Amstetten, Austria- The late 19th century
Anna Fritzl was a young woman that lived in a moderately sized house on a street called Ybbsstrasse. An affluent mill owner from a neighboring hamlet called Ardagger made her an offer of marriage. Given his financial and social status, the Fritzl family approved, and the two were married. From all accounts, the newlyweds were happy together in their first few months of marriage…but as time passed and it became evident that the couple could not have children, Anna’s husband blamed her and became physically abusive.
He also began having sex with a female servant. It is unknown whether their relationship was consensual. When the servant became pregnant, the miller took this as proof that it was not he who was at fault for their inability to have children, but Anna. He eschewed his legal right to divorce Anna, and instead chose to dismiss the servant and keep the child, passing it off as the product of his marriage.
One child, however, was not enough for Anna’s husband. He fathered two more children from two different servants, again dismissing each from his employ after the births. The three children- two girls and one boy- were brought up as if they were Anna’s, with none, but the family itself, the wiser. Maria was the youngest of the three, and was constantly reminded of her origin by her father. He transitioned from an abusive husband to an abusive father. So much so that Maria became desperate for a marriage of her own, for no other reason than to escape her household.
She eventually found her way out in the form of a neighboring farm worker named Karl Nenning, whom she married.
But fate seemed to be playing a cruel joke on Maria. After three years of marriage, the couple failed to produce children. Like her mother before her, Maria was blamed by her husband for what he perceived as her inability to bear children. He divorced Maria, and the ghosts of her father’s cruelty continued to haunt her.
The year was now 1932. Maria was left homeless and penniless, with no other option but to return to her family home in Ardagger.
When she arrived, she found that in the span of her three year absence, her parents’ relationship had deteriorated to the point of Anna fearing for her life. Anna was emboldened by the return of her adopted daughter, and together, the two women literally walked away from the house and didn’t look back.
Anna had inherited her childhood home at 40 Ybbsstrasse Street in the late 1920’s. She still owned the empty house, and decided she and Maria would start their new lives together there. So, with no money and precious little personal belongings, that’s just what they did. The house was divided into apartments, which were rented out as a source of income for the Fritzls.
Maria started seeing a man named Josef. He was a poor man of no social standing, but Maria didn’t care. She simply wanted to prove her womanhood by getting pregnant. She saw it as a kind of vengeance against the men in her life that made her and her adoptive mother feel like failures for not bearing them children.
To her surprise, she quickly became pregnant.
April 9, 1935
Josef Fritzl was born. Maria gave young Josef her grandmother’s maiden name and all but dismissed his father from their lives almost immediately upon his birth. She told the elder Josef that their baby was merely a tool of vindication and said “How could you have thought I loved you?”
Sadly, Maria’s cold detachment extended to her new baby as well. She was apathetic to his needs and left him crying for her attention while lying in his soiled diaper.
March 12, 1938
Adolf Hitler’s troops came to Austria… and to Amstetten. This was the beginning of the annexation of Austria into Greater Germany. The Nazi movement was embraced by the people of Amstetten, and the town was embraced by the Third Reich.
A Nazi named Wolfgang Mitterdorfer replaced the elected mayor and the town was almost immediately transformed. Jews were expelled. Mitterdorfer began building a complex that would include a theater, social housing, an event house and the headquarters of the Hitler Youth. The primary railways that supplied Germany and Italy intersected through Amstetten. This made the small town a prime target for Allied bombing. Mitterdorfer knew this, and planned accordingly. He oversaw construction of a vast network of underground bunkers in the surrounding hills.
As predicted, the Allied bombs began to fall. For the next six months, Amstetten was continually targeted, with a total of twelve thousand bombs falling on the town.
The people of Amstetten quickly adapted to the routine of piling into bomb shelters at the first sounding of air raid sirens. Maria was the exception. In the preceding dozen years of living at 40 Ybbsstrasse, she became obsessive about her home. She refused to leave it…ever. When everyone else, including 9-year-old Josef, scrambled out of the house during air raids, Maria stayed behind, willing to die rather than see her house destroyed after a bombing.
For Josef, the time he spent in the bunkers was at times a terrifying experience and at other times, a welcomed escape from his home life. He was able to play with other children in the shelter; something that never happened at home. But he suffered deep anxiety upon exiting the shelter after each raid, not knowing if his mother had been killed in the bombings.
As the war raged on, refugees from the north and east flooded into Austria. Landlords in Amstetten were ordered to provide shelter to refugees. Maria’s house was already fully occupied, with men, women and children sleeping on the stairs and in the halls. The thought of taking in even more people was too much for Maria. She was reported to authorities when she refused to take in refugees. She was taken from her house by security forces while Josef cried at the doorway. He watched on as his mother was forcibly loaded into the back of a truck, which, unbeknownst to Josef, took her to Mauthausen-Gusen, one of the worst Nazi concentration camps, in northern Austria.
Josef spent the final months of the war in an orphanage, miles away from Amstetten. He once tried to escape, and even managed to board a train headed for Amstetten. He hid under a bench, but was found by police and returned to the orphanage. The police also told 10-year-old Josef that his mother had died at the concentration camp.
May 5, 1945
Mauthausen-Gusen was liberated by U.S. Armed Forces. Over 320,000 people were killed there. 85,000 inmates survived. Among the survivors were famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal….and Maria Nenning.
The war was over just three days after the liberation of Mauthausen-Gusen, and Josef was reunited with the mother he thought dead. But Maria was changed. It’s unknown exactly what horrors she endured during her time at the concentration camp, but she was now frail and barely spoke. She became even more of a hermit, only leaving the house to sit among the rubble of her garden. She also became cruel when it came to punishing her son. If she thought Josef was being disrespectful or disobedient, she would punch and kick him until she drew blood. She would make him sleep outside in her beloved garden. She would tie him to his bed. Perhaps the most sadistic punishment was called Scheitelknien- Josef was made to kneel on the sharp corners of a wooden plank for hours at a time.
Maria’s abuse wasn’t just physical. She never missed an opportunity to remind Josef that he was the very image of his useless father and that she only ever got pregnant to prove a point.
Maria then began to alternate her harsh punishments with confusing pleas for her son’s affection and loyalty. She would break down crying and beg him to promise her that he would never leave her.
Josef was now 11 years old. Maria took him to church and was zealous about her religion. She warned Josef that he was a criminal and that he needed to be watched. Maria even told him she could see the devil when she looked into his face.
15-year-old Josef attended school in Kirchenstrasse. He was unremarkable to most, but headmaster Josef Freihammer saw how bright the young man was. Freihammer encouraged Josef to pursue academics, particularly math, which Josef showed an aptitude for.
This would be a year of change for Josef in many ways. He was now tall for his age, and strong. Maria realized this and knew Josef could defend himself against her discipline if he chose to. She was right. One day, Josef had finally had enough, and punched Maria on the side of the head so hard that she reeled across the room onto the floor. Josef now saw something in his mother that he had never seen before: Fear. A fear that almost immediately empowered the shy and quiet teenager.
Josef began to venture out at night, free of his mother’s suppressive rule.
He liked to eavesdrop on people in town, but what may have started as innocent curiosity quickly took a darker tone. He hid in bushes and below window sills of neighbors, hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman undressing or better yet, a couple having sex. This became a routine over the next year, and when he was 16 years old he escalated his behavior by stalking women and even exposing himself to them. He somehow stayed out of trouble long enough to finish school and continue his education. While he supported himself with a day job as a metal worker, he took evening classes for a two year engineering course.
Josef made the move to Linz, Austria- an Americanized city that was industrialized by the Nazis during the war. It was there that he found a job as an engineer’s apprentice. He was a good worker and learned fast.
Within four years’ time, Josef had earned himself a regular position with the engineering firm. He was excelling professionally, but his social life was atypical. At the time, it was common for young men his age to have already been married in preparation for starting a family. Josef had never so much as been on a single date. That all changed when Josef was invited by a colleague to a dinner party, where he met 16-year-old Rosemarie Bayer. The two quickly fell in love and were married just six months later.
Finances were tight in the beginning, so the newlyweds rented an apartment from Maria at 40 Ybbsstrasse. Josef and Maria’s relationship was still cold. Even though they again lived on the same floor, the two never spoke. Instead, Rosemarie acted as a go-between.
Now in a position of power over his mother, Josef developed a plan to exact his revenge on her for the years of abuse he suffered at her hand. He bricked off the windows in an attic room- a room that would serve as Maria’s prison cell until her death in 1980. Maria had no friends and no other family besides the son that now imprisoned her; nobody knew her fate until decades after her death, when Josef revealed his secrets in court.
The Fritzls now had three children: two daughters, Ulrike and Rosemarie, and a son named Harald.
Josef began employment with VOEST, a booming conglomerate that conducted much of their business overseas. Josef was sent to Africa on company business. While he was there, he had no communication whatsoever with his wife and young children. He was gone for 18 months. By the time he returned, his children didn’t recognize him, and his relationship with Rosemarie had cooled. Nevertheless, she quickly became pregnant with their fourth child.
April 8, 1966
Elisabeth Fritzl was born.
Rosemarie stayed home with the children in Amstetten while Josef lived in Linz during the work week. This time alone began to wear on Rosemarie. She worried that Josef might be having an affair while away from home. Not quite. Instead, Josef was back to his old ways; stalking women in Linz, spying on them, and exposing himself. He was warned by police after one such incident, but, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a deterrent. In fact, his behavior continued to escalate. Just a few months later, police were again called when Josef attempted to rape a young woman. Sadly, again he was only cautioned by the authorities.
In October of the same year, Josef began stalking a young woman he found attractive. He became an invisible fixture in her life, watching her comings and goings each night. He learned her routine. She was a nurse, married to a railroad worker. They had a young child that slept in a cot in their bedroom. The woman slept with the window open every night, even when her husband worked late.
One night, Josef hid behind a tree while the husband left for work. He waited there until he saw the bedroom light go out. After 30 more minutes, he made his move. He silently entered the bedroom window and removed his shoes, trousers and underwear. After observing the young woman sleeping, he crept into her kitchen and retrieved a long-handled carving knife. Josef returned to the bedroom and slid into the bed next to the sleeping nurse. He woke her up by holding the knife to her throat and warned her “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll kill you.” He then raped her, and, after calmly dressing himself, left through the window.
The police were called, and, when questioned, Josef confessed to the crime. He had a reputation as a hard-working family man, which at this time, would constitute mitigating circumstances when being sentenced. He received only 18 months of jail.
It is believed that there were many other previous sexual offenses committed by Josef Fritzl that had gone unreported.
As a result of his sentencing, he was fired from his job at VOEST.
One might think this would put a huge strain on his marriage, but Rosemarie considered herself a dutiful wife, and thus never once spoke of the offense with Josef.
He returned home in 1969 and quickly found a job in Amstetten with a building materials manufacturer. Here he learned such skills as laying floor and pipes, weather proofing and installing noise dampening insulation.
By the end of 1972, Rosemarie had given birth to three more children- twins, Josef and Gabriele, and their last child- a daughter they named Doris.
Over the next several years, Josef began buying rental properties as a side business, but continued to live at 40 Ybbsstrasse. The house was still mostly occupied by renters, but as they moved out one by one, Josef claimed the rooms and used his new skills to renovate them. He also began to expand the property by building a shed in the garden, and a garage.
As his children grew older, it became apparent that Ulrike was Josef’s favorite. She reminded him of himself; she was smart, courageous and confident. He didn’t favor Elisabeth, but saw, to him, a redeeming quality- she was malleable. He began to watch her, as he had so many young women before her. He spied on her and developed very inappropriate feelings for her.
Elisabeth was just eleven years old when her father placed a pornographic magazine under her bed pillow. She found it in the middle of the night and was rightfully disturbed. Weeks later, another magazine was found under her pillow. Josef said it was a practical joke, but in reality, he was starting to condition her.
Josef began work on creating something the house did not have: a cellar. The main house was built on a slab, so he used the space under the apartment block for his new project.
Elisabeth was now fourteen years old. By now, Josef had been touching her inappropriately and masturbating in front of her. He repeatedly warned her not to tell anyone what was happening. He said nobody would believe her story over his and that the police were idiots. Perhaps growing more anxious about the possibility of being found out, he later told her he would kill her if she told anyone. Elisabeth confided in friends that she couldn’t wait to turn eighteen so she could move out of the house, but she never spoke of her father’s abuse.
Josef was nearly finished with his cellar. A vast space made of seven rooms; it was his most ambitious project. Rosemarie never entered it, and if Josef wasn’t in sight, she knew he was likely spending time there. Meanwhile, Elisabeth had finished school was working as a waitress at the Rosenberg- a small restaurant located in Waldegg. It was far enough away from Amstetten that it made sense for her to stay in the very small quarters provided to employees by the Rosenberg. While her coworkers thought she was crazy for wanting to live in such a tight space, Elisabeth loved the privacy and freedom from her father that it represented. When she would return home, Josef’s sexual abuse resumed almost immediately.
Elisabeth was staying at home while on winter break. One morning in January, Rosemarie asked Josef if he had seen Elisabeth. Neither of them had seen her for nearly 24 hours. Elisabeth had run away from home with her friend, Brigitte. The two sixteen year olds took a train to Vienna, hoping to escape their lives in Amstetten. Josef sent his son Harald to search for his sister, to no avail. After five days, Josef contacted the police, assuming the guise of a loving and concerned father.
It didn’t take long for Elisabeth and Brigitte to be found. Josef was angry, but Elisabeth noticed something had changed after returning home. He was no longer touching her; no longer masturbating in front of her, or even making innuendo. Josef was now afraid of Elisabeth’s defiance. If she could run away, what would stop her from approaching the police about his transgressions? He wasn’t giving up on her obsession for her. He just had to change his plans.
He began work on adding two rooms to the cellar. Two secret rooms nobody knew about.
August 27, 1984
Elisabeth broke the news to her parents that she was planning to live with her sister Rosemarie in Linz. Josef was furious, but Elisabeth was determined. In fact, she had even moved most of her belongings to Rosemarie’s apartment.
Josef Fritzl worriedly entered the police station and explained to the officer on duty that his daughter had disappeared. He suspected that Elisabeth had run away to join a cult. She had a history of running away, after all. The officer told Josef that, unfortunately, since Elisabeth was 18 years old, there was little they could do. They would keep a look out, but they couldn’t consider her a missing person. Josef reluctantly acquiesced and admitted that he and Rosemarie had been worried about Elisabeth’s behavior recently. He agreed that she probably ran away again and would turn up soon, just like last time. He thanked the officer and left.
In reality, Josef had finished his two secret rooms and installed eight electronic security doors between those rooms and the rest of the cellar. With the rest of the family out of the house, he had Elisabeth help him carry a door to the garage. After completing this task, Josef told Elisabeth he needed to talk to her about something, and wanted to do so in private. He had her enter the cellar and sat her in his office. He said he needed to retrieve something from the garage and would be right back.
While Elisabeth waited, she observed her surroundings. She had never been in the cellar. None of her family had. Her father always had the entrance locked and he was the only one with a key. She noticed something she had never seen in the house- a gun. It was a small handgun sitting in a box with her father’s other belongings. It made her feel uneasy. The entire cellar gave her the creeps. It was just then that she felt something slap her face from behind. Josef had snuck up behind her and now forcefully held a wet rag over her nose and mouth. The liquid on the rag was trichloromethane, more commonly known as chloroform. Everything went black.
When Elisabeth came to, she didn’t know where she was. She first smelled the mildew and felt the dampness in the air. Everything was dark and blurry and she felt nauseous. She could barely move, presumably from the anesthetic; but she soon realized in horror that her arms were bound in chains behind her back. She was laying on a bed. A length of chain ran from her arms to an iron post at the foot of the bed. The chains on her arms were wrapped multiple times and secured with a padlock. She recalled her last moments of consciousness before waking up here, and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. She was in the cellar. Her father did this to her.
Even worse than this realization was how obvious it was that he had been planning this. He had actually designed this room for the sole purpose of keeping her prisoner. There was a television, and below it, a video recorder. In the corner of the room was a toilet and sink. She noticed the door was ajar, but the chain restricted her movements severely. All she could do is stand up on the floor next to the bed. Before she could even think of a plan of escape, her father appeared in the doorway. He tightened her chains without saying a word, but then erupted, saying that he hadn’t wanted to resort to this, but she forced his hand. Again, he blamed her. He left the room, locking the door behind him.
Elisabeth was left alone for 24 hours. She had no idea what was happening. Was she being punished? If so, how long would her father dare to keep her locked up like this?
Josef entered the room. After being left cold, hungry and in the dark, Elisabeth was beaten viciously by her father. He kicked and punched her in the face and chest until she was bloody. He told her it was useless to scream, because nobody could hear her anyway. He used his hands to cover her mouth and nose so she would suffocate until Josef decided she would no longer resist. After it was over, Josef warned Elisabeth. He said “If you don’t do what I say, it will only get worse.” It did get worse. Much worse.
Josef removed the chains from Elisabeth’s arms and secured one to her waist. He then raped her for hours. Afterwards, he left the room, only to return an hour later to rape her again. Once more, the rape lasted hours. Elisabeth later said it was as if he was releasing all the sexual desire he had built up in the two years since her return from Vienna.
This would become a routine for the days, weeks and months to come. Josef would rape his daughter twice a day. And still, it got worse.
He would eventually introduce a new element to his twisted sexual abuse. He played pornographic videos on the TV and even brought props; sex toys that he demanded Elisabeth use just as they were being used in the videos.
Josef gave Elisabeth a pen and paper, and told her to write a letter explaining where she was. Elisabeth resisted at first, but after a week of being starved, stripped naked and left alone in the dark, she relented. Josef dictated it, of course. The letter was addressed to her parents and indicated that she had run off and joined a cult and that she was happy where she was.
The next day, Josef drove a hundred miles away to drop the letter into a post box. The letter arrived the next day, and after a cursory investigation by police, the matter was closed. There would be no more questions about Elisabeth. No more No more police interest. No more danger of Josef being found out.
Months passed, and Elisabeth continued to be broken down by her jailor. Josef kept her naked for weeks at a time. She was left isolated in the dark with no food for days at a time. While Elisabeth was physically and psychologically tortured in the cellar, the Fritzl family would celebrate Christmas upstairs with a holiday meal. Elisabeth’s siblings were resentful of her absence. They felt close to her, but thought she apparently felt differently, as she didn’t even have the decency to write or call.
The months passed, and Elisabeth thought only of escape and of fighting her father. She thought of the irony of her parents always warning her to be careful outside and to always be sure to be home before dark. They always told her there were dangerous people out in the world. She thought of all this as she recovered from the wounds Josef inflicted on her.
After two years of enduring unimaginable physical and psychological abuse, a new kind of nightmare introduced itself. Elisabeth woke up one morning and felt completely different. She couldn’t work out why until a few days later when she missed her period. She was pregnant.
Her father knew before she told him. Josef noticed she had a higher body temperature than usual. Just like Rosemarie, when she was pregnant. Instead of seeing this as a burden, Josef was happy. He insisted that Elisabeth should be grateful. After all, a baby is what every woman wanted, and he has gifted her with one.
Elisabeth miscarried. While she survived physically, she was psychologically scarred from the event. That winter, she would lose all hope. She stopped counting the days; stopped caring about the passage of time. Nothing really mattered anymore. Josef continued his routine of raping her twice a day. Elisabeth had been broken. She no longer fought. To her, not being beaten was enough of a victory now.
Elisabeth was pregnant again. This time, she would carry the baby to term.
Josef had supplied Elisabeth with extra blankets, a pair of scissors, a package of diapers and a book on what to expect during childbirth. The rest was up to Elisabeth. She studied the book intently, and was able to successfully deliver her first child. A baby girl named Kerstin. Kerstin would grow up never seeing the sunlight, never knowing a world outside of the dark, cave-like cellar even existed. Elisabeth would give birth six more times.
Elisabeth’s first son, Stefan was born.
Elisabeth gave birth to another girl, named Lisa.
Until this time, all three children were relatively healthy, but when Lisa was eight months old, she was inconsolable and crying constantly. Josef was always paranoid of the children’s crying alerting neighbors or family above ground. He had even hit 2-year-old Stefan and split his lip to stop his crying. Violence was his first response when a problem needed to be solved. But an 8 month old couldn’t be cowed into silence. In desperation, he put baby Lisa into a cardboard box and had Elisabeth write a note:
“Dear Mamma and Papa, I pass on my little daughter Lisa to you. Look after her carefully. You’re probably wondering why you’re only hearing from me now, especially because this letter comes with a big surprise. I’m incapable of caring for her. I hope she won’t be too much trouble for you.- Elisabeth”
Josef took her upstairs where he put her on the doorstep for 10-year-old Doris to “find”. Lisa was then taken to a hospital under these pretenses, where she received emergency heart surgery. Josef and Rosemarie raised Lisa along with their children. Neighbors noticed, but assumed the baby was just another grandchild.
Around this time, Josef started work on an expansion to the cellar. He renovated two rooms and would connect them to Elisabeth’s room to give his growing second family more space.
Neighbors saw the Frtizls with another new baby. The narrative went like this: Irresponsible Elisabeth had another child out-of-wedlock and abandoned the baby on their doorstep with a note.
This baby was Josef and Elisabeth’s fourth child, Monika. The only reason Josef brought Monika upstairs was another mystery malady that kept her crying nonstop. This time it was Rosemarie who discovered the cause- a hair had been wrapped around the baby’s toe and was causing her pain. Elisabeth couldn’t detect it in the low light of the dungeon. A normally trivial annoyance ended up saving Monika from a life lived underground with her mother and siblings.
Josef and Maria had been fostering Lisa, but fully adopted her shortly after Monika was born. They now fostered Monika and received a monthly stipend from the government for doing so.
Josef unveiled the expansion to Elisabeth and the children. While the extra amenities would improve their lives considerably, they still couldn’t disguise the fact that they were prisoners.
The children would be taught by Elisabeth as best she could. She put aside time for the basics of education each day. As to be expected in such a dank and unconventional environment, the children were always suffering from some ailment or another.
Elisabeth was pregnant again; this time, with twins. She could tell she was carrying more than one baby this time, and was terrified of giving birth in the cellar.
April 28th, 1996
Twin boys Michael and Alexander were born. Almost immediately, Michael was in trouble. He was initially pale, had trouble breathing, and refused to feed.
Michael’s legs became rigid, and his skin started turning blue. Josef looked at Michael and said to Elisabeth “What will be will be”. Elisabeth was panicked and pleaded with her father to take Michael out of the cellar and to a hospital. Josef simply turned his back and left the room.
He returned hours later. Little Michael was blue and his whole body stiff. He was gone. Elisabeth was left alone with the corpse of her baby for over 24 hours before Josef gathered his body and disposed of him in the incinerator.
August 3rd, 1997
15 month old Alexander now showed up on the Frtizl’s doorstep. Alexander provided another paycheck for the Fritzls as well as further proof that Elisabeth was an unfit mother. Everyone thought that the Fritzls were saints for taking such good care of their otherwise unwanted grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Josef continued to rape his daughter on a daily basis. By the time it was over, he would have raped her over three thousand times.
Elisabeth gave birth to her final child- a boy named Felix. It was around this time that Josef began fearing his possible future. He was now 67 years old. Kerstin was fourteen years old and Stefan was twelve. They would soon be adults, or at least as strong as adults. He envisioned Kerstin, Stefan and Elisabeth working together to overpower him. He developed a plan to get them out of the cellar.
Josef made more property investments. As soon as he had enough money, he would assure Kerstin and Stefan’s silence by giving them enough money to live a financially secure life. The second part of his plan was to construct the homecoming. He had Elisabeth write a letter announcing her intention to come home with her three other children.
Josef sent letters to two of his tenants, letting them know he would need them to move out by year’s end. He explained that his daughter had recently been divorced and needed a place to stay. It was at this time that he drove to a distant town and posted the letter Elisabeth wrote.
When it arrived, he read it aloud to his family, and planned to have Elisabeth and her children move in by the end of 2008. He had been conditioning Elisabeth, Kerstin and Stefan for this new reality as well, constantly talking about how wonderful it would be when the two families merged.
Mid March, 2008
Felix and Kerstin both became sick with a cough and fever. While Felix began to recover, Kerstin continued to deteriorate. She began having what looked like epileptic fits. Elisabeth urged Josef to go ahead with the plan early so Kerstin could get help. Josef was hesitant.
April 19, 5:00 AM
It was over a month later that Joseph agreed to help Kerstin. Rosemarie was on vacation in Italy with a friend, and the only other occupants of the house were Lisa, Alexander and Monika, who were all still sound asleep. Josef and Elisabeth carried Kerstin upstairs to an apartment that Josef had used as his own. This was the first time in over 20 years that Elisabeth was out of the cellar. She didn’t want to go back, but she knew Stefan and Felix would panic without her, so she made Josef promise that he would get Kerstin help, and went back down to the cellar.
Josef called emergency services. When paramedics arrived, Josef told them he had found the teenager on his doorstep and that he had never seen her before. They told him she looked like she might not make it, and loaded her into the ambulance. They offered Josef to ride along, but he said he preferred to ride separately. While Kerstin was being transported to the hospital, Josef rushed down to the cellar to have Elisabeth quickly scrawl a note. She wrote of Kerstin’s illness and pleaded for help. She ended the note with “Kerstin, please hold on until we see each other again! We’ll be there soon!”
Josef took the note with him to the hospital. He was met there by Dr. Albert Reiter, who was treating Kerstin. She had been put into an induced coma and was very close to death. Dr. Reiter pleaded with Josef for any and all information he could provide about Kerstin’s condition. They needed to know all they could to help his “granddaughter”. Josef was calm and confident. He felt he was smarter than anyone he interacted with, including Dr. Reiter. He saw this as the perfect time to produce the note.
Later, Dr. Reiter would recount the gut feeling he had about the situation; he couldn’t reconcile how any mother would drop their potentially terminally ill child off at a relative’s doorstep. But he put those feelings aside and replaced them with an overriding concern for Kerstin’s survival.
The 19 year-old had extremely pale skin, bleeding gums and missing teeth. A prevailing theory was that Kerstin had been poisoned. The hospital notified Amstetten Police, who then forwarded the information to Lower Austria’s Criminal Police. Given the note and the severity of Kerstin’s condition, an appeal for Elisabeth’s return to Amstetten was made through the media.
Police issued a warrant for Elisabeth Fritzl’s arrest, under suspicion of inflicting grievous bodily harm through neglect, abusing or neglecting a defenseless person and abandoning an injured person.
Local radio and television news picked up the story.
Elisabeth, Stefan and Felix were left alone for three days in the cellar, not knowing what was happening. A constant police presence at the Frtizl house prevented Josef from sneaking away to visit his prisoners. By this time, the cellar television was almost constantly on. They happened to be watching the local station when the news played tape of Dr. Reiter appealing for Elisabeth’s return. Elisabeth had no idea what was happening and was terrified. Over the next few days, Josef found his way down several times to keep Elisabeth abreast of the situation, and coach her for her miraculous return.
Kerstin continued to worsen. With no contact from Elisabeth, police wanted to run DNA tests on Josef and Rosemarie Fritzl to help verify Kerstin’s lineage. Josef told them he would be happy to comply, but was just too busy with his rental properties to find the time. He would continue to stall until his plan was realized.
Josef had spent the previous week meeting with lawyers and mentally rehearsing his daughter’s return. He brought down new clothes for Elisabeth, Stefan and Felix. Just before midnight, Josef quietly brought the three up to the house.
The families were reunited just as Josef had planned. He surely felt invincible when he phoned Dr. Reiter with the news. Dr. Reiter arranged to meet Josef and Elisabeth at the hospital at 8PM.
The three met, with Elisabeth looking pale and distressed, just as one might expect from someone who just escaped a cult. An accounting of her appearance in the Guardian follows:
“At the age of only 42, her crudely cut hair is completely white, her lips are shrunken around toothless gums, her face is deeply lined, her body painfully thin, her skin almost transparent.”
After not being able to draw any helpful information out of the Fritzls, Dr. Reiter ended their meeting. It was 9PM when police stopped them from exiting the hospital. Dr. Reiter had tipped the police off after his earlier phone call with Josef.
Elisabeth, a woman who spent 24 years of her life as an innocent prisoner, was once again put in chains, as police arrested her.
Her interrogation lasted for three hours. Three hours of Elisabeth repeating the rehearsed story of escaping the cult. Detectives were relentless- they needed more details. They stressed the gravity of the situation. Kerstin could die, and it would be due to Elisabeth’s negligence. Elisabeth repeated her vague story. Finally, one of the detectives threatened to call social services and have all her children taken into their custody. This was too much for Elisabeth to bear. She found the strength and determination she thought she had lost long ago.
She told the detectives everything. She spoke uninterrupted for over an hour. Police entered the adjoining room Josef Fritzl was waiting in and arrested him. The mountain of evidence under the Fritzl house would have been more than enough to incriminate Josef, but none of it was necessary. Josef freely admitted everything, but presented his actions as a protective, positive gesture.
Chief Inspector Leopold Etz was apprised of the situation during Josef’s early morning interrogation. It was Etz that recovered that Stefan and Felix from 40 Ybbsstrasse and took them into protective custody later that day.
The two families were integrated, and after an initial period of adjustment, got along well. Elisabeth and her children were given new identities as well as a new house. They were also given a lump sum and monthly pension.
Rosemarie claimed she had no idea of Elisabeth’s ordeal. Public opinion varied as to whether she was innocent of any wrongdoing, but no charges were ever brought against her.
March 19th, 2009
During a four-day trial, Elisabeth Fritzl gave taped testimony that brought tears to the eyes of many who watched it. Her lawyer stressed that Elisabeth was driven to go through the painful process not for herself, but for Michael, who would have lived had Josef not turned his back on him.
Nearly a year after being arrested, Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in a psychiatric institute. Theoretically, he could be released as early as 2024 if he is deemed to be rehabilitated and no longer a threat to society.
In a 2010 interview with the Independent, Elisabeth’s sister-in-law said
“Elisabeth likes to go shopping a lot. She couldn’t do that while she was locked in the cellar for those 24 years. She loves jeans with glitter pockets and she passed her driving test without difficulty. Now she’s looking for a car. The kids are all going to school and working hard.”
“I’m No Monster- the Horrifying True Story of Josef Fritzel” by Stefanie Marsh and Bojan Pancevski