1994, Hitler’s birthday. His attorneys were Georg Zanger, an arts and entertainment lawyer, and Hans Lehofer, the best criminal defense attorney in Graz.

Jack presented himself as witty and charming, a man who could not possibly be the monster who committed these crimes. Jack, asked where he was and what he did on the night Blanka Bockova was murdered, gave a highly detailed answer covering the whole night, except for the actual time when she vanished. He conveniently skipped over that part. When he was questioned about the Masser killing, he again gave detailed descriptions of what he did before and after, but once again, skipped the crucial part. However, Jack had some last minute alibi witnesses that he called upon. His first witness confirmed that she was on the phone with Jack the night Silvia Zagler disappeared, and told the court that the call lasted until midnight. She testified to this despite having earlier told the police that although she “possibly” had a phone call with Jack, she could not be sure exactly when. She was asked about a letter she had written to Jack when he was in jail, a letter that was interpreted as asking Jack what he needed. She said that she did not believe he could have done the things he had been accused of.

It was deemed a successful alibi for Jack, but the others were not so successful. One who Jack claimed to have spent the night with on the night Sabine Moitzi vanished could not confirm this, and one who was his alibi for the night Sherri Long vanished could not be found.

Schenner took the stand on May 2, and told of the Horvath murder. Asked why Unterweger was never tried for the killing, Schenner said, “The district attorney told me it was senseless, because he could receive only one life sentence.” Schenner was angry about his decision, even if he could only receive one life sentence, the fact that he had another conviction would have ensured that his parole would never have happened.

Two days later, Bianca appeared as a witness. She admitted that Jack had hit her, and that his sexual practices were of a sadomasochistic nature. She also admitted that Jack had tried to set her up as a prostitute. As a 40-year-old man attempting to exploit a troubled 18-year-old, Jack’s charming persona was starting to crack.

The case was beginning to go against Jack. Gregg McCrary and Lynne Herold were witnesses and both made a great impression. Walter Brüschweiler of the Zurich Police scientific bureau gave evidence on the textile fibres found on Heidemarie Hammerer’s body. A red scarf taken from Jack’s apartment, and the red fibres on Hammerer’s body were a perfect match. The black fibres were also a perfect match to a pair of wool trousers also taken from Jack’s apartment. Forensics also examined Jack’s BMW, hoping for a better result than the one they got when they examined the Mustang. This time, they had better luck, they found hairs on the back seat. DNA Extracted from the root of one of the hairs was identical to that of Blanka Bockova.

On June 21, another witness appeared, not in court, but on video. It was Theresia Unterweger. If she confirmed that her son was with her on the night Karin Eroglu died, it would throw doubt on all the other killings. She loved her son, but she was upset at her portrayal as a prostitute in his book Purgatory. “I was never a whore,” she had said, “and I don’t have a sister. I don’t know why Hansi said that.”

The court watched the video. Asked if she could confirm that Jack was with her on the night in question, she replied, “My son often visited me, but I don’t remember any concrete dates. Around Mother’s Day in 1991, he gave me his dog as a gift, but I can’t remember exactly when.” Once again, Jack had no alibi.

The jury went into deliberation on June 28, 1994, and they returned to the courtroom at 8:50 p.m. The judge asked, “Is the accused, Jack Unterweger, guilty of the murder of Blanka Bockova?” The jury foreman replied, “Six yes, two no.” It was enough, Jack would go to prison for the rest of his life. However, there was another 10 verdicts to go. As they went down the list, the answer was the same for eight of the counts, “Six yes, two no.” The only ones that were not guilty were those of Elfriede Schrempf and Regina Prem, whose bodies were so decomposed that a cause of death could not be established. Even though they knew he probably murdered them, he got a pass on them.

The next morning, at 6 o’clock, Austrian radio reported, “Jack Unterweger has committed suicide. At 3:40 this morning, he was found hanging in his cell in the Graz court. A few hours earlier the jury found him guilty of nine of 11 counts of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.” Using the drawstring of his pants and some metal wire, Jack had fashioned a complex noose. Did he intend to kill himself? His lawyer believed he did, and many people expressed anger at such a slipshod suicide watch. However, one of Jack’s friends believed, like the slashing of the vein in his arm, this was another fake suicide attempt to get sympathy, but had accidentally worked.

It was said that the knot used was identical to the one used to kill the prostitutes, but that is not confirmed. Lynne Herold never gave an opinion on the knot as she did not want to get involved in the investigation. In Vienna, the court has to review and confirm the judgment. In Jack’s case, this had not yet been done and therefore, as his lawyer pointed out, Jack could not be referred to as guilty. Technically, when Jack Unterweger died, he was an innocent man.




This article was inspired by the excellent book ENTERING HADES: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF A SERIAL KILLER by John Leake. It was invaluable as one of the research sources and is one of the truly great true crime books. John’s meticulous research over four years has resulted in a frightening portrait of a predator that was able to manipulate those around him and allow him to get away with his crimes for so long. This is an extremely well written and exceptionally readable book, hard to put down once started, and one of the best true crime books I’ve read. This is a book that should be on the shelf of any true crime enthusiast.


American edition.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Sarah Crichton Books
November 2007
e-Book Agency
ISBN: 9781429996334
ISBN10: 1429996331
368 pages


British Edition (Published as THE VIENNA WOODS KILLER)


Published: 1 July 2008
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 400 pages
ISBN: 9781847080455

All editions are available from Amazon:

And check out John’s Author page:

John’s new book is COLD A LONG TIME: AN ALPINE MYSTERY. Please check out the Facebook page:

Total views: 33831